Our SXSW Online 2021 coverage continues, with a handful of horror shorts that range from creature-laden family melodrama to experimental cinematic poetry to comedic mumblecore mystery. Let’s dive in!

Credit: Michael Goldrei

The Thing That Ate The Birds (2021)

An unhappy rural couple struggles with tension, resentment, and a mysterious cryptid in this atmospheric horror short produced by Sophie Mair and directed by Sophie Mair and Dan Gitsham.

Grace (Rebecca Palmer) and Abel (Eoin Slattery) are teetering on the brink of separation when a series of mutilated bird corpses begin appearing daily on the property. When investigating their remote patch of land, Abel makes a startling discovery—and an unfortunate decision which has dire consequences for the entire household.

Restrained direction, a leisurely pace, and an earthy, muted palette contribute to this short’s dreamlike atmosphere, and the sparse but chilling score does much of the work maintaining a sharp level of tension throughout. Fantastic special effects paired with compelling family drama make this simple but effective short a must-see. A friendly warning: do not watch while eating, as this film pulls no punches when it comes to realistic gore.

A Tale Best Forgotten (2020)

In a house by a river that lamented as it ran, lived a father, and his daughter, and the dog-headed man… a father, and his daughter, and the dog-headed man… it’s a tale best forgotten…

From screenwriter and cinematographer Ashley Briggs and director Tomas Stark, this quiet, avant-garde Swedish short is based on a murder ballad by Helen Adam.

A Tale Best Forgotten is a tense little tone poem, moody and sublime. The short makes the most of its truncated runtime, telling its story judiciously through brief, minimalist, often effects-heavy vignettes. The sound design by Andrea Fantuzzi perfectly complements the creative camera work, fleshing out the short’s deceptively simple folk horror tale. 

Credit: Ben Rutkowski

Dale’s House (2021)

Directed by Kat Whalen, produced by Dana Fares, and written by Julie Lake and Matt Kirsch, Dale’s House is an agreeable horror-comedy that artfully blends the crass, the clever, and the inelegant to tell the story of a help wanted ad that should never have been answered.

Nilly (Julie Lake) and Ben (Matt Kirsch) are two former best friends who lost touch after a falling-out three years ago, only to find themselves bizarrely reunited after both are hired to house-sit for a stranger named Dale. After an amusingly awkward meeting with eccentric neighbour Dana Denise (Sandi McCree), the two are told to read an ominous description before beginning their house-sitting duties.

While spacious and charmingly decorated, the home does possess a few off-putting and mysterious details: viscous goop leaking from the vents, a fantasy creature squatting in the backyard, and threatening phone calls.

As time passes, we learn both Nilly and Ben are carrying some serious secrets of their own.

While heavy on the humour, the short also supplies suspense. Lake and Kirsch share an infectious and witty chemistry as the estranged best friends, and McCree brings fantastic energy to her role as the self-described “kooky neighbour from around these parts.” With its wacky premise, hilarious throwaway lines, and pitch-perfect performances, Dale’s House may be one of my top horror shorts of this year’s SXSW program.