Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Seasoning House

Director: Paul Hyett
Writers: Paul Hyett, Conal Palmer
Producer: Michael Riley
Cast: Rosie Day, Kevin Howarth, Sean Pertwee
Country: UK
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: preview screening

Before you watch The Seasoning House, you should read this review. Or at least, read a review. This is not a movie which benefits from being seen without foreknowledge; you need to know what you’re letting yourself in for. So read a review. But not a review in the mainstream press, because most of those say it’s rubbish. And it’s not rubbish. But it’s a truism that mainstream film reviewers generally hate horror films and generally hate British films, reserving their most extreme knee-jerk reactions for any British horror film which crosses their path.

Unless it’s got a big star in it. The Seasoning House doesn’t have any really big stars. It has names which you, the discerning cult movies fan, will recognise. But not A-listers, and the mainstream press work on the principal that any film without A-listers, or any film which does not have a heavily marketed blanket theatrical release, must be a piece of crap, because otherwise it would attract top talent and open nationwide on 400 screens. Obviously.

So don’t look for reviews in mainstream film mags, and certainly don’t look for reviews in the increasingly anachronistic national papers. Bear in mind that all mainstream printed publications are, by their nature, conservative. They only survive by selling adspace; they can only sell adspace if they have a large, demographically defined readership; and they can only maintain a large, demographically defined readership by telling that readership what that readership already knows. Most people read magazines and newspapers in order to be told things which they already agree with, to confirm their prejudices, whether that’s ‘student loans cause global warming’ or ‘asylum seekers ate the housing market’ or indeed ‘modern British films are crap’.

Stick with the independent, online reviewers and bloggers, the folk whose judgement is not clouded by financial forces and narrow-minded editorial policies. Take a look at the reviews on the horror websites and the cult film websites. In fact, frankly, you might as well just stick with this review now (although I’ll give you fair warning, it’s a long’un).

Anyway: The Seasoning House. The title doesn’t tell you much, so let’s be clear. This is not a jolly romp. It’s not a heart-warming family drama. It’s certainly not a date movie. The Seasoning House is harrowing, disturbing, grim and bleak. It is also thought-provoking, socially relevant, morally fascinating and brilliantly directed, acted and designed. It’s maybe not an easy film to watch but it’s a film you absolutely must watch if you have any interest in 21st century British horror cinema. If nothing else, The Seasoning House is an important film.

Important because it marks the directorial debut of Paul Hyett. I first came across Paul’s work when I was on SFX in the late 1990s, writing about Andrew Parkinson’s I, Zombie: The Chronicles of Pain. The prosthetic effects in that tent-pole BHR title were provided by a teenager named Paul Hyett (or Hyatt - these things were harder to check in ancient times), and a quick look at his IMDB page will give you some idea of how his career has progressed: Lighthouse, An Angel for May, The Last Horror Movie, The Descent, Cold and Dark, Wilderness, WAZ, The Cottage, Doomsday, Mutant Chronicles, Eden Lake, The Children, Tormented, Heartless, Attack the Block, The Reverend, The Woman in Black... and a whole load more. When I compiled the online index for my book Urban Terrors: New British Horror Cinema, I was not overly surprised to find that Paul had more mentions than almost anybody else. Now finally he makes his directorial debut.

The Seasoning House is set in ‘The Balkans, 1996’, so not overly specific but not too vague either. The thing about the Balkan conflict was that it took place in a modern European setting amid comfortable, settled working/middle class families. Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia: we feel disconnected from these modern conflicts because the environment is so alien to us. Deserts and jungles and little mud-built villages and ramshackle Third World cities. Unless we have a loved one directly involved, or a personal connection to the country, it’s as difficult to relate to these war-zones as it is to Dresden or Passchendaele. They are somewhere or somewhen else.

But the part of the world formerly known as Yugoslavia is much closer to home, not just geographically but socially. Before the Iron Curtain fell it was the most accessible Warsaw Pact country. People went on holiday there; Bob and Thelma planned to go there in one episode of The Likely Lads. The Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo.

