It opens with Sam Ashurst, director of Frankenstein’s Creature (2018) and A Little More Flesh (2020), on a Zoom call pitching the sequel A Little More Flesh II to the original film’s star and producer, Elf Lyons. “After the way you treated me,” she replies curtly, “no – you can absolutely fuck off!”
There is a strange frisson to all this. In A Little More Flesh, Ashurst provided the voiceover for Stanley Durall, a fictitious filmmaker recording a director’s commentary for the new Blu-ray release of his old film God’s Lonely Woman, released and promptly banned back in 1978, while Lyons played Isabella Dotterson, the star of God’s Lonely Woman who committed suicide shortly after the film’s world première. As Durall’s commentary inadvertently reveals the traumatising bombardment of abuse (and worse) that Isabella and her young co-star Candice Embers (Hazel Townsend) suffered at the hands of their director, his crew and some non-professional male actors, Ashurst’s film offered a timely critique of the casually awful way in women could be exploited, objectified and mistreated both on camera and on set. A Little More Flesh came with the irony of distance: not just because it established a hall-of-mirrors structure (a film within a film, mediated through both the veil of fiction and the reflective/reflexive prism of ‘video extra’ formatting), but also because it looked back to a different era of filmmaking, many decades before the #MeToo movement even existed.
Here, though, Ashurst’s invitation to Lyons to collaborate with him again, and Lyons’ categorical rebuff, do not offer the same comfort of distance. For it is implied that Ashurst himself, the director of A Little More Flesh, also did not behave well towards his own very real lead actress, in a film made only last year rather than in the late Seventies, and that perhaps he is not so very different from the invented Durall after all, despite Ashurst’s protestations that his own feature (a critique of the kind of filmmaking which Durall embodied) was “a feminist film” and that he too is a feminist. Of course there is still irony to be found here: Lyons’ appearance at the beginning of A Little More Flesh II to reject another collaboration with Ashurst is in fact the exact point in the film where she is still collaborating with him on it, and the Ashurst that we can now see on screen is naturally no less a construct than Durall – but a construct that shares the real Ashurst’s face, name and filmography. In other words, A Little More Flesh II relates to the original film as a meta-sequel, not unlike the follow–ups to Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) with whom it also shares the actor Laurence R. Harvey: for all these sequels exist in a universe where their original is, precisely, a film available to be watched and discussed, and where the original’s director and stars can appear as, precisely, its directors and stars – or at least fictive versions thereof.
After failing to secure Lyons as a participant, Ashurst enacts ‘Plan B’, seeking new flesh for his film in Harley Dee and Sean Mahoney, both granted the autonomy to write and shoot their own material (with the odd prompt from the director) under lockdown conditions, and to play versions of themselves as characters in Ashurst’s latest ‘weird art film’, which is called Stalker (but nothing like Tarkovsky’s film of the same name). As we learn from several Zoom conversations that the director has separately with his two leads, he wants them to film themselves on their phones for ten minutes per week as they engage in a series of mundane domestic activities. Ashurst will then edit their footage together into a feature that will suggest something amiss in the interrelationship between the socially distanced players – a sinister dynamic intimated by the title. Yet as we hear the Zoom conversations between director and actors, and see Dee and Mahoney in their separate apartments, sitting around or taking a bath or cooking or exercising, their footage is shown in a split-screen triptych that implies the involvement of a third party – and it will quickly become clear that Ashurst has an unprofessional interest in his lead actress, and is himself the stalker of the title.
“It’s not romantic, Sam, it’s creepy, basically,” comments Mahoney when he discovers Ashurst’s intentions. Mahoney will quit the production, and we now see Dee’s footage in a wholly new light, from the director’s infatuated point of view, as he reinterprets all her banal (and performative) on-screen gestures as flirtations and come-ons aimed straight at him. Rebuffed once again by his lead actress, Ashurst insists that Dee fulfil her contractual obligations to the letter, and the film takes on a different, darker character as its director becomes more manipulative, bullying and nasty.
Made, like all Ashurst’s films, on a very low budget, A Little More Flesh II ingeniously presents long pieces of footage which Ashurst recontextualises through the dialogue he layers over the top, revealing how even the most innocuous images can become fetishised, even pornified, in the wrong eyes. Eventually the film will shift to a series of takes (not in split screen anymore) featuring just Dee and marking her isolation, as she unhappily performs scenarios customised to her very specific viewer’s desires, and is herself stripped of all agency and reduced to a fantasy object. These escalating sequences, playing out at uncomfortable length and accompanied by Ashurst’s unnerving score of electronic drones, are presented confrontingly to camera, so that our view is allied directly to that of the specialist consumer, and we are constantly reminded of our own part in this voyeuristic entertainment where erotica and horror uneasily collide.
Ashurst presides as impish provocateur-in-chief over all these edgy materials, literally putting his own identity on and over the line as he incarnates and expresses all the very worst traits of a sadistic, gas-lighting. erotomanic predator, using the same voice that conjured Durall while adding his own visage and filmmaking persona. Even as we are challenged to tease apart the real Ashurst from his narrative alter ego, we are also forced to negotiate our own differences from, and similarities to, this sequel’s internal viewer(s). For ultimately, like the digital pixellation used in it (by one or other of the Ashurts) to cover over any nudity, A Little More Flesh II gets us to question what exactly is being exposed and concealed, and to fill in the dirty pictures with our own errant imaginations. “Now I really can’t stress enough just how weird my audience is,” as Ashurst puts it to Dee, “They’re sickos.” The brilliant Dee locks eyes with the viewer (even when her eyes have been put under wraps, and drawn back on with red lipstick, in the film’s strongest, most surreal sequence) and refuses to look away, offering a recriminatory j’accuse to our complicity in what she is being pressured to do for the camera.
Though certainly of a piece with the original A Little More Flesh More Flesh, this is a much more difficult, sombre affair. Two codas, however, allow the last-minute reintroduction of Ashurst’s trademark humour (at the nexus of trauma and Troma) to reassure us with a nod and a wink, while also showing directors to be potentially as prone as actors to abusive power play in the film world – and teasing not one but two improbable sequels…
strap: Sam Ashurst’s mega-creepy meta-sequel makes an object of its star, a monster of its director and a pervert of its viewer.
© Anton Bitel