dir. Sam Ashurst.
There’s a story that when Sam Ashurst’s A Little More Flesh premiered at the Starburst International Film Festival in 2020 the first post-screening question he was asked – by a moderator no less – was if he wanted to apologise for the film, so offended was that person by what they’d just seen. Well one can only imagine what that individual might make of the sequel. “I love making people uncomfortable,” laughs a main character about 15 minutes in, a comment that is both sly wink and serious warning to those who will doubtlessly be unprepared for what is coming, even if they have seen the original.
For where Part One was a meta-sexploitation shocker about a sleazy director (played by Ashurst) recording a commentary track for his notorious skin-flick whilst something supernatural closes in, Flesh II is set in the “real” world (whatever that means): here Ashurst plays a version of himself looking to make a new film but proving to be every bit as predatory as the creep he played in the first. Confused? Well that’s partly the point: the boundaries between reality and film becoming destabilised and blurred. It’s a liminal space which only gets more dangerous when this new film is revealed to be “Stalker”, one made from footage that two actors (Harley Dee and Sean Mahoney, both excellent) are sending Ashurst but for which he may have nefarious purposes.
There’s a school of thought that exploitation cinema is less about exploiting the performers than it is the audience, and this certainly feels like the dynamic Ashurst (the real one, not his on screen persona) is playing with here. Overlaid against the images from Dee and Mahoney – shown in a vertical split screen that recalls both mobile phones and Brian De Palma’s voyeuristic lens – are audio of Ashurst’s discussions with them that drip-feeds additional, alarming information. It all adds to a sense of increasing impropriety, that discomfort we were warned about mounting by the second.
And then there’s the film-within-a-film: “Stalker” may sound like a generic horror title or a reference to the obsessive act of looking but it’s also a nod to the 1979 Tarkovsky classic, a film known (as with many of the Soviet auteur’s canon) for its incredibly long takes. So too Ashurst forces the audience to endure seemingly endless, emotionally violent scenes that invite us into complicity before punishing us for watching. Some moments may feel excessive – even painful – but there is also transcendence: no spoilers, but the “hot girl drinking milk” sequence is equal parts surreal, frightening, hypnotic and – with its undulating white noise – trance inducing.
As the third act progresses the trajectory feels genuinely unsafe, a sensation not helped by one black-and-white cameo which – if you know your extreme cinema – will have you climbing the walls. And undergirding it all is Dee, whose fearless performance is bracingly honest and richly sympathetic in the surrounding maelstrom of evil that threatens to swallow her whole.
Yet despite it all there’s also a wry, mischievous sense of humour at play. The in-film collaboration of Ashurst/Dee/Mahoney is inspired by Dogme 95 and there’s something of von Trier’s gleeful provocation, particularly in a final coda. As with all of Ashurst’s films it’s likely to be divisive, but ultimately that’s the point: if you can watch Flesh II without feeling profoundly uncomfortable then you’re part of the problem. And by the end – with the fourth wall fully dissolved – there’s an odd kind of dignity in being appalled.