Wednesday 26 April 2023

Aaaaaaaah! (2015)

Director: Steve Oram
Writer: Steve Oram
Stars: Lucian Barrett, Lucy Honigman, Tom Meeten, Steve Oram, Sean Reynard, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Toyah Willcox

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

In many ways, Aaaaaaaah!, actor Steve Oram’s debut feature as a director, is just a soap opera, because all the characters are defined entirely through their relationships, which change considerably over the course of the picture. Denise lives at home with her mum, Barabara, who’s currently with Ryan, even though her ex, Jupiter, is still hanging around looking forlorn. Denise clearly hates Ryan and what passes for a home life that their family has, so acts up accordingly, drinking and shoplifting with her cousin, Helen. When a stranger named Smith shows up at a party that they’re hosting at their house, she hooks up with him prompting things to change. Smith and Ryan clash repeatedly, trawling in friends and family members to their fight until everything eventually settles down to a new normal. The good times are good and folk enjoy cooking or playing console games. The bad times are bad, deteriorating into violent arguments that leave nobody happy. This could be Eastenders or Coronation Street, right? But it isn’t. Oh no!

Oram’s soap opera world has one major difference to anything you’ll see on primetime television, perhaps best highlighted with a note that the film’s title is the most coherent line of dialogue anyone utters in 79 minutes of running time. These characters might look like regular human beings and they might live lives that oddly echo our own, but they’re not regular human beings. What they are, Oram refuses to explain, so we have no easy recourse to a virus or a chemical leak or an alien experiment to explain anything. Things just are and it falls to us to figure out what Oram is trying to do in this film with all his actors communicating only through animalistic grunts. It’s like the world as we know it simply changed one day when everyone woke up with the primal urges and low (comparatively) intelligence of a chimpanzee. They carry on regardless, being British, but just through routine, because any higher functions, such as speech, have been forever lost. Civilisation has fallen, even if nobody’s apparently acknowledged it yet.

For instance, when we first meet Denise and Ryan, erroneously assuming that they’re a couple because actor Julian Rhind-Tutt, of Stardust and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider fame, always looks at least a generation younger than he is, they’re dressed as you might expect and doing things you might expect: she’s sitting on a couch looking at the pictures in a magazine and he’s attempting to unpack his new big screen TV. Now, that magazine does feature adult body parts without ever seeming pornographic and she’s also scratching her fingernails on the wall, while he’s angrily throwing packaging around and grunting at her, but they’re trying to do what they’re supposed to do. Denise goes down to the kitchen, where her mum is watching a cooking show and trying to follow the instructions. Sure, the host has her breasts out and Barabara is slamming her meat against the door to tenderise it before loading the microwave, but they’re trying to do what they’re supposed to do as well. Even when they take a dump on the floor together, it’s on clingfilm.

But the peace doesn’t last. Everything becomes a battle for dominance. Ryan is the alpha male in this household and he expects that everything will go exactly the way he wants. Perhaps, even if it does, because food turns out looking far better than I ever expected it to, he has to play up to retain that alpha male status. So after abusing Og to finish setting up the TV and a console system for him, because, if he can’t do it himself, he can at least order it done, he throws his food about, pitching dessert at Barabara, who responds in kind and rampages around, breaking the console system that Og only just got working. And, if it’s odd to see Rhind-Tutt in a wild scene like this, it’s even odder to see Toyah Willcox. When I was a kid in thrall to Adam Ant, my sister was a diehard Toyah fan and I can see some of that punk and post-punk attitude here. After all, her most important early acting roles were in Derek Jarman films like Jubilee and The Tempest, as well as the Who’s Quadrophenia. This is, however, far beyond anything I ever thought I’d see her do.

Meanwhile, Smith is coming to town, in the form of writer/director Steve Oram, and he’s not messing around. The very first scene features Smith crying over and peeing on a photo of what we expect to be his ex-wife. We know that he’s another alpha and Keith is his beta male because, when he’s done, Keith wipes both Smith’s face and his fake cock and they wander off to the city so Smith can hump a tree. This film isn’t anywhere near as graphic as it could be, given what a summary of the action must read like, but it’s no Sunday afternoon movie for the family. For instance, when Smith and Keith make it into town, they pick on Og, whacking him with roadsigns, perhaps as a sign of dominance and perhaps just because he’s masturbating outside with a mouse. It’s that sort of movie. Do we side with Og, because he’s getting bullied in the street? Or do we side with Smith and Keith, because Og gets his jollies with a mouse? Really, we side with the mouse, because we have no doubt that he or she is the character we feel for the most in this movie.

I should emphasise at this point that I’m helping you out a great deal here, because Oram doesn’t want us to have any information to make assumptions from. Not only do these characters have no dialogue beyond grunts of varied emphasis, they only have names because I peeked at the credits. At no point during the film is Denise introduced as Denise or Smith as Smith and that makes a lot of sense. Without language, names are meaningless. Depending on the science behind how these people have devolved into apes, they would have to figure out another way to identify each other, like sniffing each other’s butts. Certainly, other behaviours we see are recognisable from our own pets and nature shows on television, because there’s a heck of a lot of territory marking going on at the party. How many people end up peeing on that fridge? It’s certainly not a good time for Ryan, the local alpha male, to be drunk out of his brain. Keith whips out his testicles and drops them onto Ryan’s unconscious head for a particularly memorable photo.

