By Keri O’Shea
Editor’s note: for another take on this film, be sure to check out Tristan’s FrightFest 2012 review here.
Amongst the worst horrors of war are not those things which people find unable to bear, but those which they do. On these occasions, the most harmful, hopeless situations become, somehow, acceptable. Life – whatever its condition and however it is to be lived – finds a way to go on. This is the plight of the young girl known only by her nickname, ‘Angel’.
Angel (Rosie Day) was brought to a place known as the ‘Seasoning House’ as just another abductee amongst a host of others like her – young girls, collateral washed up by conflict in an unnamed country in the Balkans (and be assured, in depicting flashbacks to that warfare, the film pulls no punches). Once arrived at her destination Angel, who is Deaf, makes it her business to be useful, but not like the other girls. Their fate is to be prostituted to those visitors in the know, who come to the house in droves; Angel however sets herself up as a general servant, keeping the terrified newcomers quiet with digs of heroin and cleaning them up when their gentlemen callers have (seemingly inevitably) left them bloodied. Angel does her work quietly, dispassionately. Why, and how can she behave like this? The blankness of survival instinct? We are shown some of the circumstances which have brought Angel to this point, and it reveals that her arrival at the house was only one event in a catalogue of horrors. Regardless, a light shines through her own trauma when one of the girls she tends to reveals she can use sign language. Suddenly Angel isn’t so alone any more.
This note of humanity shown to her leads Angel to reveal she can move about in the crawlspaces of the house, observing everything that is happening whilst passing, unseen, from one part of the building to another – it also acts as a catalyst, so that when Angel witnesses the treatment of her new, only friend, she begins to exact her revenge.
The Seasoning House is a very disturbing yet engrossing film, sustaining – for the most part – concurrent threads of dread and tension. I will admit that I found a lot of the scenes here, particularly in the first half, difficult to watch: so much deliberation has gone into making things as hellish as possible. Women aren’t just captives, they’re tied down and drugged; they’re not just raped, they’re routinely mutilated. The whole experience of watching this unfold is wearying – which I’m sure is exactly what director Paul Hyett intended. Visual flair which goes beyond the requirements of the plot itself contributes to this effect: the whole film is rank with grime and decay, and all of the characters seem as dank and unclean as that impressive house; they’re filmy with blood, or dirt, or sweat.
This eye for the minutiae of human misery usually works for the film, then, but as things progress, there’s a danger of the sort of sensory overload which has caused many other lesser ordeal-fixated films to come apart at the seams. The Seasoning House does avoid that fate through its other merits, but the revenge section of the film, with its straining plausibility and ongoing barrage of shocks is definitely weaker than what precedes it, particularly when it begins to play fast and loose with the promise of vindication for its central character.
I’m probably being picky because of how much I liked the film’s many strengths – absolutely key amongst which is Rosie Day’s performance as Angel. She really is superb. There must be a lot of challenges to sensitively and believably enacting Deafness on-screen but Day does it, creating her character almost entirely non-verbally yet sustaining it across a very challenging performance, both physically and emotionally. I think the women in this film generally have more to work with, though; even though practically all the women in the film are made to suffer, they do at least get to act out that plight. Most of the men in this film are just brutes. There are lots of men in this film, but only a couple of male characters – the punters, generally, just perpetrate abuse and leave, while of course this adds to the horror of the film. As for those male characters who are present, the master of the Seasoning House, Viktor (Kevin Howarth) gave me some qualms at first. He seemed initially to be a rather two-dimensional villain, a stereotypical pimp, all hair-oil and bad leather – so I was pleased that he got a more delineation as time passed, particularly when his power was challenged by military man Goran (Sean Pertwee). Goran comes in with very similar issues but, again, improves as the film progresses – but with respect to both actors, this film belongs to the girls.
By its nature, The Seasoning House is not an easy film to watch. If it pulls on the heart-strings, it then purposefully hacks through them. Whilst I found the set-up more effective than the pay-off, and thought that at times the film began to labour under the sheer weight of the nastiness it seeks to express, I can’t argue with the ambition and verve which can be found here, and in particular considering that this film is the work of a first-time director.
The Kaleidoscope DVD release comes with a selection of extras. There is an audio commentary featuring director Paul Hyett, producer Mike Riley and cast members Rosie Day, Kevin Howarth and Sean Pertwee, a fifteen-minute Behind the Scenes feature and the original feature trailer.
The Seasoning House arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on 12th August 2013.