So it was really, really difficult in the 1990s to get our western European heads around the idea that the disintegration of Yugoslavia had left the inhabitants shooting, bombing, torturing and mutilating each other with every modern weapon they could get their hands on. That’s what African warlords do, or Afghan tribal chiefs, not civilised white folk like us.

And although it’s not the main focus of the story, the domestic suburban reality of the Balkan conflict underpins The Seasoning House (which was entirely shot on an old RAF base near Uxbridge) and is a vital part of its success. This is not the empty, unpopulated east European wilderness of Outpost or Severance. The sequences away from the house of the title - some flashbacks, part of the third act - show us houses and factories where ordinary people are going about their ordinary lives as best they can except when the nightmare of brutal war smashes down the door, a nightmare that most of Europe reasonably confidently assumed had disappeared for ever in May 1945.

The titular building is a brothel of sorts, where young women are held captive and used as sex slaves for any passing militia. The always fascinating Kevin Howarth, in probably his biggest and best role since The Last Horror Movie, is Viktor, proprietor of this unpleasant, squalid establishment. With the help of his hulking colleague Dimitri (David Lemberg, also in vampire web serial Blood and Bone China, who somehow manages to make a sheepskin coat look threatening) Viktor keeps the girls in line and takes payment from clients through a facade of sickeningly fake bonhomie. Viktor is a complex character, with layers that are gradually peeled away. In fact, every character in this film is a rounded, complex person but at the same time our only understanding of them comes from what we see them do and hear them say. And that’s important too, because that is all that the other characters can use to underpin their own understandings of those around them.

And this is crucial because one of the two key themes of The Seasoning House is this: trust. Near the start of the film, Viktor explains How Things Work to a new group of girls, their shivering, terrified, tear-filled silence contrasting starkly with his oleaginous kindliness and congeniality in a scene where the subtext is a thousand kitchens that have echoed to the empty promise “I swear, babe, I’ll never hit you again. I’d never do that.” Viktor asks the girls to trust him, and demonstrates, with a graphic, sociopathic calm exactly how and why they should trust him.

Among this new intake is a petite deaf-mute teenager with a birthmark on her cheek. If anything, her disability is helping to shield her from the full horror around her: she can’t hear what Viktor says, she can’t speak out of turn. But Viktor doesn’t want to use her as one of his unwilling crack whores, instead he sets her to work administering the crack itself. Christening her ‘Angel’, he shows her how to inject the other girls, who spend their days and nights tied to rusting metal bed frames. Angel empties their slop buckets, Angel bathes the blood from their wounds, Angel applies eye-shadow and lipstick to each girl, a mockery of feminine beautification designed to satisfy the visiting men’s casual, callous self-deception that they are screwing real prostitutes, loose women with loose morals - and also to distract from the blood, bruises and scars left by the previous ‘customer’.

In assigning this work to Angel, Viktor places his trust in her. Or rather, misplaces his trust, because in doing so, he sows the seeds of his own downfall. Angel has the run of the house, as invisible and ignored as a Victorian servant. She knows what to do, has her routines and keeps mostly out of the way. Her lack of hearing and speech isolates her from the other girls, denying them - in their individual solitary confinement - one final, tantalising opportunity to interact with anyone who isn’t a violent, sadistic bastard.

Flashbacks show us a little of Angel’s earlier life in pebble-dashed Balkan suburbia. Anna Walton (Vampire Diary, Mutant Chronicles, Hellboy 2) plays her mother Violetta, raising ‘Angel’ (we never learn her real name) and her sister after their abusive father leaves, presumably to join the fighting. Again with the trust: Violetta must have once trusted her husband, but no longer.

The film’s other theme is this: responsibility. Violetta takes responsibility for both her daughters, and they trust her as every child trusts their mother, implicitly and without reservation. But circumstances beyond anything that they (or we) can imagine will find Violetta appallingly unable to honour that trust or fulfil that responsibility.

