In Northern Ireland there exists a legend of a vampire, one whose shadows looms over the origins of Dracula himself. In fact, if certain tales are to be believed, those passed around in the dark corners of local bars, Bram Stoker may have been inspired by this tale of ancient evil in the writing of his iconic novel. Forgotten and unheard of by most, there exists the ancient lore of the Irish vampire, Abhartach, said to be so powerful he didn’t need to bite necks. The blood came to him, not by the pint, but by the gallon.
Irish filmmaker Chris Baugh adds his distinct voice to the rich history of vampire cinema with Boys from County Hell, which follows a young group of working class friends, Eugene (Jack Rowan), William (Fra Fee), Claire (Louisa Harland) and SP (Michael Hough), and their feuding fathers, Francie (Nigel O’Neill), and George (John Lynch), whose small-town lives have always been tied to the tourist interest in an ancient cairn said to be the resting place of the vampire from which Stoker was inspired to write Dracula. When construction on a new road threatens to disturb the only thing that has allowed the town to sustain itself, long-held tensions and an unexpected tragedy awaken Abhartach to feed once again. A horror-comedy that sets its stake in genuine emotion and character-driven moments, Boys from County Hell explores how a small Northern Irish town’s history both drains and sustains its inhabitants.
FANGORIA talked with Baugh about his new film, which was released on Shudder on April 22nd, and how he took a personal, character-driven approach to vampire mythos.
Boys from County Hell is a really fun film, and there’s a clear love for vampire mythos in it. Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell for a while?
Yeah, it’s been a while, for sure. It started with wanting to do a film that was set where I’m from in Northern Ireland and the countryside, and something that felt authentic to that place, and the people that I grew up with. When I came up with the idea I hadn’t seen a lot of movies from [Ireland], or a lot of genre films from here, so it was wanting to take that authenticity of character and mix it with the vampire genre and do something that felt fresh. That was the original spark.
I’ll be honest, I did not know the connection of Dracula to Ireland. I love vampire stories but I’m not familiar with the horror history of Ireland. I assume most people know all about the Bram Stoker and the novel’s connection to Ireland, but is the Abhartach myth well-known there?
Yeah, everyone here knows that Bram Stoker’s Irish. It’s kind of a point of pride [laughs]. But the Abhartach myth was something that I came across as I was writing the script and doing research. I just thought it was a really fascinating jumping off point for an Irish vampire story, the idea that there was this blood drinking chieftain that was one of the first-ever sort of undead, blood drinker myths. And he came back from the dead and demanded the blood of peasants, and the only way to stop him was to stab him through the heart with a sword made of yew wood. And there’s this theory that that sort of seeped its way into influencing Stoker for Dracula. That was the jumping off point, but that wasn’t the most exciting thing for me. The most exciting thing was taking these characters and this town with a local legend and exploring how they feel shortchanged that no one knows about it, and they didn’t get the credit for [Dracula]. I just thought it was a fun way to tell a vampire story that provided a fresh spin on the creature. And then taking Abhartach as a character, and taking those basics, because there’s not a lot written about him, and adding to them and building our own mythology on top of that was always really intriguing and exciting to me as well.
One of things I appreciated, right from the opening, is that you set the stage for a different, unique twist on the vampire mythos. I love the visuals of the blood draining from people, and running out of their bodies and onto the ground whenever Abhartach is near. It’s one of the coolest additions to vampire mythos I’ve seen on film in a while. Was that from your research or something you created?
That was just something I came up with. This film is not a massive budget movie so in the script I was trying to be creative with those horror beats because you know you’re not going to have days and days to shoot sequences. So it’s trying to come up with stuff that will give people a jolt, or feel new. That’s sort of the hardest part before shooting, sitting in from of a blank page and wondering what could be fun and fresh. So this idea that he’s so powerful that he doesn’t even need to bite your neck, all he has to do is be near you and the blood will just start seeping out of you and you can’t control it, felt like a terrifying idea to me.
The design of Abhartach is also pretty unique. How many iterations did you go through until you settled on the one in the film?
Early on we had this idea of basing his look on the look of a bog body. So there’s great pictures online of bog bodies, thousands of years old corpses that have been preserved in the peat bogs in Ireland. And when they get taken out they’re all shriveled up and have this weird, tanned, sort of leather look to their skins. Check them out on Google, they’re crazy-looking. And some of them still have hair because of whatever the peak bog does in the preservation process. That was a big reference for us. But then on top of that we had to find the right actor for it. So we found Robert Nairne who’s this amazing physical performer, very tall, skinny guy, who gave a really creepy performance in terms of how he moves, and stalks. Millennium Effects was our makeup company, and for me, even though we didn’t have a lot of money, I wanted to make sure we made our vampire look as incredible as possible, because the film will stand and fall at the end on how good the vampire looks. It was a process, but that very initial idea of making him look like a bog body felt instinctively right. When we saw the first makeup test, me and my producer thought he looked incredible. We couldn’t wait to get him on set and light him. The day we got called to go to the trailer and see him I almost cried. And we brought him onto the set and everyone went quiet. And then they saw that he was wearing slippers [laughs].
Beyond the vampire stuff you have this really interesting father-son dynamic and a coming of age story, both of which are centered around working-class people, which is an aspect, regardless of location, that I think is really important to the genre. You mentioned that the characters were based somewhat around people you knew growing up, but where did this working-class consideration come from?