Needless to say, this is a highly polarising movie. Most people are going to hate it with an absolute passion. If they saw this at a film festival, they’d walk out in horror but still be talking about it when next year’s event comes round. The only recent movie I can put in that category is The Greasy Strangler, which also traumatised a lot of my fellow viewers when I saw it at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. However, this is also so original and unexpected that many called it their favourite film of whichever festival it decorated like the urine dripping down that fridge. It’s certainly not a film to easily forget, for good or bad, and art should always have an impact, whatever that impact might be. I kind of liked it, a transgressive soap opera that might well have started out life as a sort of visceral acting exercise. How do you get across your character and how do you interact with the others when none of you have the benefit of speech? My better half, on the other hand, was traumatised by it and wants it to vanish from her memory.

It’ll take a while to do that, but I wonder which part will hang around in her head the longest? It may well be Og whacking off with a mouse, because that’s something I never expected to see on screen and never expect to see again, but it’s hardly the only obvious candidate. Holli Dempsey makes quite an impact as Denise’s cousin, Helen, given that she’s not in the film for long but still manages to cram rather a lot into her screen time. When we first meet her, she’s on a park bench pouring vodka down her crotch to alleviate a case of VD. Then she takes Denise shoplifting and gets caught, which ends up with the pair of them in the shop’s basement, where the proprietor whacks off in front of them (onto a photo of Prince Harry) and Helen gives his assistant, in the recognisable form of Noel Fielding, a blowjob before biting off his pecker completely so they can abscond with the cashbox. Another strong candidate for most memorable scene comes late in the film, when they cook and eat Keith’s testicles in tribute, after he falls during the turf war.

Personally, the scenes that may stay with me longest are the ones that aren’t just outrageous in the context of the movie but extend way past it in surreal fashion. In another movie we might focus on the scene where Smith rips Ryan’s arm off in a fight and waves it over his head like he’s auditioning for the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. To me, though, the more outrageous scene has to be the one that immediately follows it, because of the way the film was shot: guerrilla style (ha) in South London over a two week period with minimal equipment. Smith, bleeding from the head, takes Denise home, now that his key rival has been eliminated, but he doesn’t leave Ryan’s arm behind. He takes it with him, even as they pass cyclists, joggers and other people who just happen to be out and about in south London on that day, perhaps unaware of the film being shot around them. He’s holding it when they stop at a shop on the way and as they pass a playground of a school in session, kids running around happily. And nobody says a word.

Then, of course, there’s the animated chicken, which plays a surprisingly pivotal part in proceedings. It’s badly animated and it’s as inane as anything I’ve ever seen, but it drives the end of the movie and really makes us think about how much of what we’ve seen is a reflection of the human condition. It seems weird to get deep and meaningful about a movie in which a character actually tries to paint a wall with the battenburg cake he uses as a safety blanket, but this is obvious social commentary. If everything boils down to what makes us happy, are the ape-like former people in this film happy and, if so, at what point? Are we happy and, if so, how close are we to doing exactly what the characters are doing in this film? I hope we’re not pissing on the fridge and cooking the testicles of our dead friends, but are we looking for happiness in the same big screen TVs, cheap shoplifting thrills or getting passed out drunk at our own parties? Is the animated chicken any more inane than Jersey Shore or Keeping Up with the Kardashians?

In its way, Aaaaaaaah!, perhaps the most aptly named film ever made, is also one of the cleverest. I have no idea how much budget Steve Oram had to play with (he surely had to replace that fridge), but there clearly wasn’t much of it. His actors threw themselves into their roles, regardless what outrageous tasks the next page of the script had in store for them. Apparently, that script did have actual dialogue and they rehearsed with that to get their characters down before replacing their lines with grunts during the actual shoot. The outrageous material guarantees press and ongoing conversation, but it’s not so outrageous that this can’t be watched by a wide audience. Sure, it’ll gross many of them out, but it’ll stick in their brains afterwards and prompt some of them to think about it a lot more than they ever expect to. All from a soap opera with no dialogue shot in two weeks in mostly natural lighting with a cheap camera (I don’t know what they used, but the aspect ratio is the 4:3 full frame of old television and videocassettes).

And I wonder how much of this just grew out of a basic idea and a bunch of mates. Oram had a decade and a half of features and TV shows behind him at this point, so had plenty of friends in the business to call when he decided to make a film of his own. I have no idea if Oram did any casting or whether he wrote this for specific friends and colleagues. Surely networking played a big part in the production process, as executive producers Pete Tombs and Ben Wheatley are well connected and well respected in British cinema circles. Also, the score is largely comprised of music from King Crimson ProjecKts albums, lending an oddly sophisticated veneer to a scatalogical story. This is arthouse cinema anyway, but it feels more arthouse because of that score and I’m sure the inclusion of a selection of ProjecKts songs came through Toyah Willcox being married to Robert Fripp. Somehow, the film feels even more offbeat for having a xylophone version of 21st Century Schizoid Man over the end credits. Nothing about Aaaaaaaah! is easy to forget.

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