IN CINEMAS: June 28th
RUNNING TIME: 89 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1996,during the Balkan conflict, in an unnamed country. The Seasoning House is a place where kidnapped girls are taken and forced into prostitution for the military. Angel, a deaf mute young girl who was kidnapped after her family was brutally slaughtered, is tasked with ‘looking after’ the other girls, such as shooting them up with heroin and hiding the bruises/cuts sustained from their violent ‘Johns.’ When the male ‘keepers’ of the house are asleep she uses her small size to slip through vents and the walls of the house to visit the girls. One girl in particular is able to communicate with Angel through sign language and they strike up a bond, but whatever happiness they have found together in their bleak situation is shattered by the arrival of the ruthless solider Goran and his men, people who Angel has seen before……
If you’re a regular reader of this website, you’ll have no doubt heard me say more than once that it’s a really good time for independent horror in the UK artistically, with some really good films being made and the overall standard pretty high. The films are not always reaching the large audiences they deserve, but they’re getting released. Now I’m sure you know that I try to have integrity as a film reviewer; if I think in my humble opinion that a film is garbage than I will say so, regardless if I’ve been kindly sent a screener DVD or been invited to a preview or not. Therefore try and believe me when I say that The Seasoning House is not only another fine piece of work but possibly the best of all the British indie pictures I’ve seen recently. I need to say right away though that this is not a pleasant watch, in fact it’s very nasty, and I have a feeling that it was a bit ‘too much’ for certainly one of the other people at the preview screening, whom I heard muttering to her male companion; “ that was horrible”.
Well, you could call The Seasoning House horrible I suppose, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the more sensitive critics will express outrage when it goes on general release and claim that this is more sick horror trash that appeals to an audience’s basest instincts. My immediate answer would be that it is pretty hard to make a film about something like child trafficking and sexual slavery without showing the nasty reality of it, and that co-writer Helen Soloman spent ages researching her subject so that the end result was honest and felt real. In fact, I can quote her as saying that “a lot of the film’s key scenes are sadly more documented fact than fiction”. Despite having read about the film just before seeing it, I spent much of my viewing time emotionally shattered and deeply upset with what was unfolding in front of me, yet hypnotised and unable to look away [though I came close once]. I guess this was partly because this was so unexpected. I mean you watch a film like I Spit On Your Grave [I mean more the original rather than the silly remake] for the first time, something I did a few weeks ago, and you know you’re in for a nasty ride. The Seasoning House may not have twenty-minute rape scenes like that film, but it’s full-on brutality and harshness came as quite a shock tb me when most British horror movies of late tend to downplay the graphic and horrid elements.
So make no mistake, this is a gruelling experience, but a very well-made one that really is a great debut for special effects maestro Paul Hyett, whose name you may not know but you will have certainly seen his work on films such as The Descent, The Woman In Black and Attack The Block. His film seems influenced by the 1973 Thriller: A Cruel Picture AKA They Call Her One Eye, and the director himself describes it as a cross between Martyrs, Pan’s Labyrinth and Die Hard, which sounds like two thirds of a great movie to me [I just don’t ‘get’ Martyrs and half-way through the third attempt to do so realised I could do more constructive things with my time like driving a sharp pointed stick into one of my eyes]. I could certainly see the Pan’s Labyrinth influence right away in the film as it details Angel’s traumatic existence in an almost dream-like manner, as if she is in a daze because that’s the only way she can cope with her life, though the second half seems to me to show the influence of another note-worthy UK horror which Hyett worked on, Eden Lake, even offering a variation on one particular moment from that film.
The film pretty much signifies what it’s about right from its opening, with the titles unfolding to the sound of a woman sobbing, after which we see a vent opening and two hands, followed by the rest of Angel climbing out [I was instantly reminded of the little girl in Opera, who has a similar skill]. Utter misery and terror versus the desperate desire to be free. The next few scenes establish both her life at the Seasoning House, and how she got there, with great economy as well as considerable artistry. Often the film is silent except for the droning music, perhaps making us in some small way feel Angel’s numbness. Flashbacks give us just enough background. Her life is a cruel one, but not as cruel as the lives of the prostitutes she has to make look ‘nice’ after being brutalised and shoot up with heroin so they are more-or-less numb when they are getting screwed, and beaten, and screwed, and beaten. We see some of this, mayben not a uge amount, though what there is really is hard to watch, and the film constantly makes you feel the pain and horror these poor girls do through. There is one girl who we see having to carry on being raped and brutalised by men even though she has already suffered a certain horrid injury, and she turns her face, as if looking at the camera,and lets out this cry which I found intensely upsetting.
Yes, this is certainly grim stuff, and I should say that the film doesn’t hold back on the gore either, with some truly vicious deaths [including one by piggy-banks!]. There is a stabbing that seems to go on forever, which reminded me how few filmmakers try to do what Alfred Hitchcock did in Torn Curtain and show how bloody hard it can be to kill someone, and of course I don’t need to say that the old-style effects are very convincing. The film often looks great with many of the scenes inside the brothel shot with a yellowish tint with white light from outside streaming in, constantly reminding us of the freedom which can almost be touched, though in one scene Angel doesn’t seem to even want freedom, perhaps because the outside world could be even more dangerous. The film becomes more action-orientated around half-way through with much chasing up ducts and eventually outside. Things threaten to get a little silly here as I seemed to be watching a more violent Hanna, and I’m not sure that we needed a twist ending replayed twice or indeed a twist ending at all, but the pace never falters and it’s certainly thrilling.
There are characters who you will hate in this film, characters who you will want to die in the most horrible way possible, but the script intelligently gives some of them moments of humanity, from the brothel owner’s warped ‘love’ [he takes her to bed but doesn’t have sex with her] for Angel to a bit where the soldier Goran, a great role for Sean Pertwee who really convinces playing it, weeps when another soldier dies. War has obviously been the thing which has made him the monster he is. Rosie Day is remarkable as Angel, conveying so much while being unable to speak. It’s the sort of performance which should be nominated for and win awards, but won’t because of the type of film it’s in. Adam Etherington’s camerawork is often striking the way it darts about, while Paul E. Francis’s omni-present score is quite remarkable. I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy in some ways, and yearn for the days where even very low-budget films usually managed an orchestral score [even if it wasn’t always original!] rather than the constant synthesiser stuff you get now, but Francis does an amazing job in musically conveying the film’s changes in mood and the emotional state of its heroine. He’s especially good with the odd ‘nice’ moment in Angel’s existence, like when she’s visited by a rat who seems a godsend when compared with the dreadful men around her. Indeed there are occasional moments of beauty, and considerable tenderness, in this harrowing, gut-wrenching but relevant and very well put together film.
Though I personally would have changed some things in the second half, overall Hyett, Soloman and their crew show not just skill but commendable bravery, and, yes, responsibility, in making The Seasoning House. I just hope it gets the good response it deserves.