Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, July 2013
Synopsis: The Balkans, 1996. Abducted during the Bosnian War by Goran and his militiamen after witnessing them murder her mother, a deaf-mute girl is now captive in a brothel. Its owner Viktor calls her ‘Angel’, and protects her from having to service other men, but in return she must share his bed and keep house (feeding and drugging the chained female ‘stock’, and cleaning up after the male guests). Moving unseen through the house’s crawlspaces, Angel befriends Vanya, and witnesses her ill treatment by a violent client, and then by the elderly doctor who is paid in kind for examining her. Viktor entrusts Angel with house keys.
Goran, his younger brother Josif and other militiamen (Ivan, Marko, Radovan) visit. Angel attacks and kills Ivan after he strangles Vanya during sex. Marko falls to his death pursuing Angel in the crawlspace, and Viktor, after surreptitiously shooting Radovan himself, blames Angel for the death. Angel flees into the woods. Viktor catches her, but in a stand-off with the two brothers, shoots Josif, and is in turn shot by Goran. Angel flees to a house where she is tended by a woman who happens to be Goran’s wife. After a phone call, the woman tries to detain Angel, and is killed in a vicious struggle. Goran chases Angel into a factory, but becomes trapped in some pipes. Angel seeks refuge in another farmhouse, whose owner, the doctor, closes the door behind her.
Review: “The horror, the horror,” are the last words uttered by Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), summarising the film’s take on the moral revulsion engendered by the contradictions and chaos of war. The Seasoning House seems at first to be following a similar tack, while adopting an entirely female perspective. Its events unfold from the point of view of diminutive teen ‘Angel’ (Rosie Day), orphaned and abducted during the Bosnian War, and now held captive with other young women in a brothel that has outlasted the war it was designed to service, as former militiamen continue their extralegal business under a different name. Angel is well-placed to be the perfect eyewitness and silent cicerone through this murky, sordid world. After all, she has been granted relatively free passage in the house to carry out her duties (cleaning, feeding and drugging the women for the men who visit them), she is small enough to fit into the crawlspaces between the building’s walls and move from room to room unnoticed, and she is deaf-mute – “Hear no evil, speak no evil”, the brothel’s owner Viktor (Kevin Howarth) says of her. DP Adam Etherington’s camera tracks Angel’s sinuous expeditions through the grubby establishment, taking us on a commentary-free journey through the inner workings of what is described in the title as a ‘seasoning house’ (via the same sort of horrifying euphemism that also sees the chained inmates dubbed ‘stock’). As in Elem Klimov’s Come And See (1985) or perhaps more pertinently Juanita Wilson’s insider account of war rape As If I Am Not There (2010), we are invited to be fellow witnesses to the traumatising and the unspeakable.
While war comes with its inherent horrors, unfortunately first-time director co-writer Paul Hyett, who has an extensive background creating effects, gore and makeup for horror of a more generic kind (The Descent, The Cottage, Eden Lake), pushes the real-world theme of war crimes into the realms of pure exploitation in the film’s second half. Once militia leader Goran (Sean Pertwee) and his men have arrived, the semi-documentary detailing of Angel’s awful routine is overtaken by a conventional thriller plot in which the familiar genre tropes of rape revenge and, later, cat-and-mouse come to dominate. The very presence of British horror stalwarts Howarth (The Last Horror Movie, Summer Scars, Gallowwalkers) and Pertwee (Dog Soldiers, Wilderness, Mutant Chronicles), and – even more egregiously – a last-reel cameo from genre director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday), remind and reassure viewers that this is only a (horror) movie; and while the final sequences unfold in deep dark woods, pig-filled cottages and entrapping labyrinths, The Seasoning House (unlike, say, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth) never fully integrates or justifies these fairytale motifs, so that they seem a mere stylistic device that further distracts from the real issue of women’s mistreatment during and after conflict. Ultimately the film reduces a nation’s complicity in war atrocities to a Sadean variation on the Perils of Pauline, with the film’s viewers uncomfortably cast as the paying customers for such dubious entertainments. The horror, indeed.