A group of camo-clad soldiers work their way down the street, 'ethnically cleansing' each house in turn, backed by a rumbling tank which makes it clear that there is a degree of twisted authority and legitimacy to their actions; they’re not just random psychos playing at dress-up. Violetta and her older daughter are casually executed before the younger girl is thrown into the back of a lorry. In a few moments, her entire life is destroyed. Home, family, education, friends, neighbours, hopes, dreams: all swept way by the tide of war. Every experience, every memory, now counting for nothing. The first day at school, the holiday by the beach, the pop stars she liked, the boys who liked her, the kindly teacher, the strict teacher, the dolls, the TV and radio and record player and books and dresses and days in the park and nights under the stars when she should have been home in bed.

Everything is gone. As Viktor explains when she and her companions arrive, by whatever circuitous route, at the seasoning house, their previous lives are gone and there is no world outside these walls.

No longer a person, each woman is now a slab of meat, a commodity to be sold, traded, stolen or bartered as casually as petrol, bullets or cigarettes. But petrol is used up when it powers an engine. A bullet can only be fired once. When a cigarette is smoked, it has gone forever. The women in that lorry will eventually find themselves in a situation where they will envy the finality of a used cigarette or a spent bullet.

“You will learn to show kindness to my customers,” Viktor tells them, entrusting them with a thankless, awful responsibility that none of the women would ever wish for. But Angel is given a different responsibility, a domestic responsibility, a position of trust.

In the manner of serial abusers, Viktor feels a responsibility towards his charges. It’s a self-serving responsibility: if a girl is unable to work, he loses money in clients unserved and eventually in the expense of buying another slab of meat. Though he presents himself as - perhaps even believes himself to be - some cross between an employer and a father-figure, he’s not of course. He’s a slave-owner. He doesn’t care what happens to these women as long as they stay alive enough to satisfy the men who pay him. Their lives can be nasty and brutish, just as long as they’re not too short. His treatment of them is the same as a peasant whipping and beating his under-nourished, overworked cow as it struggles to drag a plough through the dry, brittle soil. He will treat and mistreat the dumb animal to near its limits, but cannot afford to lose its essential services.

The narrative zero point, the moment which sets this tale in motion, comes when Angel discovers that one of the other girls in the house can sign. Until then, her injection and swabbing of the girls has been as mechanical as Viktor expects it to be, their pleas for help falling on literally deaf ears. But Vanya (Dominique Provost-Chalkley in her feature debut) can communicate with Angel and a secret friendship develops. Angel has two advantages in her favour about which Viktor knows nothing. One is that she is small enough to crawl through the ventilation holes in the walls, and through the wall cavities themselves. So she can visit Vanya in her room even after all the doors are locked.

And the other thing she has is chocolate. Who knows how she came by this? Perhaps it was left behind by a customer, perhaps one of the men gave it to her out of some misplaced concept of kindness or generosity. But she has it, keeping it hidden beneath her own filthy mattress. When she shares this with Vanya, it’s one of the most subtly powerful moments in the whole film, a tiny, insignificant, everyday act blown out of all proportion by its symbolic status as a residue of the world outside and the life once lived now gone. Vanya, like the other girls, lives only in the (often drug-hazed) moment. When Viktor said that their previous lives no longer existed, he was absolutely correct. But just the presence of one square of chocolate shows that he wasn’t, providing the slenderest of threads to that late 20th century reality somewhere close by. There is a world beyond the walls: a world where factories make chocolate, where shops sell chocolate, where people eat chocolate, where people do things which make themselves, and the people around them, happy. There is something other than the moment, other than the house, other than violent rape, forced crack addiction and shitting in a bucket.

Throughout all this, the clients who use Viktor’s amenities are faceless, nameless figures. But one day, Goran comes calling. Goran and Viktor know each other of old. They each know things that the other doesn’t want everyone to know. Neither is remotely trustworthy, yet their professional relationship rests solely on a very unsteady mutual trust. Goran is played by Sean Pertwee, no stranger to British horror or indeed to army uniform. With him are a handful of men under his command, including baby brother Josif (Alec Utgoff: Outpost 3). Goran has responsibility for his men - especially his brother - just as Viktor has responsibility for his girls. Goran’s men - especially his brother - trust their leader.

