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Aaaaaaaah!

D: Steve Oram / 79m

Cast: Steve Oram, Lucy Honigman, Toyah Willcox, Tom Meeten, Sean Reynard, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Julian Barratt, Holli Dempsey, Noel Fielding

If you’re familiar with Steve Oram, then you’ll know that he’s an actor/comedian who has popped up in a wide variety of UK TV comedies – Tittybangbang (2006-07), Heading Out (2013) and a slew of others – and that he was also responsible for the quirky Sightseers (2012). He’s always provided a somewhat skewed approach to the material he’s created himself, often coming up with characters who seem removed from daily life, and who don’t always see things in the same way that “normal” folk do. But with Aaaaaaaah!, he’s taken that removal and come up with something that’s both original and challenging.

What Oram has done is base Aaaaaaaah! on a simple premise: what if Man had involved in terms of walking upright and creating a civilisation we can all recognise, but in the process, retained the behaviours, instincts and language of the primates we’ve “evolved” from? The result is fascinating to watch, but it needs to be said at the outset: this is not a movie that everyone will either “get” or like. It’s absurdist, has obviously been shot on a very low budget, doesn’t really contain any jokes (though it is very funny), and features a game cast who are asked to behave in ways that you won’t have seen in a Planet of the Apes movie.

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The first scene acts as a kind of litmus test for the rest of the movie, and many viewers may well decide that if what happens is an indication of what’s to come, then they’ll be better off watching something else. We see two men – Smith (Oram) and Keith (Meeten) – making their way through a wooded area until they come to a stop by a fallen tree. There they pause, and while Smith sits on the fallen tree, Keith wordlessly massages Smith’s thighs. Then Smith takes a framed picture out of a pocket and begins crying. Keith clears a space on the ground and Smith gently places the picture there. While Smith continues to cry, Keith unzips his fly and urinates on the picture. Once he’s done, Smith urinates on it as well, but before he zips back up, Keith dabs away any remaining urine from the end of Smith’s penis (and in close up).

If you’re put off by this, and do decide to stop and watch something else, then you’ll already be missing the point, and you’ll be missing out on a movie that really does provide the viewer with something they won’t have seen before. Keith’s actions are completely in keeping with grooming in male primate groups, and this is what the movie is about, seeing our notions of civilised behaviour undermined by the rudimentary behaviour of our primate ancestors. From Smith and Keith we move on to meet Denise (Honigman), her mother Barabara (Willcox), older brother Og (Reynard), and Ryan (Rhind-Tutt), who has ousted Denise’s father Jupiter (Barratt) as the household’s alpha male (Jupiter now sleeps against the fence at the side of the house). Here we get to see how this family lives and copes with each other, both in terms of human ambition – we first see Ryan trying to set up a new flatscreen TV – and primate-based emotions.

An argument over food between Ryan and Barabara leads to a one-sided food fight, and Denise leaves the house. She meets Helen (Dempsey) in a park and they decide to go and do some shoplifting. Caught by the manager and his deputy (Fielding), they only escape thanks to an injudicious desire for sex on Fielding’s part. Back home, a party is in full swing, one that’s soon attended by Smith and Keith. Smith marks his territory and mates with Denise before taking her with him when he leaves. This angers Og who tells Ryan later the next day. Together they track down Smith and Denise (and Keith) and there is a violent showdown that sees Keith stabbed by Og. Smith takes his revenge on both men and returns to Denise’s home, where he discovers Jupiter’s presence and welcomes him back into the house. Which doesn’t prove to be the best of ideas…

Aaaaaaaah!

For anyone willing to go with the flow and the strange depth of Oram’s research, Aaaaaaaah! is a heady mix of animal hysterics, vicious behaviour, cruel sight gags, highly attuned emotions such as jealousy and anger, and all couched in the kind of visual stylings that are reminiscent of British short comedies made in the Seventies (and which also had little or no dialogue). Oram has made a clever, stinging comedy that is also unexpectedly witty and engaging, full of pathos, and which doesn’t short change the viewer in terms of its storyline. If some of the behaviours displayed in the movie seem a little too extreme, or even weird, then again, Oram has done his homework, and there’s nothing that doesn’t happen in the same or similar way amongst our primate cousins.

The cast are all put through their paces, the demands of Oram’s script leading to darker moments that include physical and sexual abuse, murder, and unacceptable cruelty to humans (though Oram does stop at having any of his cast flinging faeces around). What’s illuminating is that none of this is unusual amongst apes, but appears absolutely horrifying when carried out by humans (it really is a different world). Honigman fares best, but spare a thought for a game Willcox, who really does get the worst of the food fight scene (though you might think that what touches Rhind-Tutt’s forehead while he’s passed out is worse).

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To add to the sense of disorientation that viewers are likely to feel, Oram has employed a ragged, disjointed style of filming that offers odd angles and off-kilter framing, and has overlaid it with an unsettling score provided largely by Robert Fripp of King Crimson (and also Willcox’s husband). It all adds to a bravura piece of movie making that is more of a triumph than perhaps anyone had a right to expect – and that may just include its creator.

Rating: 8/10 – not for all tastes, and likely to alienate more viewers than are likely to be embraced in its inherently savage bosom, Aaaaaaaah! is a slice of natural history gone horribly wrong; subversive and strange, and at times very uncomfortable to watch, this is still incredibly funny amidst all the “madness” and chaos, and easily one of the more inventive movies made in recent years.

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