Trying to strike a balance between fact-based atrocities and “fun horror escapism” can be a dicey proposition. A film really skirts the line on bad taste if it starts to exploit actual murders, rapes, and wartime atrocities in a framework that genre fans may also describe as energetic, kinetic, and entertaining. Tons of horror films, for example, claim to be based on Ed Gein, and while some actually are, most are not. It’s just a nasty little marketing trick that seems to work more often than not.
The Seasoning House, a stark and ferocious new revenge thriller from the UK, borrows its central idea from several well-documented war crimes, and it delves powerfully deep into the basest of evil ideas, but it also manages to work as a grim and exciting horror tale in its own right. Credit to first-time director Paul Hyett, his small team of screenwriters, and cinematographer Adam Etherington for mounting a genre film that’s both unflinching and compelling, but also speaks loudly and clearly (and angrily) about the darkest parts of moral bankruptcy. The Seasoning House frequently seems to take some of its inspiration from Eli Roth’s Hostel flicks, and I mean that in a good way.
The setting is the Balkans in 1996. Several teenage girls have been abducted and forced to work in a nightmarish brothel. Most of the young women are used for sex, obviously, but one particular girl, one who is both mute and “cursed” with a large birthmark on her face, is allowed to work as a maid/nurse: the small and silent “Angel” tends to the wounds of the numerous rape victims, she applies the drugs that keep the prisoners at least slightly oblivious, and she (most importantly) knows how to travel through the massive, hellish house by way of numerous air ducts and hidden wall passages.
Almost unremittingly bleak for its first act, with only a few stray moments of humanity between Angel and her doomed friends, The Seasoning House is horrifying simply for its portrayal of an all-too-real atrocity we’d love to pretend is fiction -- but when the platoon that murdered Angel’s family stops by, The Seasoning House goes from stark, sober horror to expeditious revenge thriller without missing a beat. Some will see a grungy drama that quickly switches gears into chase, escape, murder territory. Others will see a basic-yet-smart layer of subtext that says “you can only abuse something for so long before it strikes back and tries to kill you.” I side with the latter interpretation: The Seasoning House is an honestly brutal genre film that doesn’t flinch from horrible deaths and violations of the worst kind. We “root” for Angel not only because, yes, revenge is sweet, but also because we need to see a small spark of humanity escape from one of hell’s most vile pits.
Rosie Day, as Angel, is simply fantastic here. The role calls for a mute girl who can express painful things, can leap into air vents and under houses with speed and silence, and can (believably) fight back against some of the scummiest monsters ever born. The actors tasked with portraying the soulless men do fine work as well, and it’s never bad news when Sean Pertwee is on hand as lead villain. The man’s performance gets more maniacal every time Angel pulls off another trick, and his villainy adds some color to a remarkably unpleasant premise.
Designer of special effects on dozens of movies, Hyett makes several strong decisions in his directorial debut. The gore effects are realistic, shocking, and suitably gross; the cinematography is particularly strong, with lighting placed cleverly and cameras tucked into simple but clever places; the score adds a lot, especially when the movie picks up pace in its second half; and there’s a clear intent to deliver a horror film that’s both aggressively entertaining and socially insightful in some small, smart, audacious way.