But Viktor is not the only person in the house who knows Goran. We have already seen Sean Pertwee in this film, in flashbacks, wiping out Angel’s family and neighbours. The man who killed her mother and sister is here. Just in case Angel had any doubts about seizing the moment for revenge, one of Goran’s men, Aleksander (man mountain Ryan Oliva) brutally rapes Vanya to death. It’s now or never. Angel emerges from the air vent, unnoticed by the rutting ogre and from that point on the film becomes a sequence of violent, bloody attacks, defences, hunts and chases, inside and later outside the house.

But let’s just pause for a moment to observe a startling visual image. Angel clambers head first from a tiny rectangle, as if pulling herself between worlds (in a sense, maybe she is). Long, dark hair falling over her face as she lowers her body towards the floor, walking her hands down the wall, emerging from a place where she should not exist in the first place - any horror movie fan is going to think of one word. And that word is Ring. I don’t know to what extent it’s an unavoidable coincidence (there are, after all, only so many ways you can climb out of a small, rectangular hole) and to what extent it’s a deliberate homage - or indeed whether Paul Hyett is consciously imbuing the action with added significance. But it’s there and it’s obvious (and I’m glad to say it doesn’t detract from the rest of the scene, except momentarily).

And so now we have a more conventional story in our third act, as Viktor, Goran and Goran’s remaining men try to find Angel. Goran sees this as a betrayal of his trust of Viktor, Viktor sees it as a betrayal of his trust of Angel. The two men’s mutual trust shatters. Actually, I have just realised something which I’m going to spoiler protect because it’s too specific:

At one point, unseen by anyone, Viktor casually shoots one of Goran’s men then says that Angel did it (she has got hold of a gun by then). This seemed extreme, even by Viktor’s standards, notwithstanding his professed love for Angel. But now I realise why he does it. After Aleksander and Vanya were both found dead, Goran angrily confronted Viktor: “I’ve lost one of my men!” “And I just lost a girl.” At which point Goran casually shoots another girl, making his point that to him they are utterly disposable and he cares for Viktor’s problems no more than he cares for the girls’. Viktor’s equally casual murder of a soldier is surely to even the score, a personal debt repaid to nobody’s satisfaction but his own. If he can’t resolve the situation, he can at least make sure that Goran suffers as much as he does. That’s his new responsibility.

As Angel makes her break for freedom, Goran and Viktor both give chase independently since neither trusts the other. Although we think this has become a story about Angel’s revenge, if we look closely we can see that in fact it’s not, beyond her initial attack on Aleksander. What we might expect, indeed what some of the crappier reviewers implied, is a game of cat and mouse, a simplistic rape-revenge saga along the lines of, say, Ms.45 or I Spit on Your Grave. But actually Angel’s goal is not to take revenge on Goran, or Viktor for that matter. Her goal is to escape the seasoning house. And something easy to miss among the gunshots, shouting and movement is that Angel gives no thought to the fate of any of the remaining girls. They’re not her responsibility. Not any more.

All the above will, I hope, have served to convince you that The Seasoning House is a powerful, disturbing film. It’s a film about misogyny (something which less attentive observers with personal agendas can often mistake for a misogynist film). It’s a film about violence so yes, it’s a violent film, but it’s a film about the effects of violence. It’s certainly a lot less violent than many Hollywood blockbusters nowadays and never, ever seeks to glorify or justify violence. Those critics who have dismissed it as sadistic or overly brutal or even (because they don’t know what the term means) ‘torture porn’ are probably the same ones who clapped and cheered during the third act of Man of Steel when thousands of off-screen people were killed in city-wide collateral damage from Superman’s battle with General Zod - and no-one gave a monkey’s. That’s the violence and casual sadism in cinema we should be worried about - wholesale casual slaughter with no consequence - not carefully plotted films exploring the dehumanisation of violence and slavery and its effects on both captive and captor. Man of Steel is the sickeningly exploitative film in these two almost simultaneous releases, and I certainly know which one I would be prepared to sit through again.

