Director: Sam Ashurst
Writers: Sam Ashurst, Harley Dee, Sean Mahoney
Cast: Harley Dee, Sam Ashurst, Sean Mahoney
Producer: Harley Dee
Composer: Sam Ashurst
Cinematographers: Harley Dee, Sean Mahoney, Sam Ashurst
Editor: Sam Ashurst
Running time: 98mins
What’s the story: During lockdown, filmmaker Sam (Ashurst) remote directs a follow-up to his previous movie, A Little More Flesh. Despite actors Harley (Dee) and Sean (Mahoney) shooting their own footage, Sam exerts a troubling level of control.
What’s the verdict: Sam Ashurst seems to be quietly establishing an umbrella brand for his fiendishly clever, and often plain fiendish slices of horror cinema. His latest film may be titled A Little More Flesh II, but, American Horror Story-style, its new plot and characters mean knowledge of the previous instalment is not essential.
Ashurst wryly establishes this early on, when A Little More Flesh star Elf Lyons tells the director where to go when he suggests they re-team for a sequel. This is merely the beginning of a meta-narrative that continues themes of filmmaking control and coercion held over from the first film, blurring the lines of factual autobiography and dark fiction. Imagine if J.G. Ballard had taken a stab at writing Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip.
In 2020’s A Little More Flesh, Ashurst voiced a self-important director named Stanley Durall, who, over the course of an audio commentary for a film he made long ago, reveals himself to be blithely monstrous. For this follow-up Ashurst plays a similarly unnerving tyrant. But in using his own name and playing a version of himself on Zoom and in phone calls with his cast, he adds a further disquieting frisson to this exploration of male entitlement, deception and abuse in the name of “creating art.”
Beginning breezily enough, in voiceover we hear Ashurst explain the film to his players, the two actors also performing versions of themselves. Each week, Harley and Sean will provide ten minutes of footage and a monologue that the director will then shape into a story. The title and concept they are working to is ‘Stalker’, a nod to Andrei Tarkovsky, a filmmaker the real-life Ashurst admires. Yet, this title also invokes the kind of grindhouse horror Ashurst often discusses on the Arrow Video podcast.
Delving too deep into the plot would spoil the many surprises, the first arriving at just the point when audiences may start to get fidgety. Made during lockdown, this is inevitably a more contained movie than A Little More Flesh, but as inventive. Per his previous films, the director complements and contrasts sound and image in dazzling fashion, reframing what has gone before when disturbing new information is casually dropped in. But, Ashurst ups his visual game, presenting the film as a triptych shot on phones and set to a score that is panic made music.
The director is also confident in using negative space as the film takes darker turns, reducing the number of images onscreen to a single shot, captured within a large black border. Social distancing and lockdown offer little security, as one actor has their naivete weaponised against them and they become complicit in their own terrorisation.
“It’s gonna be a weird art film,” Ashurst tells his cast early on, and he is not lying. Continuing a passion for protracted single take shots, he includes an extraordinary thirteen minute sequence, fixing on a genuinely disturbing image of abasement, riffing on notions of identity in a world of OnlyFans and custom porn videos.
Mahoney is good in the smaller role of someone who unwittingly becomes a sorely required voice of conscience. Actor/producer Dee does the emotional heavy lifting as an actor trapped in the nightmare of realising one man’s personal vision. Naturalistic and affecting, she brings genuine heartbreak to the film’s later scenes.
Keeping all this from tumbling into misery-porn or indulgent self-regard is a line of sharp humour that cuts through the movie. Laugh-out-loud funny, Ashurst’s flair for the comedy of awkwardness keeps the guffaws coming. Even if few directors can freeze a laugh in the throat as quickly… A coda provides an ironic comment on the film’s themes, but may also have been inserted to lighten a grim climax. Whether it is required is up for debate, but it allows audiences to leave on a chuckle.
Film buffs will pick up on sardonic in-jokes. Ashurst and Harley share a fondness for Buffalo 66, another film in which the director/star had a fractious relationship with his leading lady. The Russian doll meta-reality of this film’s relationship to the first instalment is reminiscent of The Human Centipede series, something acknowledged via a cameo appearance here.
Like the work of Ashurst’s beloved Tarkovsky, this is decidedly not for everyone. But, with a genuine style that belies his (ultra) low budgets, the director is a punk provocateur to champion. Most lockdown horror movies will ride the zeitgeist coattails of Rob Savage’s Host. A Little More Flesh II proves there is other meat to chew on.