The Brits have been knocking it out of the horror-park since the early 2000’s, beginning with films like Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later, and running right up to recent output such as Kill List, or the slightly more accessible Woman in Black. It possibly comes down to faith in the genre itself; the UK has had a great relationship with horror on the big screen dating back to the 50’s, with many entries considered classics by viewers from all over the globe. The latter part has no doubt helped with the continued funding, with many modern films doing equally as well overseas. Not all, however, have been huge hits, and some have slipped through the cracks. The Seasoning House is definitely one of those films.
Set in the Balkans in 1996, The Seasoning House follows ‘Angel’ (Rosie Day); a mute, teenage girl who is forced to watch the execution of her mother and sister in the streets by vicious soldiers who are tearing the countryside apart. She is soon sold into prostitution in the titular ‘Seasoning House’ – a place where girls are forced to take drugs and have sex with the clientele, many of whom are violent men in uniform. Due to her age and birth-marked face, Angel is kept out of the sex trade, but the task falls on her to administer the heroin to the beaten and traumatized women. She spends her days crawling through the air vents, visiting with the girls, and silently trying to bring some hope to their lives.
Viktor (Kevin Howarth), the violent and apathetic owner of the brothel, assures her that some day things will be better, and that she’ll be taken away from the horrors of this place. That dream is shattered with the arrival of the man responsible for her families death – the cold-hearted Goran (Sean Pertwee) – and his unit, made up of several battle-hardened soldiers without a moral between them. Angel happens upon one of Goran’s men strangling and beating one of the most ritually abused girls in the house, and she finally snaps. Descending from the air vent with a knife in her hand, Angel is launched into a maelstrom of increasingly brutal violence as she attempts to escape with her life. What chance does she have with Goran hot on her heals, hellbent for payback?
Make no bones about it; The Seasoning House is dark, brutal stuff. The casual, apathetic approach to violence and mistreatment of women is hard to stomach, but it’s never glorified or gloated over. Yes, you’ll see women and men being shot, stabbed and beaten repeatedly, but the matter-of-fact way these images are dealt out to you will only inspire disgust and horror, not excitement at the acts themselves. Most of the on-screen carnage is short and to-the-point, just like violence in real life. Importantly too, even though Angel is our focus, the violence and degradation is never levelled directly at her – she is a mere witness for the atrocities that happen – so don’t expect ‘I Spit on Your Grave‘-style revenge plotting here. She does get to fight back (I don’t think I could have continued watching if that didn’t happen) but it evokes the same feeling you had when you saw the little guy getting picked on in school when he finally fought back – you hope she succeeds, but you know her chances aren’t great. The odds are just too heavily stacked against her.
This actually gives us a great emotional connection to our lead, and it’s backed up by a tremendous performance by Rosie Day. She conveys so much through her face and diminutive figure that it’s a testament to how great her performance is that not a single word is uttered by her, and she never resorts to the ‘easy’ options of winning us over either, and the same goes for the other girls forced into prostitution. They are surely victims, but ones resigned to just how rotten this world can be. The other male performances are all great too, with Pertwee delivering on a particularly icy role.
The other revelation here is first-time director Paul Hyett himself. Best known for his excellent special effects in many big-budget films, he shows that he has been paying attention over the years. The first half of the film feels like a drug-induced dream – lots of tracking shots, slow motion and minimal dialogue – which perfectly reflects the experience for the girls in the brothel. When the second half kicks in, the overly stylised tricks are laid to rest and we get raw, unflinching film-making in its place. He has the maturity to not dwell on the more exploitative aspects that a lesser director might have delivered on (nudity, for example), and even the graphic violence is never the main focus here. Some may not be satisfied with the ending (no spoilers here), but for me, it fitted tonally with the film: how those little slivers of hope are constantly slipping through our fingers.
Despite being labelled a ‘horror’ film, it’s worth remembering that what happens in The Seasoning House is very much real, something that those living in the war-torn parts of Eastern Europe can no doubt testify to. While it’s never going to be a film that you’ll sit down with a few beers to watch with, it’s one that fans of harsh, unflinching cinema should definitely seek out. Highly recommended.