The Seductress from Hell

The Seductress from Hell (2024)

While her husband Robert (Jason Faunt) sleeps, Zara (Rocio Scotto) slips out of bed and downstairs to the basement storeroom, where, from a case in a chest, she takes out a notebook scribbled with the kind of inchoate chiaroscuro sketches that in horror conventionally codify a person’s diabolical descent. This opening to writer/director Andrew de Burgh’s The Seductress from Hell immediately introduces us to Zara’s private, secret, nocturnal place, where all her darkest feelings are hidden and repressed – and tells us that there may be more to her than meets the eye. 

On the surface, Zara is a victim several times over: a would-be actress frustrated and demoralised by her failure to get decent paying work in LA; and wife to a man who resents her meagre income, who expects her to earn a living as well as do all the housework without any help from him, and who browbeats, bullies, beats and even rapes her with some regularity. 

Derek (Raj Jawa) tells his girlfriend Maya (Kylie Rohrer) that his friend Robert “actually used to be somewhat of a decent guy… he actually used to have empathy.” What has turned Robert into such an angry, uptight monster is his exploitative office job in sales – which he hates. Maya too is unhappy in her work in advertising, which she finds dull and morally questionable. Only Derek, who runs an Indian food store, seems to be content within himself, and to have a positive outlook. Meanwhile Zara’s own professional and domestic difficulties are transforming her into something even worse than Robert. 

Zara’s unravelling aligns her with the aspiring Hollywood starlets in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001), Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (2014) and Raymond Wood’s Faceless After Dark (2023) – and so, as she descends down a satanic path that merges illicit money-making with torture and murder, the viewer is never entirely sure what is real, and what is an inverted, perverted (American) dream of self-realisation and profit.

After all, Zara’s murder set-pieces take place in ever more garish locations – all hyperreal design and stylised lighting – and she herself expressly compares the scenarios with cinema’s fictions. “I guess”, she will tell Robert before carving him up, “that’s what you see in a lot of horror films” – and later she will tell the producer Jeffrey Delap (James Hyde): “I love horror… I think it’s just like a microcosm of humanity itself… I think it just really taps into how awful people can be to each other.” Horror is on – and possibly in – her mind, and we are never sure how far from her headspace we are straying.

So it is unclear whether this is merely Zara’s fantasy of rape revenge, inspired (at least in Zara’s escapist imagination) by the likes of Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (2012) and Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s Violation (2020), as her marriage lies in pieces  – or it is real, sadistic acts of vengeance whose targets become increasingly random and hard to justify as Zara fully embraces the devil within. Certainly her onslaught becomes more and more hallucinatory as it goes on. “Is this some sort of a dream?” asks Robert – and that is after he has supposedly been killed. Even the investigating officer (Andy Lauer) who visits Zara – significantly in the middle of the night – enters without a warrant and shows little regard for standard procedure or indeed the law, which might equally be a sign that this is all a dream, or a realistic reflection of misbehaviour from the LAPD.  

There is a third possibility. Looking into the mirror on her dressing table, Zara rehearses her audition “for the rôle of Tamara Nolan in Just One Drink” – and in the film’s coda, when she picks up a stranger (Isaac Levi Anthony) in a bar to drug and butcher, she introduces herself again as Tamara Nolan. In fact Just One Drink is a short film made by de Burgh in 2015, whose main character, a literal man killer, is indeed named Tamara Nolan, and who, like Zara, has in her home a statue of Durga Mata (“a really powerful Hindu goddess… the ultimate goddess of the universe”). Might it be that we are watching the psychodrama of Zara’s acting process for getting into the character of Tamara, as she ‘becomes’ the seductress and slayer that the part demands? 

For here there is a dualism, even a split personality, to Zara – often seen reflected in a mirror, and claiming to have a twin sister working as a veterinarian across town, and there is also a slippage between her derangement and its mere performance. The ultimate tragedy for this wannabe star is that the real rôle of Tamara Nolan in de Burgh’s short in fact went to Hostel’s Barbara Nedeljakova, so that this will be, for Zara, yet another failed audition – unless it is a reimagining.

At the beginning of The Seductress from Hell, Zara has – and loses – a callback audition for a “TV series”. She tells Robert, “I’ve prepared my lines as many times as possible, I know Nicole’s full character backstory.” These preparations, her immersion into the part, may be reflected in the decidedly ‘soapy’ nature of Zara’s interactions with Robert and his friends. There certainly is something of the ‘daytime drama’ about the pacing of The Seductress from Hell, as dialogue meanders, everything comes overstated, and even Zara’s taunting of her victims soon palls under its own repetitiveness. It is almost as though Zara cannot ever fully escape the rôles she takes on. Whether this is a story of female empowerment, of method acting, or of Satanic slaughter, all depends on how you read it. Like Zara’s hidden notebook, it is the subtext rather than the surface that is key, in a film that exposes the dark, divided soul of Hollywood – a place where everyone is driven a little crazy by the pact they must forge with the devil to get what they want. 

strap: In Andrew de Burgh’s hallucinatory Hollywood horror, an abused actress auditions as Satanic serial killer

© Anton Bitel