Stuffed Premiered at SXSW Online 2021 as part of the Midnight Shorts Competition. Co-written and directed by Theo Rhys, Stuffed is a musical that tells the story of a taxidermist who yearns to stuff a human being as the ultimate symbol of defiance in the face of decay and the ravages of time. She meets a man online who is so desperately afraid of aging and leaving nothing behind that he agrees to be her prize subject in exchange for an abominable sort of eternal life. Things get complicated when the two finally meet and realize they may share a deeper connection than they had anticipated.
There’s something particularly wrenching about the potential but ultimately unrealized love story and the romantic tension that permeates the short after the two realize their strange shared perspective on life and the beauty of stillness. This is due in large part to the performances of Alison Fitzjohn and Anthony Young, who are believable and earnest despite being involved in such a strange arrangement. The immediate powerful attraction between the two is also somehow more believable for the dingy, distressed sets that comprise the taxidermist’s home– the whole thing looks appropriately like a horror film from the outset, but it’s only explicitly horrific at the beginning and end. The characters’ ability to understand and relate to each other in that setting makes it feel all the more genuine.
The songs in the middle of the film fixate on both characters being unsure of whether or not they want to go through with the stuffing, having discovered someone they each feel is finally worth living for. The inability of either the taxidermist or Bernie to admit that they want to back out of the arrangement for fear of standing in the way of the other’s dream is emotional in an unexpected way– they’re both grasping at some hollow sort of permanence in place of fleeting but fulfilling lives together. Things come to a head as Bernie finally admits his love at the last possible moment and the taxidermist is unable to reciprocate, no doubt making Bernie’s choice to go through with the initial plan a bit easier.
This is where things delve into the truly horrific–Bernie’s death is drawn-out, the process of asphyxiation raw and frightening on its own. The brief scenes of taxidermy that follow look convincingly realistic and are not for the faint of heart. Removed organs might not affect most horror fans, but Bernie’s realistic skinned face simply can’t be ignored. It’s a great-looking effect that leads to the big reveal of Bernie’s eternally preserved form, hollow and lifeless compared to the man himself. Only now is the taxidermist able to admit that what was supposed to be her greatest triumph has left her as empty as one of her subjects. Oof.
The music throughout Stuffed is excellent and far beyond the quality one would expect from a short film, so hats off to all of the musicians and the writers responsible. If a comparison had to be drawn I’d say this sounds a bit like Burton’s Sweeney Todd but substantially creepier. The moment-to-moment switches from horror to romance and back are aided by lyrics that are very matter-of-fact when discussing the act itself but deeply poetic otherwise. From someone who is not a fan of musicals in the least, this one was captivating and about as close to flawless as possible within the admittedly farfetched concept.
Rating 10 out of 10 Lifeless, Staring Eyes