All You Need is Death Movie Review | Utterly Unique and Unsettling Irish Folk Horror

Now, this reviewer has to admit. I have been waiting for this film for a long time. I’ve known the director, veteran documentarist/TV director Paul Duane (making his feature film debut) since I was a teenager, and because we’re in the same circles, and so on, I’ve been privy to this film and its influences, since its production. And so I have been cautiously optimistic.

All You Need is Death is obviously low-budget, basically self-funded and self-originated from Duane, and it is a passion project (derived somewhat from his research on the documentary While You Live, Shine (2018)). But it comes with a cracking idea, and is clearly done with love, and the more it goes on, the more inventive and striking it becomes.

After footage of a bar-room fight and a police witness video (including voice-over cameo by the director), we meet our heroes. Orphan wedding singer Anna (Simone Collins) and her speech-impeded Eastern European boyfriend Aleks (Charlie Maher) are a young couple who are collectors of folk songs, who roam Ireland paying people off who know old songs, recording them and then selling the recordings off to mysterious collectors, in a world where folk song collectors are as common and central to the world as assassins are in the John Wick universe. After recording a flat-capped duffer (Barry Gleeson, brother of Brendan) folk-singing an obscure ditty sung by his father, they are recommended a woman named Concannon. But first, their tape is rejected by a mysterious wheelchair-bound American (former No Wave associate/East Village art legend David McDermott of McDermott and McGough). After this rejection, they perform their songs to the mysterious, coolly sinister Agnes (Catherine Siggins), and then tell her about ‘Colcannon from Cross’. Agnes informs them that the woman they are looking for is Maggie Concannon from  Crossmaglen, and that she is dead.

But nevertheless the couple go on a roadtrip to Ulster, believing that the woman the old man talked of was a daughter of Maggie. There, they meet a man who leads them to Rita (Olwen Fouere), the said daughter, a drunk has-been, and her violent puppeteer son Breezeblock (Nigel O’Neill). When they arrive, they are met by Agnes while Rita stands in a wardrobe (where she prefers to conduct her interviews). Nevertheless, Rita agrees to sing ‘Love is a Knife’, a demented cry in a pre-Irish ancient language passed down from daughter to daughter for centuries, that Rita tells us should not be recorded, and cannot be recorded in the presence of men. Of course, the song is recorded, and even worse, Breezeblock comes home from a Punch and Judy show to find his mother brutally murdered with a bottle in her mouth. Now driven mad by childhood memories of spectral black blobs, Breezeblock decides to take revenge. And then shit happens. 

Simone Collins as Anna. Image credit: Blue Finch Films

At times so bleakly shot is almost unwatchable, but that is not because the film is bad, but because this is a film that feeds on ambience. All You Need is Death is an excellent piece. The cast are uniformly brilliant. Collins is a likeable heroine. Maher begins as something of a wet blanket, but slowly is revealed to be something else. O’Neill is also excellent, starting out as villainous thug to haunted, abandoned son, to vengeful survivor. Barry Gleeson’s cameo is also quite charming. He is obviously not an actor, but being a renowned traditional singer in real life, he brings a nice authenticity. And while her screentime is brief, Fouere is a convincingly batty ‘half-gone in the head’ aul wan, like a combo of Sheila Keith and Peig Sayers, xenophobic and coarse. Every second is worth it. And her voice continues throughout the film. For us to believe this song is evil, it has to sound it, and ‘Love is a Knife’ is particularly brutal (that’s brutal in the Dublin sense). Siggins is a memorable antagonist (particularly her scathing look at a gormless middle-aged innocent warbling the Dubliners’ Weela Weela Walya).

All You Need is Death is a melange of influences. Director Vinny Murphy makes a cameo, and it does feel of the same post-GFA-but-nevertheless-still-dark-and-untrustworthy Ulster borderland of his film Accelerator (2000). But having seen Duane’s letterboxd list of influences, I was spotting the references. There’s a library scene that a hack scholar would call ‘Nigel Kneale-esque’. Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To (1973) and Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme (1973)’s DNA are visible in the climax.

However, this is actually a very original film. Unique and unsettling. It takes various elements of Ireland’s deep, dark past and weaves it with genre notes and manages to do something new and strange and weird. The soundtrack by Ian Lynch of Lankum helps convey the atmosphere too. In all, recommended. 

All You Need Is Death is in Irish/UK cinemas 19 April

Featured Image Credit: Blue Finch Films