The Seasoning House has many strengths and few if any failings, with the obvious exception that it is definitely not for the squeamish. One of its strongest cards is the cast, every single one of whom is absolutely on top form. Kevin Howarth brings to Viktor the same ambiguous amorality which he brought to Max Parry. The character could have been a cartoon villain, but he’s not. He’s a businessman surviving in a world torn asunder by taking advantage of others, not just the girls but the soldiers who pay to use and abuse the girls. The seasoning house is a means to an end for Viktor, a way to make enough money to maybe one day not have to run the seasoning house.

The casting of Sean Pertwee was absolutely essential. He’s a recognisable face, a constant reminder that what we are watching, for all its horrific true-life inspiration and research, is fiction. Quite apart from turning in a typically masterful performance (if anything, more restrained than some of his BHR outings) in a costume which puts one inescapably in mind of Dog Soldiers, Pertwee provides a solid grounding to the film, a reassuring hand on the shoulder which says that this is a 21st century British horror film and we should acknowledge it as such, and view it in that context.

But of the three leads, the film absolutely stands or falls on the performance of Miss Rosie Day as Angel. What an incredible role for an actress. What a stunning performance in that role. Playing a deaf mute is always going to be a challenge for any actor: not just relying on expression and movement to convey every thought or feeling (a few lines of subtitled sign language notwithstanding) but also having to avoid responding in any way to auditory signals, remaining unaware of all speech unless the other person’s lips are visible. As an aside, Angel’s deafness, though never explored in any depth, gives extraordinary levels of tension to the third act. When creeping or running around, not only can she not hear her pursuers, she also has no idea how much noise she herself is making. If she leans on a creaky board or beam, others in the house will hear it - but Angel won’t. And as another aside, it’s remarkably how many deaf and/or mute women feature in revenge films, from Ms.45 to The Evil of Frankenstein. I’m sure there’s a thesis to be written there.

But I have been distracted from my praise of Rosie Day and I shouldn’t have been because she is absolutely fantastic. She just nails it, simple as that. Angel is vulnerable, but not overly so, confident but not overly so, frightened but not overly so, brave but not overly so... You get the picture. This is a complex character where many traits compete but none dominates. You could never sum up Angel in a few words, not even in a thousand. She is real, she is more than real. One thing we can pin down about her, possibly the only certainty in her world, is this: the only person she trusts is herself. And her only real responsibility is keeping herself alive.

Day may be a new face and name to most viewers, but she is very experienced, having been acting since she was five. As a child she was in episodes of Black Books, Hope and Glory and Family Affairs. She was Nicolette, nemesis of the title character in the last two series of CBBC fantasy series Bernard’s Watch; she was the voice of the older daughter in CBeebies elephant animation The Large Family; and she was the youngest actor to ever work with the Royal National Theatre. Only 17 when The Seasoning House began filming in January 2012, she was 18 by the time it premiered as the opening movie of that year’s Frightfest, meaning she could at least get served at the bar. Although I suspect she normally carries some form of ID because she looks much younger. We are never told Angel’s age, but she could conceivably be as young as 13 and certainly no older than 16. While The Seasoning House won’t make Rosie Day a household name, it is a gilt-edged calling card which ably demonstrated her phenomenal acting talent to any casting director who watches it.

Elsewhere in the uniformly strong cast we find Laurence Saunders (DeadTime, The Casebook of Eddie Brewer), Daniel Vivian (Apocalypse Z), Abigail Hamilton (Porcelain Presence, Steve Balderson’s Culture Shock), Adrian Bouchet (Alien vs Predator, Idol of Evil), Christopher Rithyin (Blood Army/Nephilim, Axed, Serial Kaller), Katie Allen (who used to be Ethel Hallow in The Worst Witch) and Sean Cronin (The Thompsons, and uncredited ‘high priest’ roles in The Mummy and its first sequel).

