Monday, April 08, 2024

All You Need is Death: Very Irish Folk Horror

There were a lot of Devil-themed Delta Blues songs, but Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress song-hunters never encountered anything as sinister as this Pagan Irish wail. It is not merely a relic of the “old ways.” It predates all forms of Irish language as we know it. Those who learned to sing it have sworn to preserve its secrecy, especially from mercenary song-hunters like Anna and Aleks, who desperately want to record it in director-screenwriter Paul Duane’s All You Need is Death, which releases Thursday in theaters and on VOD.

Anna and Aleks are not from around these parts. She is a Dubliner (as well as an Irish folk singer) and he is an unspecified Eastern European, who has come to Ireland to escape some vague, undefined trouble. Whatever it was, he probably should have stayed. In hopes of jump-starting their song-hunting venture, they attend a seminar given by Agnes, who lectures on ethnomusicology in the way some house-flippers can pontificate on real estate in airport hotel conference rooms.

They were hoping Agnes would help them follow-up a lead on the big one: a song so ancient it might even predate Paganism. Of course, Agnes tries to extract it from boozy Rita Concannon for herself, as the couple soon discovers when they walk in on the two together. However, the weird old crone is more receptive to Anna, but not Aleks. He must wait in the car, because of his chromosomes. Anna double-dog promises not to record Concannon’s eerie keening, but the elderly woman neglects to get similar assurances from Agnes.

For a while, the three agree to work together, but soon Agnes and Aleks take up together and cut out Anna. Instead, the spurned singer joins forces with Breezeblock Concannon, Rita’s son, a dodgy itinerant puppeteer, who assumes Agnes is responsible for his mother’s gruesome murder. Of course, viewers know it was really the primordial entity, who punished her for unwittingly breaking her pact. Through the power of the song, it is also changing Agnes and Aleks, in really nasty, body-horror ways.

As is often true for horror movies, Duane’s set-up is wonderfully atmospheric and powerfully unsettling, but the pay-off is disappointingly silly. In this case, the premise and first two acts are particularly intriguing and darkly suggestive, but the crash comes a little earlier than usual, with probably twenty minutes or so left to stagger through. Nevertheless, the good stuff up-front still more than compensates for the weak back-end.

In many ways,
AYNID represents another entry in the music-that-kills sub-sub-genre, following Dead Wax, Black Circle, and The Piper. However, Duane use of the Irish folk tradition makes it feel fresh and very much its own thing. This is a profoundly Irish horror film, even more so than movies like The Hallow, Unwelcome, The Hole in the Ground, or Cherry Tree.

As usual, Olwen Fouere is massively creepy as old Rita, while Nigel O’Neill is both scary and sad as her unfortunate son Breezeblock. However, nobody is more disturbing than Benedict Stewardson, who takes over the role of Aleks, in a Doug Jones-esque sort of way, when the song-hunter falls victim to the song’s supernatural body-horror.

Yet, what really makes the film work are Conor Rotherham’s aptly dark and evocative cinematography and the spooky old tunes that definitely sound like they harken back to ancient times. This is folk horror at its purest and most potent, at least until the third act collapses. It often happens in this genre, but it is still worth getting to that point in Duane’s film. Highly recommended for folk horror fans,
All You Need is Death releases this Thursday (4/11) in theaters and on VOD.