You might know Steve Oram from one or more of the surreal UK sketch shows or sitcoms he’s appeared in, and he was also one of the two leads in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, displaying a talent for deadpan comedy acting within a deliberately-awkward piece. He’s also the man behind Aaaaaaaah!, a surreal film that has divided audiences – well, if Letterboxd is anything to go by – and is destined to become a cult classic in the future. It’s set in an alternative modern version of Britain – one that resembles our own in many ways – in which humans behave like apes while still enjoying the same kind of communal urges and lifestyle many of us will recognise immediately: watching TV shows together, playing videogames, having kickabouts in the park, throwing parties, and so on. If the human-as-ape connection means the Planet Of The Apes series springs to mind I’m afraid you’re miles off; Aaaaaaaah! actually shares more common ground with Mike Judge’s dumb-baiting Idiocracy, or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, while an even closer cousin would be Claude Faraldo’s controversial 1970s film Themroc, in which a blue collar worker rebels against society and behaves like a caveman. Oram’s film shares Themroc‘s rejection of recognised language, too: it’s not clear whether these particular humans in this particular society are devolving rapidly or whether they’ve always been ape-like, but they communicate entirely through grunts, facial expressions, gestures and other body language, acting on primal urges with regard to sex and violence while still passing the time with TV cookery shows and the like. The strange thing is, thanks to the performances and the context, you can understand everything; the language has also developed a written form, a series of lines and circles that resembles Morse Code.
Oram plays Smith, who we first see wandering out of a forest with a friend in tow named Keith, played by Tom Meeten. Smith is clearly sad about something, and when we see him holding a picture of a woman we understand immediately that she must be a former wife or girlfriend; whether she has died or something else has happened is not made clear, but the two men perform a bizarre ritual and urinate on the photograph before moving on. The sequence is fairly shocking, especially when Keith wipes Smith’s penis clean afterwards, but this firmly establishes the standing of the two men: Smith is the alpha here, and his confident strut towards a nearby city confirms it, while Keith is almost like a manservant; the use of urine as a means of marking territory or claiming ownership of something is also key, and it happens again later on. The pair eventually arrive at a house where another alpha (Julian Rhind-Tutt) has already banished another male (Julian Barratt) into the back garden (where he covets, weirdly, a slab of battenburg cake). There are two women living in the house, played by Toyah Wilcox and Lucy Honigman, and the narrative is mainly about the relationships between all of these characters, with dominant males going up against each other and women also demonstrating their power over men (be that the physical act of biting the tip of a penis off, which happens at one point, or the ridiculing of one man during sex).
As you may have guessed, there’s a lot of shock value here, and Oram delights in grisly close-ups of cut-off appendages as well as the inclusion of supposedly-taboo sights, such as people defecating on the floor (though the poo in question drops into cling-film and is placed in the kitchen bin afterwards, which indicates that there are still rules regarding hygiene and what is/ what isn’t acceptable in this world). I won’t even begin to describe the fate of a photograph of Prince Harry, but it did make me laugh louder than anything else I’ve seen for a while. So I guess your acceptance of the film will probably depend on your tolerance for gross sights as much as any ability to roll with the utter weirdness of it all, but for what it’s worth I found it easier to watch than I was expecting, and it helps that the cast are all completely on board and manage to sell the concept and the acts performed as entirely natural. It’s also aided by the fact that Oram has created a world that is recognisable, but which still highlights the absurdities of our own modern society by exaggerating certain aspects to an extreme point. During one scene, for example, Wilcox’s character is watching and following a TV chef who is presenting a show with her breasts out; it’s obviously a joke at the expense of celebrity cooks like Nigella Lawson, who try and conjure up a sexy ambience to attract viewers and subsequently sell books, and although it’s a throwaway gag it illustrates the fact that plenty of thought has been put into the minutiae of this world. Later on a party takes place, and although it’s characterised by a lack of inhibition and extreme inebriation, it’s not a million miles away from the kind of thing that goes on up and down the land every weekend; as ever when humans and apes are compared on screen we’re reminded that we’re not so different from our simian cousins.
Oram’s film is very good at taking the mickey out of our modern penchant for TV-induced lifestyle improvement and rampant consumerism, but Aaaaaaaah! is at its best when it’s examining male and female relationships and behaviour; we see a housewife who is impressed by a plumber during one extremely comical flashback, while the various attempts by males to exert dominance over each other are equally amusing, if laden with cruelty and violence. The film manages to develop one or two relationships in an interesting fashion, so that they’re portrayed with tenderness and warmth. There are several touching moments here, especially so when the relationships in question are suddenly destroyed or capitulate, although any building sentimentality is harshly rubbed out by the film’s cold, gruesome ending. I’ve seen the criticism bandied around that it’s like watching a sketch from a show like Big Train that has been extended to the duration of a feature, but I didn’t feel bored by it at all, although it helped that Aaaaaaaah!‘s running time is a brisk 80 minutes. It’s the kind of film that people will either like very much, or leave unfinished, more likely than not because they’re disgusted; it’s anarchic, provocative and very, very odd, but as well as that it’s an excellent satire of contemporary British society and an amusing study of human nature. It’s also puerile at times, and that – combined with the fact it also resembles an improv or performance art piece – will inevitably put plenty of people off. I’m a fan, though, and I liked it because of its extremities and oddness. Not so much an outlier as a what-the-fuck?-lier.
Directed by: Steve Oram.
Written by: Steve Oram.
Starring: Steve Oram, Tom Meeten, Lucy Honigman, Toyah Wilcox, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Holli Dempsey, Julian Barratt.
Cinematography: Matthew Wicks.
Editing: Steve Oram.
Music: David Westlake, Robert Fripp.
Running Time: 79 minutes.