Shock and Horror Irish Style

Dark Touch is Marina de Van’s Irish-set tale of a telekinetic child and is the latest Irish horror flick to reach our screens in 2013.. Earlier this year, Neil Jordan’s West Cork-shot Byzantium and Ciaran Foy’s Citadel were sophisticated horror flicks that acknowledged the conventions of the tradition while looking intriguingly at unsettling aspects of the modern world.

Byzantium is set in an English seaside resort, while Citadel is set in a blighted urban environment in which deprivation is a ‘cancer’.

Ireland has been exporting tales of horror and gothic supernatural for more than a century. Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, was published in 1897, and has been a staple of the horror genre since. Sheridan le Fanu — a friend of Stoker’s, and a fellow Dubliner — published his vampire novella, Carmilla, in 1872. The Irish influence on horror dates to Charles Maturin (a grand-uncle of Oscar Wilde) and his Faustian tale, Melmoth the Wanderer, which was published in 1820.

With that heritage, it’s unsurprising that one of the first horror films, The Magician (1926), was directed by an Irishman, the Dublin-born Rex Ingram. Ingram’s film about a magician hunting a virgin’s blood to re-animate a corpse — based on a novel by Somerset Maugham — proved hugely influential, but the indigenous horror scene in Ireland was slow to follow suit.

A rare example was in 1963, when aspiring film director Francis Ford Coppola persuaded his then-boss, Roger Corman, to allow him travel to Ireland to make a quickie B-movie, Dementia 13. It featured an axe killer and a gold-digging widow, and starred Patrick Magee. Corman was known for his lurid horrors, among them the classic The Masque of the Red Death (1964). In the 1990s, Corman relocated to Galway, to establish his own studio and churn out horror flicks, including Escape to Nowhere (1996) and The Haunting of Hell House (1999) for the ‘Roger Corman Presents’ series.

By then, the Irish horror movie was well established, due in no small part to Neil Jordan. His second full-length film The Company of Wolves (1984) was an updated and psychologically complex retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story — albeit one that owed a significant debt to the darkness and sexual ambiguity of Charles Perrault’s gothic tale. Jordan directed Interview With the Vampire (1992), starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and a comedy-horror, High Spirits (1988), set in an ancient Irish castle and starring Peter O’Toole.

The 1980s also saw The Sleep of Death (1981), a joint Swedish-Irish production directed by Calvin Floyd, and based on a short story by Le Fanu, and Rawhead Rex (1986), a film directed by George Pavlou, from a Clive Barker script, in which a ferocious demon rampages through the Irish countryside.

For all the critical acclaim, however, the 1980s were a false dawn for the Irish horror movie, and it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the genre made its mark. Conor McMahon’s Dead Meat (2004) blended conventional zombie tropes with mad cow disease, and set the bar for a particular kind of knowing horror, providing thrills and spills, but celebrating the comic potential of cliché. Mad cow disease also featured in Billy O’Brien’s Isolation (2005), in which an experiment on a remote farm went badly wrong.

That year also saw Boy Eats Girl, written by Derek Landy in which Samantha Mumba starred as a teenage girl who discovered that her new boyfriend’s interpretation of ‘necking’ was radically different to her own.

Irish filmmakers’ confidence was becoming more apparent, particularly in terms of the diverse styles of horror. Paddy Breathneach’s Shrooms (2007) followed a group of thrill-seekers into the woods as they picked pookies, their terrifying experience magnified by the hallucinogenic drugs.

The Daisy Chain (2008), directed by Aisling Walsh, was more cerebral, as Samantha Morton, grieving for the death of her daughter, took in a disturbed young girl, only to discover that the rumours of the child’s malevolence might not be ill-founded. It’s an oddly affecting piece that deserved a wider audience. That theme is also explored in Wake Wood (2011), in which Aiden Gillen and Eva Birthistle moved to a remote Irish village, and discovered that an arcane ritual might bring their dead daughter back to life, if only for three days. It’s impossible for them to say no, but the consequences are harrowing.

Not every Irish horror movie was a gem. Legend of the Bog (2009) told the tale of a 2000-year-old body dug up by an Irish property developer. It is notable for its awfulness and also the fact that it’s likely to be the only film to ever star both Vinnie Jones and Amy Huberman.

That said, the Irish horror flick has now evolved to the point where Grabbers (2012) can function as a comedy-horror and social commentary. Irish islanders found themselves besieged by blood-sucking monsters from the deep, but soon discovered that the best way to fend off the fiends is by getting drunk. Sounds cheesy, but Jon Wright’s movie, which stars Richard Coyle and Ruth Bradley, is deft enough to deflect accusations of national stereotyping.

It’s a long way from Dracula, but the Irish horror movie’s ability to mutate as effectively as any schlocky monster is one reason for its success. Its adaptability makes it an attractive option for filmmakers and stakeholders.

The recurring tropes and standardised narrative structure provide a familiar scenario on which young writers and directors can ‘cut their teeth’. It doesn’t necessarily follow that making a good horror movie means you can make a good non-horror movie, but it didn’t do the prospects of Neil Jordan and Francis Ford Coppola any harm.

From an investor’s point of view, and as the success of the ‘Horrorthon’ (IFI’s festival of horror films, which ended on Monday) suggests, the horror movie is one of the most instantly recognisable genres in cinema, and has an unusually loyal audience. The announcement in last month’s budget that the proposed film relief scheme would be brought forward to 2015 from 2016, recognises that Irish cinema, with the horror film at its vanguard, isn’t a cultural exercise; for the private investor or State funder (and, indeed, the Revenue Commissioner), the commercial appeal of the horror movie represents a decent return on investment.

Next year sees the release of Connemara-set Somebody’s There (2012). Whether or not the actual bogeyman bumping off a group of friends in the Connemara woods is real or supernatural is a moot point; the title is neatly self-fulfilling, given the growing appetite for Irish horror flicks.