28th Aug2015

Frightfest 2015: ‘Aaaaaaaah!’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Steve Oram, Lucy Honigman, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Alice Lowe, Holli Dempsey, Julian Barratt, Toyah Wilcox, Noel Fielding, Tom Meeten | Written and Directed by Steve Oram

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Two men step over a fallen branch in a damp, overgrown wood. The larger of the two  stops to examine a framed picture of a woman in a wedding dress before the pair unzip their trousers and urinate on her image. Sufficiently drained, and with a look of utter seriousness on his face, the Beta pulls out a handkerchief and dabs the tip of his Alpha’s penis dry. Leaving the picture drowned in piss, they move out of the woods into a clearing and see South London open out before them. I should mention at this point that nary a word has been spoken between the pair at this point, and the rest of the film will not containing anything we would conventionally term dialogue.

Aaaaaaaah! is a film that defies easy categorisation, not to mention pronunciation. It is set in a fictionalised London that looks and operates much like the one we know – except all of its inhabitants communicate purely through animalistic grunting, whooping and mewling. Everyone understands each other (more or less) within the film but the audience is left to figure out the subtext through the actors’ onscreen actions, most of which are violent or hyper-masculine in nature.

I tell you all this because I don’t really want to talk about what happens in the film. It would serve little purpose to anyone who hasn’t experienced Aaaaaaaah! for themselves. The closest I can get to summarising its events would be: a broken family is torn apart and put back together again by a charismatic newcomer. Oh, and one of the Mighty Boosh guys gets his cock bitten off. But that misses the point, so to speak, because the crux of the movie, as with all stories worth telling, is not in what happens but how.

The cinematography takes a handheld, cinema-verite approach to proceedings that at first makes things feel like a David Attenborough nature documentary without the awed voiceover imposing anthropomorphic feeling to the peculiar actions of the beasts. Without such a device, the creatures onscreen seem more and more alien with each new disgusting, perverted or peculiar act. Clearly modelled on our ape cousins (the promotional material for the film shows men revealing themselves to be gorillas), the characters’ behaviour is a distorted, simplified version of human ritualism. A party scene at the house in which much of the drama unfolds sees a passed-out Alpha teabagged, drawn on with marker pen and then photographed, a puerile act that leads to one of the film’s most brutal and OTT climaxes (yes, there are a couple).

These rituals are simultaneously simplified and parodied, the ‘courtship’ sequence between our Alpha and his chosen Female given to ridiculous displays of commitment, suggesting that the hoops we jump through in the name of romance are both highly unnecessary yet essential to our nature. Writer-director-star Steve Oram’s general thesis seems to be that we can never escape both our primal desires and our contradictory need to overcomplicate things.

It’s a view that could be – and largely is – played for laughs, the heightened-yet-low behaviour a showcase for talented comic actors like Julian Rhind-Tutt, Julian Barratt and relative newcomer Lucy Honigman. But scenes tend to err on the long side, monkeying around often descending into mean-spirited bullying or macho standoffs. And if Aaaaaaaah! is directing its human-nature thesis anywhere, it’s mostly certainly towards the daft and terrifying issue of masculinity.

Characters are defined by their relationships to men: for the women, it’s their fathers, lovers and sons-in-law (as Toyah Wilcox’s pseudo-matriarch proves quite explicitly during an encounter with her daughter’s new beau). For the men, it’s having another male to look up to, fight and in some cases die for; traditionally male issues of castration, impotence and power are all touched upon in some gruesome form or other.

But does that mean it’s any good? Personally I found much to digest after the credits had rolled but the first half of the film somewhat tedious. Once the tone was established (and I realised that this was how it was going to be the whole way through), I allowed myself to fall into Aaaaaaaah!‘s rhythms and not consider the absurdity of a universe in which society hasn’t crumbled but all anyone does is eat, get drunk and masturbate in clothes shop basements. I’m not even sure I liked the film upon leaving the screening room, feeling that it was much too abrasive, its subtext too bald to really be taken seriously, but considering it weeks later I think that’s pretty obviously the point.

In the end, Aaaaaaaah! is basically review-proof; there’s no way to accurately recreate or dissect the film in a body of text. You’ll just have to see it for yourself, and I guarantee you won’t see anything as audacious or unique this year.

**** 4/5

Aaaaaaaah! has its UK premiere at London’s Film4 Frightfest on Friday 28th August at 6.35pm in Discovery Screen 1.

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