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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.
Though itself wonderful, Edgar Wright's North London rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead unleashed a plague of frankly inferior British comedy horrors pitting classic movie monsters incongruously against specific contemporary London subcultures. In Dead Cert it was gangsters vs vampires, in Strippers vs Werewolves it was – well, you can probably guess.
Now, coming from the director (Matthias Hoene) who revamped Hammer with Beyond the Rave, and co-written by James Moran (Severance), Cockneys vs Zombies resurrects all at once the zombies, the knowing, absurdist humour, and most importantly something of the quality, of Wright's film, while also unearthing the Blitz spirit of old as an antidote to these bleak Tory-led times of social abandonment and exclusion. It is an affectionate mash-up of the undead and the East End's underworld, with a half-buried subtext about England's overlooked underclass.
As WWII veteran and old-age pensioner Ray Macguire (Alan Ford) faces eviction and an uncertain future, his hapless grandsons Terry (Rasmus Hardiker) and Andy (Harry Treadaway) rob their first bank, hoping to rescue their beloved granddad's care home from redevelopment as luxury apartments. Meanwhile the adjacent building site, which resembles nothing less than the East End under the Blitz, spills out the contents of a plague pit that has lain buried and sealed since 1666 – and so, as an old zombie apocalypse begins anew, Ray and his fellow retirees, beleaguered as always, also rise up once again, while the brothers and their cousin Katy (Michelle Ryan) live up to their family's legacy of dogged defiance.
As austerity bites and the cold, dead hand of Conservative policy pulls the guts out of the general populace, Cockneys vs Zombies is a rabble-rousing, banker-baiting last stand for community values. It is also, with its cartoonish credits, its mangled rhyming slang, its Zimmer frame chase sequences, its still-scuffling undead football supporters and gratuitous baby-kicking, very funny indeed – while the sing-along knees-ups and the climax on a red double-decker bus all appeal to a kind of retro-jingoism that the film seeks to reawaken in the viewer. "The East End's been through far worse," declares Terry, responding with die-hard sangfroid to the catastrophe unfolding before his (and our) eyes. It is a historical perspective on present problems, as well as a new call to arms, severed or otherwise.
"You really are Irish," says marine ecologist Dr Adam Smith (Russell Tovey) to Garda Ciarán O'Shea, after the local policeman, under the influence of alcohol, has once again acted without forethought. Yet Smith's national stereotyping is slyly ironised by the fact that O'Shea is played by Richard Coyle, in fact himself an Englishman, and often, thanks to his stand-out role in the TV comedy Coupling, mistaken for a Welshman.
If Smith sounds a tad defensive, he is not the only outsider on the fictional Island of Erin (whose very name encodes the place as a 'Little Ireland'). Uptight Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) has just come over from Dublin for a two-week posting, there is an impudent Eastern European builder whose unspellable name immunises him against ever getting cautioned by the police, and even O'Shea is, in the opinion of gossipy pub landlady Una (Bronagh Gallagher), just there on "a bit of a sabbatical" while he drinks his way through the loss of his wife. After the closure of the island's 133-year-old mining industry (commemorated in a newspaper clipping visible on the pub wall), in fact one of Erin's only viable businesses is tourism. "Festival weekend breaks" and "fishing trips" are promised by a poster that welcomes anyone off the ferry.
If all this sounds like a gentle Irish comedy, having an amiable laugh at the inevitably eccentric locals as much as at the many visitors, and all set in a locale reminiscent of Father Ted's Craggy Island, then that is exactly what Jon Wright's Grabbers offers. It is the kind of cosily clichéd view of the Republic, all grassy coastlines and friendly craic, that goes down as easy as a pint of Guinness with those viewers who long nostalgically for the Old Country. American audiences in particular just cannot get enough of this kind of affectionate blarney and heavy (yet never serious) drinking.
Only there is another alien that has just arrived on the island, that will (maybe) disrupt this winsome idyll – a rapidly breeding, ravenous (and, most horrifying of all, teetotal!) thing from outer space that has come to do a bit of its own weekend fishing. It is, or rather they are, spectacularly realised, its/their squiddy oddness both terrifying and kinda cute, all of which makes Grabbers an Irish tentacular Tremors – an icky creature feature with the emphasis on comedy and character, ending (not unlike Shaun of the Dead) in a riotous pub booze-up, with human romance amidst all the extra-terrestrial reproduction.
At first shot wide like an advertisement from the Irish Tourist Board, the camerawork gradually shifts to more intimate, reeling handheld as the beleaguered islanders get more and more hammered on booze in their local – and the climactic battle features an Irish PC who is DUI. The results are a winning combination of small-scale parochialism and big-screen monster mayhem, all filled to the gills with a warm wit. Best seen with a pint or two, and a hidden flask of home-brewed poteen.
For more on this year's Film 4 FrightFest visit frightfest.co.uk