Before the written word carried the words of the present into the future, the oral tradition was used to safeguard family and cultural histories. This method, though reliant on the memory of the custodian, still remains a valued part of various communities’ customs, treating the remembered word as more valuable and connected than anything marked on the page or recorded to tape. In his new project, filmmaker Paul Duane utilizes the power of oral tradition to create a folklore horror tale, All You Need is Death, making a clear statement on the power and necessity of maintaining the family chain of oral tradition. Premiering at Beyond Fest 2023, Duane’s film begins in avaristic curiosity and evolves into a violent morality lesson, yet by skipping over or ignoring threads of its own making, the thematic significance drops past the point of caring by the time of the evocative climax.
Anna and Aleks (Simone Collins and Charlie Maher, respectively) are event musicians whose side hustle is collecting rare folk songs and trying to sell them for profit. Their latest search introduces them to Rita Concannon (Olwen Fouéré) who only agrees to share her family tune as long as Anna promises not to record or keep the song to memory. However, Anna isn’t the only one to hear the song and, being far less ethical, doesn’t abide by Rita’s wishes, setting into motion events that may bring something forth what was meant to stay long hidden.
There are some really interesting ideas in Duane’s film that we’ll address first. On the whole, the film is about event preservation and the reliance on technology of any sort to maintain it as less powerful than memory. To start the film, Duane incorporates what seems like a police interview with a local folk singer as he’s asked about a fight at a bar. Switching between the interview, security footage, and the real-time event, the audience gets the sense that there are three versions of things — what the singer remembers, what the camera captures, and what happens. Given that the story emphasizes the power of oral storytelling, jumping between the three modes establishes that perspective is key and that not everything is at it may appear. Additionally, the inclusion of Catherine Siggins’s mysterious Agnes as the third player, the one who shakes up how our central couple functions, creates a sense of unpredictability, the proverbial fly in the ointment, which comes to represent the way in which modernity comes to view folk tales, folklore, and other cultural touchstones as things to be mined for financial gain versus respected for their historical or personal significance. Finally, there is the inclusion of Nigel O’Neill’s Breezeblock Concannon, Rita’s son, who not only serves as the familial tie, a harbinger of sorts once the initial betrayal occurs and the cost of breaking tradition begins, but also a means of providing answers where Anna could never have them. When these three aspects work in sync with one another, there’s proper tension and unease as the script, in proper horror fashion, brings forth a power that’s not meant to be here on the mortal plane.
However, the weaknesses present are too many to ignore, each one chipping away at all the good that exists in the project. That fantastic opening and the motif of using the three perspectives? All but cast aside after this, the relevance of the setup left hanging as though there was some point where the film might loop back but never does. If the opening is meant as a vehicle to explore oral tradition versus technological preservation, that it’s never explored again past “some things are not to be written down or recorded,” leaves one wondering why the technique was employed as a framing device in the first place. Later, when two characters are shown descending stairs, Duane seems to shift the appearance of the action from a standard shot of them taking each stair to a projection, suggestive of them being caught on camera and it being displayed somewhere, but it’s done and gone without a single word or notice. Then there’s the inclusion of the son, wonderfully brought to life by O’Neill, exuding fury and calm in equal measure, who serves little purpose as he was always kept in the dark as the song is passed through the women in the family. In this way, he’s little more than a means for the original throuple to maintain contact and to answer the barest of questions for Anna (and us), but never in a way that feels concrete or significant.
Lastly, the film itself can’t seem to clearly define set and action, using a great deal of hand-waving that requires the audience to go with things, rather than grounding them, even by inference, so that what occurs on screen makes sense. For instance, Breezeblock is introduced performing a puppet show while voices seem to shout at him to stop, yet we don’t know for whom he performs. Is the scene meant to create unease in his appearance into the story? If so, why does the character not struggle as he appears in this scene throughout the film? The script introduces Agnes in a very dramatic way, setting up her authority as an expert, but we don’t know of what or why Anna and Aleks seek her out. Is she a buyer, a collector, a consultant? These questions seem less important to the script than merely having a character for Anna to have conflict with. There are many elements of the film that are setup and left to die on the vine, as well as strange pronouncements like “they’re here,” suggestive of a search completed when the characters never went on a hunt. Whether this is due to scenes left on the cutting room floor or baked right out of the script as designed, these issues make engaging with Death difficult and frustrating as there’s a lot of interesting concepts that are raised.
Even with the things that bring the enjoyment to a jittering halt, there’s enough within All You Need is Death to carry an engaging conversation between those who enjoy it and those who couldn’t hit the vibe. One might wonder if making a film about the recording of oral traditions is, itself, breaking from the rules established to honor the old ways, thereby calling forth punishment on ourselves simply by observing it. Are we culpable if we didn’t do the recording? Are we somehow responsible and, therefore, subject to the same fate as these characters? As a cognitive exercise, it’s an intriguing challenge. If only the film were to measure up to the questions it inspires.
Screening during Beyond Fest 2023.
For more information, head to the official Beyond Fest 2023 All You Need is Death webpage.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.