Behind the camera, we also find a bunch of talented folk working at the top of their game. I have long maintained that the three most important people on a film set are the cinematographer, the production designer and the 1st AD - even more so in the case of a debutante director. Adam Etherington is The Seasoning House’s DP, building on an extremely busy few years lighting shorts including a surprisingly large number of sci-fi quickies: Mono Ghose’s The 13th Mirror, Daniel Bugeja’s Interrogating Vivian, James Sharpe’s Notes and William McGregor’s Eradicate and No Escape, although his only previous horror credits seem to be Daniel Shea Zimbler’s Exit and Frank Rehder’s Taxi Rider. That said, The Seasoning House is not his first feature; he also worked on comedy mystery The Drummond Will and afterlife fantasy Lovelorn (and he was 2nd unit DP on Stalker and, for his sins, camera assistant on some of the Evil Calls pick-ups). Anyway, Etherington does a bang-up job, creating a bleak, washed-out world that varies in intensity, approaching a warm reality the further it gets from the house itself.

In this he has been aided by the work of production designer Caroline Story (Vampire Diary) who has excelled herself here. We have to absolutely believe that this is a working shit-hole sex-slave brothel in late 20th century eastern Europe: any clue that it’s not would tear a hole in the film and destroy all our empathies and understanding. Throughout the main building, and in those others that we see, and indeed in the relatively few external sequences, Story’s design is spot on every time. And a tip of the hat to hard-to-spell 1st AD Christiaan Faberij de Jonge (Deviation, Scar Tissue); people outside of the industry generally have no idea what a 1st does and just dismiss the job on the basis that it includes the word ‘assistant’. But it’s the 1st AD who basically runs the set, barks the orders, makes sure everything and everyone is where they should be, allowing the director to concentrate on the actors and (via the DP) the camera.

Agnieszka Liggett handled the very fine, sympathetic editing. John-Paul Frazer (Scar Tissue, Hollow, Airborne, My Name is Sarah Hayward) was the art director. Paul E Francis (The Colour of Magic) composed the score. Raquel Azevedo (Truth or Dare, Scar Tissue) designed the costumes; am I a bad person for really wanting a brown leather jacket like Viktor’s? Elle Baird (Harry Potter 8, Citadel, Tower Block) designed the hair and make-up. Kudos to all.

What is particularly interesting is that, contrary to my expectations, none of these people seem to have worked with Paul before (apart from possibly Elle Baird, whose IMDB page includes an uncredited gig on The Woman in Black). Other recognisable/notable names in the crew include prosthetics supervisor Robbie Drake (Beyond the Rave, Attack the Block, Evil Calls, Storage 24), storyboard artist Jaeson Finn (another Evil Calls alumnus, who once threw a hissy fit when I linked to his MySpace page), armourer Clive Shaw (Truth or Dare, The Reverend and yet another veteran of Scar Tissue) and visual effects co-ordinator Malin Persson (The Woman in Black, Iron Sky).

Robbie Drake’s credit notwithstanding, it’s not clear how much input Paul himself had into the prosthetic effects - I’ll get back to you on that one. They are, needless to say, excellent. But, crucially, they are never gratuitous or dwelt on unnecessarily. This is not a gore film. If you’re looking for a movie full of splatterific effects hanging on a wafer-thin story, look elsewhere. The effects in The Seasoning House serve the story, not the other way round. Which is very obviously exactly what Paul wanted.

Before moving onto Paul’s direction, a quick pause to mention the script which is primarily a collaboration between Paul and Conal Palmer, a regular colleague of Paul’s in the make-up departments of such titles as The Descent, The Cottage and Attack the Block (and with a number of notable non-Hyett credits too, including From Hell, Doctor Sleep and Storage 24). Helen Solomon, whose film career has included stints as a location scout, production assistant, camera assistant and stills photographer, and who wrote an unfilmed biopic of Fred and Rose West, came up with the original idea of a deaf-mute girl climbing around inside the walls of a brothel, so receives due story credit. And there is also a credit for a notorious gentleman named Adrian Rigelsford, who contributed to early drafts of the script.

