The Seasoning House is the first feature from Paul Hyett, a make-up and effects maestro previously known for his gore and creature designs in such films as The Descent and Attack The Block. His directorial debut is a gritty, atmospheric feature, but one with some intensely troubling issues that make it difficult to recommend.
It is the mid-90s, and in an unnamed Balkan state hit by war and civil unrest, a number of innocent young woman are snatched from their homes and imprisoned in the eponymous ˜seasoning house’ – a dilapidated, filthy brothel frequented by ruthless soldiers and sadistic local businessmen. Staying within the walls of the house for almost its entire duration, the film throws the viewer immediately into a detailed and unflinching depiction of the sex-trafficking trade. In a difficult-to-watch first act, the film walks us through the daily living hell of the house’s prisoners: girls are permanently chained to beds, forced to inject heroin, and then brutally raped and beaten, day in, day out. The only end available is death, either at the hands of an ˜over-enthusiastic’ client, or from an overdose of heroin.
Our guide into this living hell is a young teenager, a deaf-mute known only by her assigned nickname of ˜Angel’ . She is saved from prostitution due to a birthmark on her face which renders her bad ˜stock’, and so her job becomes the administration of basic sanitary care, food, and – harrowingly – daily injections of drugs to keep the girls compliant.
Most of the first two-thirds of the film puts the viewer on Angel’s shoulder as she performs her daily routines. Nothing is left to the imagination. On top of some truly horrific violence near the film’s start, we are also presented with extended and raw scenes of rape and abuse throughout. The result is a film that is resolutely difficult to watch through the first two acts, and certainly not one offering the traditional violent gratification of most horror films. The sheer level of suffering on show is made all the more harrowing by Hyett’s relentless directorial style: the camera lingers slowly and dream-like upon each sequence of violence, whilst the soundtrack is constantly buffeted by a tinnitus-like ringing that gradually wears the viewer down. It’s smartly done, and one of the real achievements of the film.
As hard to watch as it is, The Seasoning House pushes you onwards with the faint promise of some kind of editorial justification for the harrowing scenes on show. Before the third act of the film takes hold, it genuinely feels like it has the potential to be a raw, yet brutally honest, depiction of a very real trade. Sex trafficking, particularly in times of war, is a common blight on the face of humanity, and there have been many other films in the past that have attempted to confront audiences head-on with the horror that is happening every day in the world.
Unfortunately, in the film’s third act, the focus switches dramatically, and Hyett turns proceedings into a much more traditional escape-and-revenge thriller. The trigger is a visit from a squad of soldiers, who use the amenities of the house, and, in doing so, kill one of the girls. This draws a vengeful reaction from the previously-withdrawn Angel. Using her knowledge of the layout and crawlspaces of the house, Angel proceeds to ambush and murder most of the soldiers.
Angel’s revenge is depicted every bit as graphically, unrestrained and brutal as the violence committed against the women of the house. It is clear the intention is to provide a sense of gratification for the viewer. Having been forced to endure the horrors of these womens’ suffering, we are meant to grind our teeth with satisfaction to see this paid back tenfold upon a group of unquestionably evil men. And paid back it is: throats are slashed, heads are bludgeoned, wrists and arms are carved without mercy. However, the effect is in fact one of jarring tastelessness.
The issue at hand is thus: the impact of what we have earlier seen inflicted upon the women is immediately devalued by the use of this same violence to fulfil a standard horror clichÃ©: ˜victimised female enacting revenge upon her tormentors’. It feels disrespectful and crass that the graphic nature of what we have seen up to this point is revealed to be little more than a motivational tool for a revenge arc.There is the sense of the film-makers having their cake and eating it, by using the final third of the film as justification for the harrowing nature of what came before.
It doesn’t work in terms of the film’s internal logic, either, because the gritty realism has until this point given a sense of very real suffering and very real hopelessness. Yet we are expected to believe that suddenly this emaciated, traumatised young girl is capable of killing a squad of commandos on her own. Given the film’s previous reliance on no-holds barred realism, it seems a shame to see it veer off into the realms of action-hero implausibility. Indeed, the film’s shift into this generic clichÃ© is its weakest part. As Angel outwits and outfights the soldiers, the film lazily recycles the same frights and chase scenes we have seen in countless other efforts.
Tainted by association is the performance of lead actor Rosie Day, which is a true shame. Day is simply incredible as the worn-down Angel, and it feels like a disservice to her that The Seasoning House turns so generic in its final act. Given a role free of dialogue, she silently crafts a heartbreaking depiction of a child clinging on to any vague semblance of hope: her eyes alone tell more of Angel’s suffering than any of the shocks elsewhere in the film. Day seems destined for stardom and her performance is arguably the biggest highlight of the film. The same can’t really be said of Sean Pertwee, who seems horrendously miscast as the two-dimensional, dodgy-accented villain, Goran. The appearance of such a identifiably British actor, all puffed-cheeked and red-faced, feels distracting, adding to the sense that the film has missed a valuable opportunity to engage more closely with its setting. This is arguably indicative of the core issue at hand: that the The Seasoning House woefully misjudges its own exploration of a horrific and upsetting real-life practice.
While numerous fans of gore and torture-porn may still take great pleasure from the violent fates dished out to the male villains of The Seasoning House, the film’s harrowing first 45 minutes are devalued by the direction it ultimately decides to follow. It is hard to recommend a film that uses the explicit depiction of rape and torture as justification for a badly-plotted, clichÃ©d revenge thriller, and harder still to defend anyone who could gain any real pleasure from such a troubling, morally confused picture.