South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival – The Thing That Ate The Birds premiered as part of the Midnight Shorts collection at SXSW Online 2021 and was made possible by ALTER, the new horror division of independent studio Gunpowder & Sky. As a side note, horror fans will want to keep an eye on the ALTER brand, as they promise to deliver fresh and grounded horror content from emerging, diverse, and established filmmakers alike, so give them a look after reading!
The Thing That Ate The Birds is an anxiety-fueled 11 minute short that follows the disintegrating marriage of Abel (Eoin Slattery) and Grace (Rebecca Palmer) as Abel slips further into apparent alcoholism and his thoughtless, reactionary nature spells doom for them both. Something has been beheading the birds that Abel is responsible for as a game warden, and when he and assistant Jake (Lewis Mackinnon) stumble upon the creature responsible Abel doesn’t hesitate to open fire on the unsightly but otherwise seemingly docile thing. Later, after a tense argument that nearly devolves into an uncomfortable shouting match, the husband and wife are interrupted by a car alarm, which Abel is set on investigating. Lo and behold, the thing that he seemed to savagely execute is back for revenge.
The first outstanding bit of The Thing That Ate The Birds is the sound design. The dissonant, screeching strings might not be breaking new ground, but they still manage to add an extra element of tension and anxiety to the proceedings, especially in the midst of the domestic angst throughout. There’s a weird ticking in the score as Abel reflects on his violent, sadistic behavior in the field that’s also distinctly unnerving. Add to this the cracking of broken glass, the blast of a shotgun, the creaking of a rusted gate, and the scraping of kitchen implements as Grace and Abel make dinner and you’ve got a slew of interesting sound cues in a relatively short amount of time.
Thematically, this short is also a winner. I’ll admit that my initial reflection on the material differed a bit from the directors’ stated vision, as The Thing That Ate The Birds seemed to me to be focused on alcoholism and poor domestic communication, where the filmmakers have expressed that their intent was a bit more timely and politically motivated. The writing and directing duo Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham have gone on record saying that this short is more about the rise of reactionary far-right mindsets and Abel’s engrained patriarchal nature dooming both himself and his wife Grace, who was on the verge of standing up for herself and moving on with her life. With that in mind, the imagery of Abel “losing his head” leaves a much stronger impression that wraps the short nicely.
All the same, I think there’s enough here to also read this as a commentary on the rash, poor decision making and incidental secondhand harm caused by alcohol abuse thanks largely to the early scene wherein Grace stabs her foot on broken glass left over from Abel’s drunken escapades the night before. There’s something particularly damning about the fearful and exhausted expression on Grace’s face as she hides that she’s awake in bed when Abel checks in on her, and that speaks to the pattern of abuse that is probably present but not directly commented on.
This comes up again in the kitchen scene, where Abel audibly pouring a glass of wine immediately sets Grace on edge, another great piece of sound-based storytelling as the cadence of her chopping vegetables halts and abruptly speeds up. Reading the film this way also makes Grace’s ultimate fate mirror the earlier scene with the broken glass– this is twice now that she’s become collateral damage to Abel’s mindless poor choices despite being an apparently strong woman who was probably mere hours from escaping her wayward husband’s influence.
Either way, The Thing That Ate The Birds is an incredibly strong little piece of filmmaking, cramming more loaded imagery and anxiousness into eleven minutes than a lot of feature-length releases manage in ten times that length. Extra kudos to everyone who worked on the effects, as the mangled birds, the creature that reminded me a bit of Gollum crossed with the cave dwellers from The Descent, and the gory final shot all looked great. If you’re looking for something heavy but under an hour in length, this is the one to watch.
The Thing That Ate The Birds reviewed as part of our South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival coverage.
9 out of 10 Bird Heads