It may be filmed in the Academy ratio, but Steve Oram’s low-budget feature debut “Aaaaaaaah!” could hardly be considered a nod to classic Hollywood. Rather, the 4:3 frame indicates something more primal, evoking the so-called “video nasties” (a wave of mostly cheap horror films banned on VHS in the U.K. in the 1980s, following a wave of moral panic over the perceived degeneration in values these films would cause when made available for home viewing). “Aaaaaaaah!” is set in exactly the kind of world Mary Whitehouse feared, and functions as a kind of loving Swiftian satire on the more brutish aspects of modern life. Though it’s at once too subtle and too extreme to attract a broad audience, those who get something out of gross-out humor, silent film and British comedy will treasure “Aaaaaaaah!” as a rare cult gem.
“Aaaaaaaah!” opens as Smith (Oram, who wrote, directed, produced, starred and edited the film) and Keith (Tom Meeten) pause on a journey through an English wood. Keith grooms Smith a little, then a strange little ceremony mourning the passing of Smith’s presumed mate is enacted. Her photograph is urinated on before, ritual duly observed, the pair pass on to conquer new territory, somewhere in a vast suburban sprawl on the horizon. An intense score (from King Crimson ProjeKcts with contributions by Dave Westlake) lets the audience know, not for the last time, that there is trouble ahead.
Although most characters in the film are dressed roughly how we expect humans to dress, everybody behaves like human/simian hybrids. A la French cult classic “Themroc,” not one word of any recognizable language is spoken through the modest 79-minute runtime and there are no subtitles. The fact that viewers can nevertheless comprehend probably 95% of what is said from a mixture of context, body language and facial expression proves the uncomfortable point that Oram is making about our proximity to the rest of the primates.
Matthew Wicks’ camera thoroughly colludes in this idea, borrowing a visual grammar established by nature documentaries to shoot the extremely game cast (including singer Toyah Willcox) in the same way a David Attenborough show might present the great apes in their natural habitat. Closeups at moments of high tension within the social pecking order are particularly successful, as Oram and Julian Barratt’s gift for uninhibited non-verbal performance translates especially well onscreen.
Media within the world of “Aaaaaaaah!” is also subjected to a mischievous form of reductio ad absurdum, whereby the basic tropes of recognizable forms of popular entertainment are amplified until they are revealed in their true ridiculous light. A cooking program, for example, is hosted by a presenter whose bare breasts hang outside of her top as she cooks, the logical extreme of the seductive mode of culinary tuition purveyed by sexy chefs like the U.K.’s Nigella Lawson. “Aaaaaaaah!” shares cinematic DNA with Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” which imagined the hit movie “Ass” winning eight Academy Awards.
There’s something both terrifying and satisfying about seeing human contrivances and customs rendered so completely transparent in their endless artifice and essentially arbitrary nature. In other more cautiously intellectual modes of cinema, it could all end up coming off as unbearably pretentious, but there’s an earthiness here that cannot be ignored. Taking the same approach as Jonathan Swift in his legendary “A Modest Proposal,” Oram leavens his satire with liberal helpings of gross-out that threaten to mask the critical intent. Arms are ripped off, genitals bitten through, kitchen floors defecated onto, urine sprinkled liberally and sleeping faces tea-bagged at will. This isn’t a polite send-up, and is all the better for it.
As will be clear from the preceding descriptions, “Aaaaaaaah!” is far from a multiplex proposition and indeed has a very specific audience in mind: those with an appetite for somewhat abstract and otherworldly art-house satire combined with midnight movie scatological humor and gore. In other words, if your DVD collection makes room for the work of both Luis Buñuel and Troma Entertainment, you’ll want to track it down (while its title offers obvious alphabetical advantages when it comes to VOD listings). Genre fests and home entertainment are this strange beast’s natural habitat.