Irish Horror Cinema
Even setting aside the myriad film versions of Dracula, which range from purportedly faithful versions of Bram Stoker’s novel to wild tangents like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966) and Dracula Sucks (1979), Irish creative talents have had a significant role in the history of the horror film. The Jewel of Seven Stars, Stoker’s other major horror novel, has been officially filmed several times (Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, 1971, The Awakening, 1980, Legend of the Mummy, 1997), unofficially several times more (La Cabeza Viviente/The Living Head, 1963) and is a source for almost all ‘mummy’ movies. J. Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire tale ‘Carmilla’ and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and ‘The Canterville Ghost’ have inspired multiple film and television adaptations. Like Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold, filmed as The Uninvited (1944), these oft-told stories are notably not set in Ireland, though Stoker and LeFanu frequently wrote about their native land, drawing on Irish legends and folk-tales for their ghost stories. We still await a film of the greatest of all horror novels to use an Irish location, William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland.
Away from the homeland, Irish ex-patriates have done important work in horror: directors Rex Ingram (The Magician, 1926), Roy William Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, 1943) and Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, 1992) and actors Arthur Shields (a werewolf in Daughter of Dr Jekyll, 1957), Jack MacGowran (Dance of the Vampires, 1967), Gabriel Byrne (a Nazi in The Keep, 1983, the Devil in End of Days, 1999), Stuart Townsend (the Vampire Lestat in Queen of the Damned, 2002, Dorian Gray in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 2003), Michael Gambon (a werewolf in The Beast Must Die, 1974), Liam Cunningham (a werewolf in Dog Soldiers, 2002), Brendan Gleeson (Lake Placid, 1999, 28 days later …, 2002), Stephen Rea (The Doctor and the Devils, 1985, FeardotCom, 2002, The I Inside, 2003) and Patrick Bergin (who has played Frankenstein, Dracula and the Devil). Patrick Magee, famed on stage as a great interpreter of the works of Samuel Beckett even counts as a minor horror star: with eye-rolling, beetle-browed, dialogue-savouring performances in the likes of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Freddie Francis’s The Skull (1965), Die, Monster, Die! (1965), Marat/Sade (as DeSade, 1967), The Fiend (1971), Roy Ward Baker’s Asylum (1972), Peter Sykes’s Demons of the Mind (1972), … And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973), The Monster Club (1980), Lucio Fulci’s Gatto Nero/The Black Cat (1981) and Walerian Borowczyk’s Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981). Yet, for all this suitable talent, there’s a distinct shortage of Irish horror films, and little which might be counted as an Irish horror – or even fantastical – tradition in the cinema.
Most treatments of Irish folklore in the cinema have been benign enough to overdose a sugar addict, usually buried under Hollywood’s idea of ‘Oirishness’. Walt Disney’s production of Darby O’Gill and the Little People(1959) has (like most Disney fantasies) one genuinely nightmarish sequence, in which the young hero is pursued by the Great Banshee. Otherwise, precious few chills can be found in the likes of Finian’s Rainbow (1968), Leapin’ Leprechauns (1995), Spellbreaker: Secret of the Leprechauns (1996), The Last Leprechaun (1998) and The Magical
In 1963, Francis Ford Coppola persuaded Roger Corman – for whom he was working as a minion on a European-shot film called The Young Racers – to finance a quickie horror film that he might direct using some of the leftover Young Racers cast and crew. Always eager to squeeze an extra film out of a budget, Corman let the junior auteur have his head and the result was the Irish-shot Dementia 13 (aka The Haunted and the Hunted) – a Psycho knock-off about axe murders on the estate of the Haloran Family, one of whom is a homicidal maniac. Coppola, who would return to the genre with a vastly bigger budget on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), works fast and creative in Dementia 13, making memorable,
might count as Ireland’s first horror film. The Swedish director Calvin Floyd made two interesting Irish-Swedish gothic horrors: Victor Frankenstein (1977), a low-key relatively faithful version of the Mary Shelley novel (the chapters which involve the near-creation of the Monster’s Mate are set in Ireland), and The Sleep of Death (1981), based on LeFanu’s ‘The Room at the Dragon Volant’ (which had already been done on television as ‘The Inn of the Flying Dragon’, 1960, and ‘The Flying Dragon’, 1966, episodes of the American Dow Hour of Great Mysteries and the British Mystery and Imagination series). Though set in France, Sleep of Death is a unique Irish-based adaptation of a story by one of Ireland’s major horror writers, and furthermore features and Patrick Magee as a sinister Marquis. Floyd’s films are seriously-intended, though they incline towards Merchant-Ivory respectability in adapting their sources rather than taking off on cinematic flights of fancy.
Interesting rather than frightening, Floyd’s films are still a cut above The Fantasist (1986), a Dublin-set serial killer mystery which was Robin Hardy’s disappointing, tardy follow-up to The Wicker Man (1973), and George Pavlou’s below-average monster romp Rawhead Rex (1986). Based on a Clive Barker story which is set in rural England, Rawhead was relocated to Ireland for budget reasons -- though the plot revolves around an Anglican church and awkward lines had to be tipped in when someone remembered there were no Roman ruins in Ireland. The novelist and director Neil Jordan usually brings a fantastical touch to his films, and gets closer to genre horror in his adaptations of Angela Carter (The Company of Wolves, 1983), Anne Rice and Bari Wood (In Dreams, 1999). However, the comical ghost romp High Spirits (1988), which is set in Ireland, is among his least-satisfying films, an effects-heavy pudding which ought to be a breezy comic fantasy but devolves into failed farce. The Butcher Boy (1997), based on Pat McCabe’s novel, is closer to horror, entering the mind of a junior psychopath (Eamonn Owens) who has visions of the Virgin Mary (Sinead O’Connor) and takes great delight in murdering a neighbour (Fiona Shaw) he holds responsible for all the troubles visited upon his family. Like The Fantasist, The Butcher Boy plays up the specific Irish milieu, addressing the not-always-benign influence of the Church on all things: Hardy works on the rural Catholic upbringing of his imperilled, resilient heroine (Moira Harris), but Jordan and McCabe fill out the 1960s world of young Francie, influenced by American popular culture but also his father’s repeated yarns and invented myths.
Three decades on from Dementia 13, Roger Corman set up his own unit in Ireland and backed a clutch of genre movies to feed the hungry maw of his Roger Corman Presents series of made-for-cable movies, with an eye on ancillary video (later, DVD) rental and sales business. In rapid succession, Corman produced Scott P. Levy’s House of the Damned (aka Escape to Nowhere, 1996), starring Alexandra Paul and Greg Evigan; Howard McCain’s The Unspeakable (1996), scripted by Christopher Wood (who once wrote the ‘Confessions’ books and films as Timothy Lea and a few Roger Moore Bond movies), starring Athena Massey, David Chokachi, Timothy Busfield and Cyril O’Reilly; Mitch Marcus’s The Haunting of Hell House (1999), starring Michael York and Claudia Christian, and purportedly based on a story by Henry James; Marcus’s Knocking on Death’s Door (1999), starring Brian Bloom, Kimberly Rowe, John Doe and David Carradine; Michael B. Druxman’s The Doorway (2000), starring Roy Scheider, Lauren Woodland and Christian Harmony; and Marcus’s Wolfhound (2002), which the director signed with the pseudonym ‘Donovan Kelly’, from a script by novelist Scott Bradfield, with Allen Scotti, Jennifer Courtney and Playboy Playmate Julie Cialini. Corman also backed a couple of anonymous action-thrillers in Ireland (Bloodfist VIII: Trained to Kill, 1996, Dangerous Curves, 2000) using the same set-up.
These films rely on lower-case American writers, directors and lead actors, but use Irish supporting players – frequently dubbed in an attempt to pass off Ireland as Maine or Massachusetts. Recurring presences include Brendan Murray, Mike O’Nolan, John McHugh, Colm O’Maonlai, Brian Glanney and a surprising number of veterans of the Irish language TV soap Ros na Run. Only House of the Damned and Wolfhound are set in Ireland: both are about American (or Irish-American) couples who unwisely settle in hostile communities, to be pestered by spooks in one case and a pack of shapeshifters in the other. Wolfhound, despite silly lesbian werebabe scenes, is probably the pick of the litter, thanks to a few good lines from Bradfield and local actor Brian Monahan’s imposing performance as an alpha male werewolf. Not one of these films, but easy to lump in with them (a few actors recur) is John Hough’s Bad Karma aka Hell’s Gate (2002), from a novel by Douglas Clegg, starring Patsy Kensit, Patrick Muldon and Amy Locane. This also passes off Irish locations as New England, but it’s a little nastier than the television-backed Corman movies, involving sado-masochist murders and the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper.
directors in neglecting straight action, though a confrontation between the dazed, resilient mummy and the gunmen is interesting, but works hard on an air of disorienting (here, slightly boozy or druggy) menace. Like Nadja, Eternal uses home movie-like snippets to fill in the never-quite-defined idylls and horrors of the protagonist's childhood. Far more than the Corman implants, Almereyda uses the Irish setting and locations in an interesting way, with the bog-tanned princess an intriguing, culture-specific alternative to the usual wrapped Egyptian mummy.
Meanwhile, Irish filmmakers began to make their own horror films – mostly outside the mainstream of the small Irish film industry, whose tentative approach to genre yielded only odd, arty, whimsical items like Steve Barron’s Rat (2000), Robert Quinn’s Dead Bodies (2003) and John Simpson’s Freeze Frame (2004). In Northern Ireland, Enda Hughes directed, wrote, edited and photographed The Eliminator (1996), a hand-to-mouth movie in the spirit of Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1987), similarly put together over a lengthy shoot by enthusiastic and irreverent young film-makers. While Jackson's movie has a pace and confidence which bely its origins, The Eliminator capitalises on its ramshackle feel, sometimes staging stunt or action sequences with a deliberate clumsiness that dovetails seamlessly in with budget-enforced choppiness (£8,000). It opens portentously with a quotation from an ancient Irish necromantic text that suggests this, like seemingly every other film ever made in Northern Ireland, will be a serious film about 'the troubles'. ‘The Organisation' - presumably the IRA - is concerned because the British security services have kidnapped O'Brien (Michael Hughes), a student rebel who has on disc the plans to a super-vehicle 'the Viper'. The eye-patched, claw-handed, limping, geek-bearded, overacting Hawk (Mik Duffy) sends his one-time friend Stone (Barry Wallace), a supercool superspy in a snappy hat, to rescue O'Brien and bring back the plans. However, because of bad blood between Hawk and Stone, Stone is set up to fail in his mission, having been given a map of Vietnam rather than Cornwall.
O'Brien is tortured in a disused cardboard box factory by cackling Brits who have built the Viper - a tank-like effort resembling a carnival float version of the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons - and need the codeword to make the on-board computer work. Stone frees O'Brien and the Brits get wiped out in a knockabout battle, during which O'Brien commandeers the Viper and drives it around a factory site, ploughing through strategically placed piles of cardboard boxes. After some gore, Stone defeats the Brits - the chief nasty, Scorpio, is burned up in a Mad Max-ish car smash - but is killed by Hawk when he complains about being sent into action without back-up. Then the spy/s-f/action plot winds down and the horror movie kicks in, as Stone returns from the dead with a white curly wig and a Darkman hat-and-mask arrangement, picking up some firepower from an arms dump and heading off to 'the Irish Rebel Warrior Graveyard' to invoke a curse from the Celtic Book of the Dead and raise the zombified remains of Ireland's heroes to see off the Organisation's balaclava-helmeted goons. There's 'a bitching zombie fight' in the graveyard, complete with sneezed-out eyeballs, Fulci-like facial maggots, plenty of stumbling around, and a lot of amiably silly gore. In the finale, O'Brien tries to settle things by summoning up disappointing Irish heroes - Cuchullain, who turns out to be a spotty youth, and the giant Finn MacCool, who has shrunk into a prancing leprechaun - and then St Patrick himself to sort out the squabble. St Pat delivers a speech about how Irishmen should turn to the ways of peace and everyone seems cowed, but the zombie Stone condemns everyone present as 'hypocritical bastards' and pulls the pin out of a grenade. The last line has St Patrick muttering 'oh shit'; then it's a rousing chorus of 'Alternative Ulster' over the (long) end credits.
One-man band Hughes may not have been able to get audible dialogue recordings - much of Hawk's manic yattering is white noise - but he still manages something distinctive. The most Jackson-like aspect (cf: Meet The Feebles, 1989) is the jokey Vietnam flashback - set up by a hilariously a-historical speech that gets all the dates wrong - with yellow-tinted frolics and gore in the jungle. The two major set-pieces are the Viper/car chase and the zombie battle, both of which are packed with gags but go on too long. It's very rough-hewn, but Hughes cannily gets laughs from things like mistimed punches or obvious stunt dummies. The cast mostly mug outrageously - Duffy is probably too broad even for this - but Wallace and Michael Hughes deliver surprisingly decent work. It may be obscure, and its North-of-the-Border origins marginalize it even within a marginalized filmography – when the producers of Dead Meat (2004) and Boy Eats Girl (2005) were arguing over who could claim the title of ‘Ireland’s first zombie movie’, they either didn’t remember or didn’t count The Eliminator, which undeniably got there first.
Though obviously a low-budget effort, writer-director Conor McMahon’s Dead Meat feels far more like a ‘proper film’ than The Eliminator, with funding from the Irish Film Board. It has a rural setting (including an impressive ruined castle location) and makes vague topical references to the mad cow disease and foot and mouth outbreaks, and characters who don’t try to disguise their accents, but still feels like a run-of-the-mill zombie film, a simple imitation of George Romero’s work which dwells on disembowelling extras and staging zombie chase sequences without tackling the sub-textural material which makes Romero’s films more than just bloody exploitation. It opens eerily with a farmer attacked by a
is a cartoon idea of American teendom not remotely credible as Irish, Boy Eats Girl loses the cultural specificity (it was even mostly shot on the Isle of Man) that even Dead Meat takes pride in. It gets gruesome in the home stretch, with a combine harvester massacre rather like the one in Jake West’s Evil Aliens (2005) and gore all over the floor – but a handy snake, whose presence in famously snake-free Ireland is never explained, provides the final ingredient and restores the hero to normal life.
Picking up on elements hinted at in Dead Meat, two films finally advanced the cause of a specifically Irish mode of horror movie, albeit within familiar sub-genres. Director-writer Patrick Kenny’s Winter’s End (2005) is an entry in the ‘captivity’ cycle of psycho-thriller (cf: The Collector, 1965, Misery, 1990, Calvaire, 2003). Slacker photographer Jack Davis (Adam Goodwin) attends an open-air concert the film can’t afford to depict, gets completely drunk, has a brief argument with his more responsible married best friend Ben (Donie Ryan) and returns to the field to find his car has been stolen. Farmer Henry Rose (Michael Crowley) lures him down a country road so he can use the phone and knocks him out, then chains him up in the barn. Gradually, it emerges that the cracked villain’s plan is to have the victim impregnate Amy (Jillian Bradbury), his half-sister, so that his family’s 150 year-long tenancy of the failing farm can continue. Henry says he’ll let the lad go with a cash pay-out, but Jack is smart enough to realise from the outset that the farmer has to kill him to have a hope of getting away with it. The set-up at the farm is interesting, with Henry given a bit of range and depth in his crazy schemes, and an uneasy balance between the meek, dependant girl and her other brother Sean (Paul Whyte), a simpleton Henry keeps threatening to have put in an institution. Jack has to tell the girl, who has been cut off from TV and newspapers, that Ireland doesn’t have ‘institutions’ in that sense any more, and hasn’t for years. All stories like this follow a similar pattern – with the victim going from disbelief to pleading to desperate trying to escape via bogus cooperation and the captor trying to hold together a scheme which keeps stumbling over the human element – but Winter’s End is well-enough written and acted to get past familiarity. There’s a clever surprise late in the day, as the captive cannily gets the farmer to send out for an especially poncey Italian meal as a last supper – which turns out to be a signal to his best friend, the chef in the restaurant. The climax is protracted, with running about and hiding behind hedges plus shotgun-waving and an obvious casualty – but the coda, which finds captive and ‘wife’ together four years later, with a young daughter, is surprisingly affecting with a minor undertone of creepin
seconds longer than expected without losing its shock value. Without overstressing its origins, Isolation also offers a specific Irish take on its story – the motor of the plot, as in Winter’s End, is the economic plight of traditional farm folk left behind by the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom and clinging to the land with all the tenacity of Richard Harris in The Field (1990); and there’s uncomfortable truth in the treatment of the traveller couple, jovially advised with menaces to move on by the Garda and instantly suspected of any crime or horror.