All You Need Is Death seen at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2023
All You Need Is Death opens with a police video in the aftermath of its principal narrative, as an unseen garda interviews a drunken Dublin pub singer (Sean Fitzgerald) about his oblique intersection with recent events. “I heard she was practically eaten,” says the singer – and even if the garda immediately sets aside this comment (“That’s not we’re here to talk about”), the singer’s words serve as retrospective foreshadowing of horrors that have allegedly already happened, but are still (for the viewer at least) yet to come.
Time works mysteriously in writer/director/producer Paul Duane’s uncanny feature. Young Dublin folk singer Anna (Simone Collins) and stammering Eastern European émigré Aleks (Charlie Maher) are a thoroughly modern couple obsessed with the undiscovered songs of Ireland’s history, which they record digitally (and often surreptitiously) to sell on to a shadowy demimonde of collectors (who resemble Lynchian gangsters, and have clandestine nocturnal meetings outside abandoned factories).
It is a strange, parasitic subculture, which inevitably rubs shoulders with other, often stranger subcultures – “the speechless and the miserable of the earth”, as folk expert Agnes (Catherine Siggins) describes the local sources for these lost songs. Agnes certainly recognises the value of buried histories. “The future is picked clean, treasure lies in the past,” says Agnes of her work. “We turn it into a future, for ourselves. It’s a miracle. Modern alchemy.” In pursuit of this potentially lucrative magic, Anna and Aleks follow a trail of clues across the border to Republican stronghold Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland’s County Armagh, where once legendary singer Maggie Concannon is said to have “the weirdest songs, the oldest songs, songs that nobody has heard of.”
Maggie is in fact long dead, but in her ramshackle residence, described ominously by local Ron (Barry McKiernan) as “the last house on the left”, they find her ageing, alcoholic daughter Rita (Olwen Fouéré), who has learnt the old songs from her mother as Maggie did from her mother, in a strictly matrilineal tradition that goes back to ancient times. Rita has an adult son, the puppeteer Breezeblock (Nigel O’Neill), but has failed to produce a female heir to her musical lore – and, perhaps because of her awareness that she is last in her line and that her arcane knowledge will die with her, she agrees to sing to Anna a secret love song, on condition that it never be written down or otherwise recorded. Rita insists that Aleks leave the house before she sings the for-women-only song of erotic betrayal and a vengeful curse, but Agnes, already at the house hoping to beat Anna and Aleks to the punch, is permitted to remain present.
At this point All You Need Is Death crosses its own borders, as the divisions between the sexes are transgressed in ever odder ways, as elements of supernatural giallo, revenger’s tragedy and twisted romance are allowed to encroach upon the narrative, and as old myths are revived to unleash their “shadowy, smudgy” ghosts onto the present. If Rita’s song casts a malign spell over all who hear it, then we also hear it, repeatedly and in more than one rendition, raising the possibility that our own present too is being perversely haunted by the past, with Duane’s film, itself maudit, the forbidden medium. Here art entraps, and reception comes with risk, even as composer Ian Lynch brilliantly rings the changes on these taboo tracks while (un)settling the score.
With a title that simultaneously references and distorts a song by the Beatles, All You Need Is Death is concerned with traditions and legacies, musical or otherwise. Here histories, whether artistic, domestic or political, keep retelling and reenacting themselves down the generations, in an endless succession of cover versions and variations. Even the witness statement offered by the pub singer at the beginning is a fragmentary resurrection of the (recent) past, recorded to camera – and in a film that is often slyly funny, one running, if covert, joke is the challenge to (re)imagine how on earth the garda investigation that frames the narrative might eventually pin down the film’s irrational events and piece together the grotesque bodies of evidence left behind. These materials simply defy being reduced to a bland, fact-focused police report.
The love elided from the Beatles’ original title is also a principal theme here – although it is a treacherous, toxic, wasting, insatiably hungry kind of love that leads to the worst kind of abominations, and is perhaps better left repressed. Yet in folk horror, the repressed has a tendency to return, and to come out again – and Duane’s genderfluid genre bender, surreally mounted and beautifully shot, finds new ways of singing the old tunes.
While Duane is an experienced documentarian, All You Need Is Death is his first fictive, fully scripted feature. Its eventually unhinged eccentricity and utter unpredictability, and its mastery of unsettling mood, will leave horror’s psychonauts dying to hear more from this macabre songbook.
strap: Paul Duane’s funny, freaky, fucked-up folk (song) horror plays out present cover versions of past love, betrayal and accursed vengeance
© Anton Bitel