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All You Need Is Death review: Singular Irish horror is a symphony of weirdness

In Paul Duane’s film, the growing sense of being lost in a Celtic variation on Hieronymus Bosch is stirring in the most creatively disagreeable way

All You Need Is Death
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Director: Paul Duane
Cert: 16
Starring: Simone Collins, Charlie Maher, Olwen Fouéré, Barry McKiernan, Nigel O'Neill, Catherine Siggins, Barry Gleeson, Vinny Murphy
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins

This singular Irish horror feels unearthed from the wettest bit of the oldest bog (by, perhaps, immortal crones in feeble winter light), but it also gets at a very contemporary understanding of the native culture. It matters that Ian Lynch, founder member of Lankum, has written the more than usually significant score. All You Need Is Death joins that band in winding the macabre into retoolings of ancient shapes and shadows. This stuff was always there in folk art. But it is increasingly being dragged downstage.

The picture is the belated dramatic feature debut of an experienced Irish professional. On top of a busy career in documentary and episodic TV, Paul Duane has long been a hungry cinephile. We should not, therefore, be surprised to detect shades of Asian and continental shockers throughout his symphony of weirdness. The overused phrase “folk horror” will, understandably, be flung its way, but the film has little in common with the British work that inspired that coinage. It is messier, murkier and more at home to postcolonial confusions.

At its heart is a horror staple: possessed cultural content. It was a book in The Evil Dead. It was a videotape in Ringu. Here it is a prehistoric song. Anna (Simone Collins) and Aleks (Charlie Maher) play researchers wandering Ireland in search of forgotten folk tunes. For a minute or two we could reasonably see them as successors to the great US folklorist Alan Lomax – capturing music of the earth before it’s lost – but a mysterious meeting in a car park suggests they are caught up in some more sinister conspiracy.

They are not always honest about what they are recording and what they are not. Conversations with one older singer (Barry Gleeson, brother of Brendan) send them to the Border counties in search of a woman, initially rumoured dead, who knows (or knew) a song of particular rarity. Olwen Fouéré is an actor of great versatility, but she will forgive us for noting that, when the apparently demented warbler emerges from a cupboard near Crossmaglen, it is no surprise to see that veteran’s characterful face. The song concerns a king who, betrayed romantically by a poor woman, wishes all colours of damnation on her and her descendants. “Love is a knife with a blade for a handle,” we learn.


There is a sense here of a journey into the chaotic whorl. The opening half-hour or so is reasonably lucid. We have some idea what the two leads are after. Catherine Siggins is on good, equivocal form as a collaborator with a puzzling agenda, but the movement is, nonetheless, reasonably linear. In the second half, echoing much Japanese and Korean horror, order is less easy to establish. The loosing of the tune – delivered in a historically correct version of Old Irish – unleashes forces that pitch the characters on the edge of various abysses. A haunted and isolated Aleks, who speaks in the east European timbre that Dwight Frye used in classic Universal horror, becomes overtaken by forces that morph appearance and gender. Anna finds unlikely allies in the search for her old colleague.

Some viewers will, no doubt, find the derangement a tad frustrating. Not all of the performances are attuned to the skewed tone. But the growing sense of being lost in a Celtic variation on Hieronymus Bosch is stirring in the most creatively disagreeable fashion. All You Need Is Death, craggy and rough-edged, may be in constant conversation with the distant past, but it also puts up signposts to the future for Irish horror cinema. It’s about time somebody found a name for this artistic movement (if it is yet that).

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

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist