All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads

Two musicologists obsessed with field recordings of Irish folk ballads uncover the dark, destructive secrets of an ancient song in Paul Duane’s chaotic and original low-budget folk horror.

16 April 2024

By Roger Luckhurst

Olwen Fouéré as Rita Concannon in All You Need is Death (2023)
Sight and Sound

Paul Duane, the director of low-budget Irish folk-horror film All You Need is Death, has made several documentaries focused on the far fringes of the music scene. Very Extremely Dangerous (2012) was offered as the last testament of Jerry McGill, an American rock ’n’ roll singer who recorded one single for Sun Records in 1959 before becoming a gun-toting bank-robber. Welcome to the Dark Ages (2019) was about the artist provocateurs Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (briefly the band KLF) building a pyramid in Toxteth. Most relevantly, his documentary While You Live, Shine (2018) centred on a musicologist searching for an ancient mourning song that has survived millennia in certain mountain villages of Greece.

All You Need Is Death, Duane’s first fiction feature, begins with a skewed, unnerving vision of a subculture of obsessive folk song collectors taking clandestine recordings of folk singers in dingy saloon bars. There are some hat tips to David Lynch: menacing businessmen, opaque meetings in abandoned factory spaces, and a female musicologist, Agnes (Catherine Siggins), given to gnomic utterances. She muses early on that “the future is picked clean. Treasure lies in the past.” The power of ancient song, she says, is “a modern alchemy”.

The folk-collecting subculture will lead the two protagonists Aleks (Charlie Maher, with a slightly hokey Eastern European accent) and Anna (Simone Collins) to track down a singer in County Armagh who, they are told, knows the very oldest songs. Her gift to them is a song in a language older than Irish about the overwhelming power of love, which hides in its incantation something much nastier than anything Nick Cave might have mined from the old murder ballads. Hallucinatory chaos ensues, with some memorable final images confirming that music really can have an alchemical power to transport and transform listeners, mentally and physically. The less you know about where this film is going the more the experience will be enhanced, but it’s worth mentioning that the horror festival circuit seems to have widely appreciated the film’s wig-out finale.

All You Need is Death (2023)

Like the recent Irish horror You Are Not My Mother (Kate Dolan, 2021), Duane’s film suggests a powerful tradition of subjugated female wisdom rooted in folkloric knowledge and transmission. The song at the centre of the film is delivered in an impressively intense cameo by Olwen Fouéré, the august actor who wrote and performed Riverrun, a theatre piece built out of the invented language of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. 

The rest of the soundtrack is also important, and in this Duane has worked with Ian Lynch, a long-time collector of Irish folk songs. His band Lankum have mined this seam for many years, but they have recently hit the mainstream with the album False Lankum, which was at the top of many best album lists for 2023 and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. The band’s name derives from the song of a famous folk singer known only from field recordings made in the 1960s by the musicologist Tom Munnelly. As a companion piece to Duane’s film, seek out the video for Lankum’s version of the traditional song ‘Go Dig My Grave’ (directed by Peadar Ó Goill), which shares the same sensibility of slow, creeping dread in abandoned urban spaces. The soundtrack for All You Need Is Death morphs gradually from traditional Irish folk songs into walls of droning doom metal sound. It is by far the strongest element in the film, as the visuals are sometimes limited by budget constraints. 

All this will inevitably be linked to the folk horror genre, which since the 2010s has become a vast and labyrinthine space with lots of ties to the music scene – the completely realised pagan culture of the foundational folk horror film, The Wicker Man (1973), included the performance of twisted folk songs. But rather than following folk horror’s drift toward ancient forests and pre-modern cultic spaces, All You Need Is Death tends to stay in placeless urban settings and abandoned institutional buildings in anonymous edgelands. It is all the better for ringing the changes on those tropes.

 ► All You Need is Death is in UK cinemas from 19 April.