Writers: Theo Rhys and Joss Holden-Rea
Director: Theo Rhys
Although a strange subject, a short film about a taxidermist who advertises for a human to work on may not sound terribly appealing, yet Theo Rhys and Joss Holden-Rea’s Stuffed is one of the most exciting and innovative films of recent times. Running at just 18 minutes, every carefully constructed blackly comic minute is a revelatory combination of tone, character depth, storytelling and visual design. Oh, and it’s a musical!
Bored of stuffing animals and desperate to work on a human body, the Taxidermist advertises online for the perfect person to fulfil her fantasy. The unassuming and gentle Bernie responds, keen to stop the ageing process and live eternally in a new form. After an overnight stay with the Taxidermist, will either achieve their dream?
Stuffed receives its North American premiere as part of SXSW Online and marries together what are usually quite distinct genres, merging horror movie stylings with Broadway musical numbers and even a social realist element to create a distinct and surprisingly effective short story. Part=Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and part-Frankenstein, Rhys and Holden-Rea’s film explores the nature of desire and creation, the fear of ageing and humanity’s pursuit of immortality in some form.
Structured across five scenes with three major songs and instrumental composition by Holden-Rea, Stuffed is a series of duets in which the leads are brought together in the opening sequence via message-board before quickly finding themselves under the same roof where Bernie offers himself as a sacrifice of sorts. But with clear consent on both sides, there is little doubt about the outcome despite some last-minute reservations.
The tone is very particular; macabre but believable, so while Bernie and the Taxidermist embark on a ludicrous act, their nervous interactions and grimy ordinariness give them a grounding in reality, using songs and their banal dialogue about motorway routes to expand their inner life. Strangely suited to one another, these clearly troubled but determined individuals would, in other circumstances, be a perfect match, but Bernie chooses to ‘live forever by dying today.’
Visually Rhys favours the grotesque with close-ups of the Taxidermist’s work which fills her home, itself a decaying and uncared for junk yard crowded with old furniture, torn chintz wallpaper and years of neglect. Like the deranged robot David in Alien Covenant, her human anatomical drawings foretell the darker outcome ahead while the conclusion with its gory close-ups of organs, pinned skin and body parts is not for the faint-hearted.
Alison Fitzjohn is superb as the Taxidermist, a gruesome but understated figure whose desire to work on a human body is scientific rather than murderously thrilling, and while make-up and costume design purposefully make her a grisly presence, Fitzjohn’s delightful vocal and expression adds complexity. Anthony Young as the cardigan-wearing Bernie has a more expansive interior life, disgusted by his wrinkled skin, troubled by the oblivion that normal bodily decay will bring and seeking a different kind of legacy from his ‘creator’.
The juxtaposition of horror sounds including thunderclaps and the intense melodic phrasing of the score to heighten the tension with the softer, more introspective tones of musical theatre gives Stuffed a freshness that really underscores character development. A grubby, brutal story it may be, but Rhys and Holden-Rea’s gripping and unusual film grapples with humanity’s eternal quest to create more life.
Stuffed receives its world premiere on 16 March 2021
SXSW Festival runs here from 16 March until 20 March 2021