Review first published as part of FrightFest 2012 coverage for LWLies.
Not just the opening film of this year’s FrightFest, The Seasoning House also marks the debut (as both director and co-writer) of Paul Hyett, who has been furnishing prosthetics and SFX to British horror films for years – although here, unlike in his work on The Descent and Attack the Block, all the monsters are depressingly human. The film’s somewhat enigmatic title quickly takes on a chilling resonance as the house is revealed to be a Balkan brothel, and its seasoning ‘stock’ a collection of female prisoners-of-war who are held, even post-war, against their will and in a drugged state to accommodate the often violent sexual whims of paying male visitors.
Cue a thriller of Sadean entrapment as deaf-mute ‘Angel’ (Rosie Day), protected from the fate of the other girls due to the special, not altogether welcome favour of the house manager Viktor (Kevin Howarth), one day finds an opportunity both for escape from the brothel, and for revenge upon the soldiers who destroyed her family. Yet it is before the plot establishes itself that The Seasoning House is at its best, tracking our heroine through the house’s awful routines from the shell-shocked perspective of a young girl whose innocence has long since been taken away.
Diminutive and agile, Angel is a perfect cicerone, passing unseen through the house’s ventilation grilles and crawlspaces, and bearing silent witness to what takes place in each cell. Scenes of her administering heroin to the latest arrivals, their anguished pleas falling on our own as much as Angel’s deaf ears thanks to a muted soundtrack, have a nightmarishly haunting quality that is, alas, largely lost once the film settles into a narrative and the perfunctory dialogue is allowed to become audible.
Where Pasolini’s Salò addressed the sadism and corruption at the heart of Italy’s war-time Fascism, and more recently Juanita Wilson’s As If I Am Not There, in which a young woman is similarly abducted and exploited during the Serbian War, drew its harrowing, subjectified drama from real-life testimonies at the International Criminal Tribunal, The Seasoning House instead hedges its bets between the contrasting demands of history and genre.
A caption appearing near the film’s beginning reads “Balkans, 1996”, the year after the Bosnian war ended, hinting at something like a spatio-temporal specificity for the events to follow – and while the house at the film’s centre may be closed and claustrophobic, the realities of the outside world nonetheless find their way in whether through traumatic flashbacks of Angel’s war-time experiences, or through the persons of the clients (some former militiamen) who cross the threshold. Yet once Angel manages to leave the confines of the brothel, ironically enough it is the world beyond that fails to convince as a real place, heavily dressed as it is in the trappings of both fairytale surrealism (deep, dark woods; little pigs) and the horror genre (slash and dash; cat and mouse).
As if the presence of Sean Pertwee (as vicious militia leader Goran) were not enough to reassure viewers that this is only a (British horror) movie, Neil Marshall also gets a cameo. Which is all very nice for the trainspotting fanboys in the audience, but it also takes viewers out of the constructed illusion, undermining any credibility that the film might have had as a serious exploration of women’s objectification, and leaving an impression that the misogynies on display, despite their roots in historical actuality, are here just being exploited as genre entertainment – for the paying customers.
It is as though Hyett cannot quite make his mind up whether he really wants to show the way an entire nation can be made complicit in the crimes of a few, or whether he is just content to present several semi-contemporary variations on the Perils of Pauline. At least, though, he forces us to watch these atrocities through a woman’s eyes, preventing this film’s strange pleasures from being in any way straightforward or unquestioning. The Seasoning House may ultimately feel as compromised and tainted as its heroine – but Hyett remains a rising talent to watch, especially if he can find a better script to match his uneasy vision and moody production design.