Director – Paul Hyett, Screenplay – Paul Hyett, Conal Palmer & Adrian Riglesford, Original Idea – Helen Solomon, Producer – Michael Riley, Photography – Adam Etherington, Music – Paul E. Francis, Visual Effects – Filmgate (Supervisor – Sean Wheelan), Special Effects Supervisor – Matthew Strange, Prosthetics Supervisor – Conal Palmer, Production Design – Caroline Story. Production Company – Sterling Pictures/Templeheart Films/Filmgate Films
Rosie Day (Angel), Kevin Howarth (Viktor), Sean Pertwee (Goran), Dominique Provost-Chalkley (Vanya), Anna Walton (Violeta), Tomi May (Aleksander), Alec Utgoff (Josif), Ryan Oliva (Ivan), Daniel Vivian (Radovan), James Bartlett (Marko), David Lemberg (Dimitri), Philip Anthony (Dr Andre), Jemma Powell (Alexa)
The Balkans, 1996. During the midst of the civil war, Angel saw her mother shot by soldiers. She was rounded up along with other girls to be taken and used as sex slaves at a prostitution house. Because she is mute and has a disfiguring facial birthmark, Angel was spared the fate of the other girls. She becomes the favourite of the house’s head Viktor and is given the task of tending the other girls where they are tied to their beds, injecting them with the heroin that pacifies them. She is witness to the many brutal ways the girls are treated by men. Slipping through the spaces in the walls by night, she befriends Vanya, one of the girls who is able to speak in sign language. The house is then visited by the same group of soldiers that abducted Angel and killed her mother. In trying to stop one of the men brutalising Vanya, Angel decides to take a horrible revenge.
The Seasoning House was a debut feature for British director Paul Hyett. Hyett is better known as a makeup effects artist and has a respectable number of credits on films going back to the 1990s that include the likes of The Descent (2005), Doomsday (2008), Mutant Chronicles (2008), Harry Brown (2009), Heartless (2009), Attack the Block (2011) and The Woman in Black (2012), among others.
For some time, I was not even sure if I was going to review The Seasoning House as a horror film. What it gives the impression of being is a strong, socially conscious film that sets out to document the grim world of East European sex slavery. This is an issue that has gained a good deal of notice in the real world media since the 1990s, particularly stories of girls abducted in Eastern Europe and trafficked to England and other destinations to be held prisoner and forced to work in brothels. One suspects that the alarmism about this may well prove to be considerably out of proportion to the actual number of recorded busts by police and/or immigration, nevertheless it is a real phenomenon.
Paul Hyett captures your attention from the opening scenes where the girls are rounded up and brought to the house where Kevin Howarth stands before them and casually slits one girl’s throat with a knife as demonstration. In the next scenes, we see Rosie Day doing her rounds, tending to each of the girls as they lie bound to their beds and giving them their daily dose of heroin. It is in these scenes that the film shows its promise, of depicting its world with casually disturbing effect. On the other hand, after starting well here, The Seasoning House starts to lose one’s interest. As the film progresses, Paul Hyett does little to illuminate the material. This is the sort of topic that could have made for an incredibly raw and brutal film. Only Hyett simply seems to be searching for everybody else’s dramatic cues and tepidly borrowing them. Scene and scene again you feel like he could have gone for gutsy, naked, brutal impact but instead he simply delivers things about the same level as a standard tv director shooting everything on a quick turnaround schedule.
Where you feel that The Seasoning House starts to come to life is precisely the point that Paul Hyett stops trying to make a socially conscious drama about the lives of sex slaves and starts getting his teeth into what clearly interests him – making a horror film/thriller. There is a reasonably strong sequence with Rosie Day fighting off and stabbing Tomi May as he brutalises Dominique Provost-Chalkley. Hyett’s emphasis in the sequence shows where his real interest lies – the tough and brutal fight between a young girl and a naked, well-muscled man. Crucially, any dwelling on the effect of Rosie Day seeing her best friend being killed is regarded as irrelevant. Thereafter the film works as a modestly effective thriller with Rosie Day scuttling through the wainscoting of the house, emerging to attack the soldiers and fleeing before they can retaliate. Here Hyett forgets about trying to say something meaningful, that The Seasoning House is trying to be a socially conscious drama, and determines to get his hands dirty – at which you feel he is at least making a more honest film, the one he seems to have wanted to deliver all along.
On the other hand, what we do end up with is a film that starts off trying to examine a serious and troubling issue and then moves over to show that all along it has been wanting to be an imprisonment and brutality thriller along the lines of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Broken (2006). In particular, the film works in ways that are not too different to I Spit on Your Grave (1978) – in making us horrified at seeing a girl brutalised and then taking great relish in cheering her on as she exacts a savage revenge against the men. Certainly, the place the film ends up at is not the same one it began. Not to mention that moving from social consciousness to brutality as entertainment does seem to send an extremely morally mixed message.
Paul Hyett next went on to make the much better werewolf film Howl (2015) and the horror films The Convent (2018) and Peripheral (2018).