I was very surprised the first time I saw Rigelsford’s name attached to this project, not least because it proved he was out of prison. Not quite on the Richard Driscoll level (actually there’s a credit Paul Hyett probably tries to forget: Kannibal), Rigelsford is nevertheless a serial fantasist whose career seems to have been largely based on being charming to people who don’t do quite enough research. His most notorious lie was a supposed 'final interview' with Stanley Kubrick which the TV Times published in good faith but which was exposed as pure fiction by Kubrick's assistant. In 2004 Rigelsford was sentenced to 18 months at Her Majesty’s Pleasure for stealing 56,000(!) photographs from the Associated Newspapers Library. Where he's been since then isn't clear. Odd bloke.

And so, at last, we come to an evaluation of Paul Hyett’s direction. He’s not the first prosthetic effects artist to make the move to the folding chair. One thinks of Robert Kurtzman (the K in KNB), Rob Hall, good old Bob Keen and indeed Tristan Versluis (who seems to have done make-up effects for all the other BHR titles, the ones that Paul didn’t work on). The thing about make-up effects is that, because no-one else really understands them, their creators often get to be a separate little unit, to some extent calling their own shots, yet at the same time having to collaborate closely with other department heads like the costume designer and the DP. So it’s a good grounding for a young man (or woman) who wants to one day direct their own movie.

Hyett has worked with the best and it’s clear from The Seasoning House that he has learned from the best. He directs with absolute confidence, and is entirely justified in doing so. The camera lens and the actors and the script (by Hyett, as noted) come together under his watchful eye and skilful hands. He knows what he wants, he knows what works, and he knows his audience. It’s not that this panders to some clique or minority interest, but Paul knows enough about how and why people watch movies of this sort to understand what they look for and appreciate. And despite what the patronising idiots in the mainstream press say, that’s not cheap shocks and gratuitous gore. It’s character and story, relationships and narrative, events and developments.

Producer Michael Riley of Sterling Pictures previously made Vampire Diary (with Anna Walton) and has also recently produced Scar Tissue (hence presumably the number of crew from that film reteaming here) and Deviation (with Walton and Danny Dyer), as well as executive producing UK-filmed American vampire sequel The Thompsons. He and Hyett were originally going to collaborate on a project called The Black Site, for which a two minute trailer was shot that you can find on Vimeo with a quick google. This shares some elements with The Seasoning House, notably a modern conflict (in this case, Iraq), Anna Walton and a shockingly impressive throat-slitting effect that was clearly much too good to waste. Neil Jones (director of The Reverend, producer of The Feral Generation), who is a partner in Templeheart Films with Riley and Hyett, is one of three executive producers.

The Seasoning House is a fine directorial debut by any measure. But it’s more than that, it’s a magnificent piece of film-making. It makes a point, it says something and does something, but it never descends into propaganda or polemic, just as it never descends into cheap scares, gross-out grue or titillation. And, possibly most surprisingly of all, if you go in with an awareness and understanding of the film, so that you’re not shocked or caught by surprise, it is eminently watchable. It’s not something like, say, Eden Lake (with which it shares a narrative comparison at the very end) which, for all its undoubted excellence, is deeply upsetting and an absolute struggle to sit through (researching it for my book, I only managed it in five-minute chunks).

No, The Seasoning House is a powerful, hard-hitting but ultimately very, very human drama. It’s about the human condition: what we can do to other people, what we can do to ourselves, what we can overcome. It’s about trust, and it’s about responsibility. It is one of the best films you will see this year. If you have any interest in what horror films can do and say, you owe it to yourself to find a copy and watch it.

MJS rating: A


  1. hai, i really enjoy the film but if you may to tell me about the military uniform that use on the film. is it Yugoslavian uniform or serbian?

    1. I don't think it is meant to be the uniform of any specific country.

  2. Surprised MJ you didnt spot a cameo by one credited as "Eddie Oswald" ;)

    1. Thanks for the tip-off, Paddie - very observant. Here's a link to a couple of frame-grabs:

  3. I'm trying the read the spoiler but I don't know how to unprotect it and I'm a lil frustrated

    1. Hi Charlene. Just highlight the text. Control-A should do it.

  4. Top film gritty realistic the review covers everything 10/10 for me.