It was important to us that we had these sort of roughneck Irish construction workers, and this father-son family business that’s kind of struggling at the center of it. Part of the film is me dealing with my own love of where I grew up, but also when I was growing up I kind of wanted to leave. But when I got older I loved going back. So it’s that push and pull that I’m sure a lot of people who come from small towns deal with: that love for a place but also feeling slightly hamstrung by a place was an idea that fed into the film. And also, a big thing for me, was the idea of the dangers of complacency. That was a big theme running throughout it, especially for Eugene, this idea that if you’re complacent in your relationships or how you go through your life it’s gonna come back to bite you. And that’s exactly what happens with Abhartach. He’s buried, like the emotions of the characters, especially Francie and Eugene, two men who are not very emotionally articulate and have all these massive flaws at the center of their relationship that if they don’t deal with will kill them. That’s something that came not so much from my own life, but something that I’ve seen and thought would be really interesting to explore in a crazy vampire film.
There’s a bar in the film, The Stoker, where the characters get together at. Is that an actual bar outside of Belfast where you filmed, or a place you created for the film?
No, the exterior was actually in the village of Glenarm, and the interior was in Moira. So no, The Stoker doesn’t exist, but I just thought it was a cool name for a bar.
It is really cool!
I would drink there!
Since we’re back to Stoker, I appreciated how the film highlighted which contributions to vampire mythos came from Dracula, and which ones, like weakness to sunlight, were added in Nosferatu or later. I think, just in terms of American audiences, we’ve had so many vampire films emerge from Hollywood that it’s easy to forget that many of these aspects were not present originally. Did you go back and read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or was it something you already had committed to memory pretty well?
I did go back and read it. Yeah, it’s a masterpiece. It was a joy to just go back and read it again. For me, in making my own vampire story, it was trying to bring something new to vampires in terms of the mechanics of how they work and the mythology, while remaining reverent to the granddaddy of all vampire stories. For me, it always comes back to character. How do these characters react in this situation? Well of course they’re going to think about the movies because none of them have actually read Dracula [laughs].
Did you revisit any movies when you made this, or during the script writing process?
One of the movies at the very start when I first came up with the idea wasn’t a horror film. And this was years ago, I came up with the idea for this many, many years ago, and in the interim I made other films, but this has always been there in the back of my mind as a real passion project. But one of the things I saw was an Irish film called I Went Down, with Brendan Gleeson. It was a crime-thriller made in ’97, and very funny and dark. I saw that on TV one night and just thought that I hadn’t seen a film like that made in Ireland that was just fun and had crazy violence, and warm relationships. And that was the first thing I saw that made me go I would love to do something like that with a horror spin. And that was from Southern Ireland, so I wanted to do something from the North, from my little part of the country.
I think the tone of your film works really well in terms of providing horrific moments, genuine relationships, and moments of humor. Horror-comedy can be really difficult, but this film manages a perfect balance. What was the writing process for that? How many times did you have to rework certain elements in order to get that balance?
Cheers! I appreciate that. It came from me not setting out specifically to write a horror-comedy. It just came from me saying I’m going to write a vampire film and I’m going to put these guys in it. It came down to just trying to be authentic to the characters. So Francie for example, who has some of the funnier moments, what I said to Nigel, the actor who plays him, is he treats killing vampires the same way he treats digging holes, or having to do overtime. He’s just fuckin' annoyed all the time [laughs]. That was our true north in a sense. These guys react to this situation as if it’s something they just couldn’t be bothered dealing with. I didn’t want to overplay jokes, but just have it all come from character. But it is a fine line.
Are there any movies right now that have you excited or inspired about the future of horror?
It’s such an incredibly exciting time for genre cinema at the minute and over the past few years. A couple titles that have really blown me away were Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes For Us, Rob Savage’s Host and Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor.
Those are all great! Do you have a favorite vampire movie? It doesn’t have to be recent.
Favorite vampire film…Do I have to pick one? [laughs]
Yeah, that’s kinda hard. You can pick a few.
One of my favorites from my teen years was From Dusk Till Dawn. I saw it when I was 14 or 15 and knew nothing about it. I rented it from the video shop because it had that really cool cover. I didn’t know it was a vampire film, I just knew it had Tarantino. And then watching it, and being along for the ride, I was blown away. That had a big impact on me, that melding of genres, and the surprise, and fun of the over-the-top visceral nature of what Robert Rodriguez does so well. And then I remember a babysitter showing me The Lost Boys when I was way too young, on an old VHS tape, and I remember being blown away by that as well. And I have a real soft spot for Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II.
I love the film! Love it!
What’s next for you? Are you looking to stick around in the horror genre, or explore some other territories?
Yeah, I’ll definitely stick around in the genre space. Me and my writing and producing partner, Brendan [Mullin] sold a pitch to Legendary a while back for a superhero thriller. We’re writing that at the minute, and we have a couple other horror, thriller projects. I love the genre. Our last movie, Bad Day for the Cut, was us still trying to stay authentic to where we’re from but within the genre space. I think going forward we’ll probably branch out. I don’t know if the next one I totally want to film back in Northern Ireland because I don’t want to be standing in a dark, wet field at three o’clock in the morning. Maybe the next one we’ll try to do in Australia or Texas, or somewhere hot. And then the one after that we’ll come back to Northern Ireland [laughs].
This interview had been edited for length and clarity.