Now and again I come across a movie that is so unpleasant, so disturbing and unsettling that there’s no way I can actually “like” the film in the traditional sense. I can appreciate its power and rawness, but watching it is a strictly one-time endurance test. I was pretty sure The Seasoning House would be one of those movies, and for the first half, it was.
The Seasoning House tells the story of a deaf and mute girl, probably in her mid-to-late teens, whose town is raided by the military (set in the Balkans, though everyone speaks English), whose neighbors are slaughtered in the street, and whose mother is killed in front of her. She is kidnapped along with five other girls and taken to a brothel to service the soldiers. Except she doesn’t end up like the others, chained to a bed and pumped full of dope to make them docile for their rapists. She has a large birthmark on her face, which the owner of the house uses as an excuse to keep her for himself. She can’t tell him her name, so he names her Angel, and her job is to service only him, and to prepare the girls for customers. While horrible, the job is easy at first because she can’t hear the girls pleading for help. She avoids looking at their faces and instead focuses on finding a vein to inject with heroin. Eventually she does have to look at their faces, as she crudely applies make-up to their eyelids and lips. Then she empties their piss buckets and moves on the the next girl. While the work is a soul-eroding business, she numbs herself and gets through it for her own survival. Until she comes across a girl who knows sign language...
The violence is graphic, the special effects top-notch, and the acting very believable. It all adds up to an extremely hard to watch and sobering experience as your mind tries to fathom that this kind of thing is happening right now, all over the world. I read the other day that there are more slaves in the world right now than there were at the height of the American slave trade. That to me is more disturbing than any number of school shootings and even genocides that make huge headlines. It is that reality behind the story that gives The Seasoning House its initial power. It is a nightmare scenario, but a living, waking nightmare that thousands of people are being subjected to daily. And it’s merciless. The girls aren’t taken care of. They’re fed and sponged off, their wounds are treated when the soldiers beat them bloody, but they’re never getting away. They will simply be used until they die. The Seasoning House captures that reality, shows it to you in graphic detail, and then somehow becomes simultaneously less and more disturbing.
Angel becomes friends with the signing girl, sneaking into her room through the ventilation and sharing her stash of chocolate. But she also bears witness when the girl is raped so violently that it breaks her pelvis. While the girl is still healing from her injury, a group of soldiers comes to the house which just so happens to be the group that raided her neighborhood. The hugest, scariest-looking Serb to ever live then gets his turn with Angel’s friend, and he also beats her brutally, choking her while he goes at her. Meanwhile, Angel is in the vent, watching. It is clear he is going to kill her, so Angel sneaks out of the vent and stabs him with a stashed kitchen knife. The murder is long and bloody, but emotionally satisfying for the viewer, who want nothing more than to see these men pay for their crimes. And then the movie gives you exactly what you want, or thought you wanted. The film then becomes a cat and mouse game with Angel sneaking through the walls and crawlspaces while 5 heavily armed military men give chase. It’s not like she becomes a total badass though; she fumbles her way through the escape relying on luck at least as much as cunning.
When I say the second half of the movie is both less and more disturbing than the first half, I mean that by morphing into a more conventional thriller, the film becomes a less excruciating experience for the audience, but more troubling in terms of its ultimate goal. Technically, this half of the film is very well-executed. It’s scary, tense, and exciting. The events of the escape twist and turn at a breakneck pace, and in the end, she gets revenge on her captors. All is well, right?
Except that suddenly The Seasoning House becomes an entertainment. It’s giving the audience what it wants, but when you get it, you find it leaves a very bad taste in your mouth. By falling back on the conventional horror/thriller techniques, it somehow cheapens everything that came before. At this point, the violence becomes almost pornographic in its detail. Heads are bashed in, one character is repeatedly shot in the face, all while the camera unflinchingly rolls. And the gore effects are brilliant, by the way. The director, Paul Hyett, has an impressive pedigree in make-up and special effects, and it shows. But I get the feeling that as a first-time director, he got a little too caught up in making awesome special effects and lost sight of the impact of a well-timed cut-away.
The final insult of the film is the now-obligatory fake happy ending where the protagonist seems to have escaped danger, but the film clues the audience in to a detail showing that they are, indeed, doomed. It’s a well-worn cliche, and to see it tacked on to the end of a film that began with such originality is tantamount to the director breaking into your bedroom, sitting on your sleeping head, and farting directly into your ear. Okay, I’m bad with similes.
In the end, it feels like all the misery and soul-crushing horror of the first half was played merely for shock value, making the film less a social statement on the horrors of human trafficking and more of a pure exploitation film. And it feels very, very disrespectful of the real life victims.
I realize I probably sound pretty hypocritical, or at least inconsistent. After all, basically all the movies I enjoy exploit human misery for entertainment value. That’s what horror is (that’s not all it is, but it’s one aspect). But everyone has their boundaries, and this movie definitely crosses mine. If nothing else, The Seasoning House is a missed opportunity to create a powerful, meaningful film about a timely, important subject. And it all got thrown away for a crowd-pleasing ending.