FrightFest 2012 Review: The Seasoning House
Review by Tristan Bishop
Special effects artists occupy a strange place in the world of film. Often all but ignored by the mainstream (especially in these days of overdone CGI), the best of them are lauded as heroes by the horror (and sci-fi) communities. Witness, for example, Gregory Nicotero being (rightly) honoured at this years Frightfest. And like pretty much everyone else involved in the film industry, effects artists often harbour an urge to direct their own pictures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the history of effects men moving into direction has been a patchy one: the likes of Douglas Trumbull (who directed the excellent 70’s sci-fi Silent Running) aside, we have numerous misfires along the lines of Tom Savini remaking Night Of The Living Dead (1990), and Italian wizard Sergio Stivaletti finishing Lucio Fulci’s uncompleted final project Wax Mask (1997). So when I initially read about The Seasoning House – the directorial debut of British SFX bod Paul Hyett – many months ago I assumed, perhaps not unreasonably, that this might not be a project to get all that excited about.
The other assumption I made was that this would be a grim and rather exploitative film – again, not an unreasonable expectation, as such subject matter in the hands of a first time director more used to working with latex and buckets of gore could end up in the realms of the tasteless; not that there is anything wrong with tastelessness per se, but when you are dealing with real life situations such as those portrayed in the film then a little tact and restraint can go a long way. In this instance I am very happy to report that my assumptions were partially wrong. The Seasoning House IS a grim tale, at least in part, but it is also something genuinely surprising and rather special.
The year is 1996, but instead of the second wave of Swinging London and the Britpop explosion, we are plunged into the middle of the Balkan conflict, in an unnamed country. The Seasoning House of the title refers to a place where kidnapped girls are taken and forced into prostitution for the military, and it is in such a place where we meet Angel, a deaf mute young girl (played by Rosie Day) who was kidnapped after her family was brutally slaughtered, and who is tasked with ‘looking after’ the other girls – i.e. shooting them up with heroin and hiding the bruises/cuts sustained from their violent ‘Johns.’ Whilst 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 (a good role for Sean Pertwee) and his men…
I mentioned earlier that I was not expecting much from The Seasoning House, but it being shown as the first film at Frightfest should possibly have been a clue that my assumptions were going to be challenged; and how wrong I was. This is not torture porn, nor is it a ‘horrors of war’ drama, although it will not disappoint fans of the extreme or bleak areas of cinema. Instead it manages to impressively balance real life horrors (Hyett spoke after the film about the level of research he did and about how the events nearly all have their basis in factual documentation) and a dreamlike atmosphere occasionally somewhat akin to a fairy tale. Indeed the film works wonders with its grim and grotty setting – the dilapidated, boarded-up house set in a forest (which could be ripped straight from a Brothers Grimm tale), with the girls as the innocent children held captive by the soldiers, who may as well be trolls or ogres for all their inhumanity. In fact the most humanised man in the film is the brothel owner, and even he slits a girl’s throat as a lesson to the new arrivals.
The editing and camerawork are top notch, which is again not something I was expecting from a fairly low budget picture – and Adam Etherington (Cinematography, who seems mostly to make short films) and Agnieszka Liggett (Editing, who also works as an actress accordingly to the Great Oracle IMDB) both deserve a pat on the back, packet of crisps and a sandwich should you ever meet them down the pub. But what really makes the atmosphere of the film is the sound design; deliberately muted in places to echo the disability of the main character, it really really works to highlight the dreamlike feel of the film, particularly in the first half. Also the acting, especially Rosie Day in the lead role – it’s her first feature too – is uniformally believable.
If my enthusing about the fairy tale elements of the story is putting off those craving something more visceral, then fear not, as those elements are also here in spades. The abuse of the girls is not shot in an exploitative manner, but it is powerful and distressing, and when the vengeance finally starts the blood runs in rivers – the fight between Angel and the bestial Ivan is amazingly gruesome and tense, for instance, and had this viewer alternately gasping and laughing nervous laughs, and, not wishing to spoiler anything, the film just doesn’t let the tension go right up until the very end.
In many ways The Seasoning House reminded me of the recent wave of French horror: visceral and unrestrained, but with a fierce intelligence at work behind the camera. I had revisited Martyrs a couple of days prior to the screening and, whilst The Seasoning House perhaps lacks some of the philosophical punch of that film, it certainly stands as its equal in terms of technical mastery.
The Frightfest audience was enthralled and enthusiastic as well – except for one older gentleman who, during the Q&A session at the end asked if it would be recut as he found it unbelievable, and was then roundly booed for his question by the rest of the crowd! Also during the Q&A Hyett stated his intention to make a ‘war trilogy’ of which The Seasoning House was supposed to be the second part, but he was unable to get backing for the more expensive first film of the trilogy. If the artistic success of this film is anything to go by I believe he will soon be able to command bigger budgets and I look forward to seeing his name (and that of Rosie Day) attached to A-list films soon.