The Seasoning House

The Seasoning House


Reviewed by: David Graham

Special effects veteran Paul Hyett makes a sturdy directorial debut with one of the grimmest 'horror' films of the year. Like a British Martyrs with war and prostitution replacing religion and pain, The Seasoning House asks a lot of its audience for the first hour, throwing us deep into a claustrophobic military-run Balkan brothel where all manner of unsavoury activity will take place, but it never feels gratuitous and for the most part has a sense of its own identity and purpose. A third act shift into thriller territory almost derails the whole experience, sacrificing credibility and testing the audience's credulity to breaking point, but up until the underwhelming climax Hyett crafts himself a commendable calling card, aided no end by an affecting wordless central performance by big screen debutante Rosie Day.

A dilapidated rural house hides a brutal sex dungeon presided over by ex-army goon Ivan, where kidnapped girls are kept captive for the locals and touring troops to have their way with. Taking an uncharacteristic shining to a deaf mute he christens Angel, Ivan employs the young orphan to routinely dope the girls up to the eyeballs, in order to keep them under control as well as to sedate them for the pain they are to endure from their often heavy-handed clientele. Angel's waifish frame gives her access to the house's crawl spaces, allowing her a greater degree of freedom and even giving her the chance to secretly bond with one of the girls. When an especially mean-spirited group arrive, however, the delicate power balance of the house is thrown into turmoil, Ivan's past colliding with the girls' present in an explosion of violence that might offer Angel a chance of escape.

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As co-writer, Hyett has called this the first part in a planned trilogy taking the often unseen horrors of war as their focus; this represents a brave and admirable move away from the more commercial strains of torture porn that have been so successful recently, with psychological suffering and political corruption taking the place of the simple xenophobic 'death for kicks and cash' scripting of the Hostels or the moral posturing of the slasher-indebted Saw series. Wrestling with the notions of Stockholm syndrome, drug dependency and male objectification that are central to the world of prostitution, Hyett takes an unflinching look at how times of war can be used as an excuse to get away with all sorts of degenerate behaviour, when the price of life is so cheap as to make these female victims a mere commodity.

Some of the most disturbing moments are laced with venomous black humour, such as when a congenial doctor chastises Ivan for letting his 'stock' get into such condition, but other scenes have a truly heartbreaking undercurrent, like when Angel's new friend pleads to be doped up into oblivion. Tension is maintained through long, almost dreamlike takes where the camera follows Angel going about her daily business, the full horror of what she has become a part of all the more unsettling for largely being kept in the background. As her conscience starts to make her question her existence, momentum builds to an excruciatingly intense sequence that operates like a close-quarters Vertigo with a literally suffocating twist, which soon explodes into one of the most brutal butt-naked battles since Viggo Mortensen's memorable bath-house brawl in Eastern Promises.

From there, Hyett's ambition and judgement start to compromise the film's hitherto simple integrity, with the protracted chase sequence that follows relying on far too many cliches and unintentionally groan-inducing situations, while ripping off everything from The People Under The Stairs to Eden Lake. It's a real shame as the film has been so well mounted up until this point, and despite maintaining a reasonable level of excitement right up to the slap-in-the-face denouement, the budget strains and the script buckles with the move outside of the house, as it had earlier in embarrassing flashbacks to British council estates posing as Eastern European slums.

The presence of recognisable Brit thesps like Sean Pertwee attempting iffy Balkan brogues also dilutes credibility, but for the most part the cast are uniformly excellent, with Ryan Oliva making a menacing but multi-layered Ivan and Day really holding her own and the film together as the heroic Angel. The score also deserves a mention, conveying the grinding repetition and hazy atmosphere of the eponymous house while jangling nerves when things get rough. You can almost smell the impressively fetid set, and some impressive cinematography keeps the walls closing in while sadistically emphasising the occasional crack of sunshine that forces its way through.

The Seasoning House is filled with callous violence and sexual threat, but for the most part it is making a genuine attempt to portray a doubtless even more horrible reality. Its change of gear into a more cathartic if conventional format for the final stretch will disappoint some, but it's understandable given the almost unbearable level of suffering Hyett has asked his viewers to endure from the very start. While the film might well be too dark for the mainstream and not obvious enough for the horror crowd, it deserves to find an appreciative audience among fans of challenging fare like Lilya 4-Ever and Between Two Fires, who should find something bracing and even bitter-sweet in such a deliberate cinematic ordeal.

Reviewed on: 02 Sep 2012
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The Seasoning House packshot
Girls kidnapped by soldiers in war-torn zones are prostituted to the military.
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Director: Paul Hyett

Writer: Paul Hyett, Conal Palmer, Adrian Rigelsford, Helen Solomon

Starring: Sean Cronin, Sean Pertwee, Anna Walton, Jemma Powell, Adrian Bouchet, Chris Cowlin, Ryan Oliva, Rosie Day, Katie Allen, Kevin Howarth, Christopher Rithin, Paul Blackwell, Shaun Lucas, Alec Utgoff, Laurence Saunders

Year: 2011

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: UK


Frightfest 2012

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