A uniquely Irish gnarly note in All You Need Is Death

Director: Paul Duane Starring: Simone Collins, Charlie Maher, Catherine Siggins, Nigel O’Neill, Olwen Fouere, Running Time: 97 minutes

Trad pubs become tourist traps to survive, bands affect D8 aesthetics to present a better post punk package – music like so much of modern Irish identity is up for sale to the highest bidder. Paul Duane’s folk horror All You Need Is Death makes these fears literal, following a couple who travel across the island to gather rare auld tunes and sell them off to the unknown and unscrupulous. Rarely however has the literal been so abstract, as it is in Duane’s ambitious, uneasy and exciting fiction debut. Running on a nightmare logic and a folk tale rhythm, All You Need Is Death plays an unusual tune but marches confidently to its beat.

An experienced documentarian, Duane has a great track record with films like Best Before Death or While You Live, Shine, delving into art and music’s intangibles, the power behind the sounds that creatives are compelled to create, cultivate and covet. To encroach on the rich history of artistry and expression with cynical or selfish desires is shown in this film to be akin to breaking a covenant, unleashing an ancient evil, and it’s a story Duane tells with an appropriately awed anxiety.

Musicologist bandits Anna (Simone Collins) and Aleks (Charlie Maher) have infiltrated the Irish folk scene to dig up rarer, more lucrative finds. The more authentic the music, the better the prize, and their lust to cash in on the unheard brings them to the door of ominous sean-nós singer Rita Colcannon. Played with grace, menace and a stiff physicality by Olwen Fouéré, Rita is reluctant to share a gift with those who might not appreciate or understand it. All the same her song is unleashed, trapping Sanna, Aleks and others in a cursed net. They best start believing in folk songs, they’re in one.

The film is uniquely Irish, soaked in dread but with a wry sense of humour about it. The violence and awful oddities that occur after the song is stolen are fitting and familiar for Irish myth and traditions, all spurned lovers and doomed fighters; as a result, the characters can actually let out a joke, or the audience can crack out a smile without cracking the tension. There’s none of the irony in the script that you occasionally see in low-budget horrors, more a rueful shake of the head that pairs with the atmosphere, doom to go with the gloom; sure what did they expect, sure they’re fucked now.

Drawing from the psychological twisting of J-Horror and the gothic dread of films from the silent era to the seventies, the film mixes these influences in with Irish fatalism and lyricism. The result leans towards uneven in the closing stretch, but its admirably ambitious, and always unsettling. It may occasionally strain against the limits of its budget, but still the committed cast and crew maximise the well-scouted locations and eery, uncanny special effects. Ireland’s past is shown in flickering memories less as a folkish postcard and more like a glimpse into the Lament Configuration. Aleks’ own hellbound heart leads him to some gruesome body horror. Anna is trapped in a bleak warehouse by a vengeful killer, whose tortured heart and drink-soaked breath recall some of Stephen King’s tragic brutes. A love for horror shines through and carries into an enthusiastic effort to make something new.

The music provided by Ian Lynch of Lankum is perfect for the film, and necessary – the scares in this story have to be at least partially aural. It taps into the unsettling undercurrent in folk music and brings it gushing to the surface, muddy, murky and murderous, it’s loud, imposing, unnerving and unique. In All You Need Is Death, Lynch, Duane and co have created a warning, the better to appreciate our musical traditions – who knows what evils we unleash in careless copying?

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

All You Need Is Death is in select cinemas from Friday April 19th.

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