The Lore And Lure Of Irish Horror

Take a darker tour of The Land of Saints and Scholars.

By Rich Johnson · April 1, 2021, 2:05 AM EDT
the hallow.jpeg
The Hallow.

Captured so perfectly by Johnny Cash’s “Forty Shades of Green,” the Emerald Isle is a beautiful land ruptured by turmoil, divided by Empire and sullied by the death of a million. Horror is history – the Great Hunger bringing immigrant survivors to the shores of America during the mid-19th century and with them their heritage – a heady mix of myth, folklore and an untainted belief in the Church.

It is no surprise they adapted to frontier life – the wilds of the Irish landscape remain as sparse and spread out as the people. Grey giants, the shape of rolling mountains, are shrouded in heavy mist and when the sun finally presents itself, the coves and pristine sands lend perfect respite for smaller feet. All the while, a prominent smell of turf lingers in the air as distant fields beckon. Eat your heart out, James Joyce.

When it comes to a film industry, all countries within the British Isles – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – have always remained a microcosm of cinema, and Ireland is no exception. Focusing on Southern Island, separated from the United Kingdom in 1921, examples of horror are few and far between, but within the past decade there have been several films that show the full potential in exploring the genre. The most well-known Irish directors, Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) and Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) have continued to deliver mainly drama, a genre most synonymous with their history. Jordan, however, has delved into the realms of folklore, fantasy and horror with The Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles and Byzantium. Although Wolves and Vampire are not considered Irish horror or even productions, Byzantium was filmed in Ireland and part-funded by Dublin company, Parallel Film Productions.

From Raoul Walsh’s first feature, the 1915 Irish immigrant drama Regeneration – often cited as the first gangster feature – to John Ford’s 1952 film The Quiet Man, over the years there has never been an abundance of Irish cinema. With only the odd horror film scattered across history, a crucial starting point would be in 1926 when Dublin-born talent Rex Ingram directed the hugely influential silent horror, The Magician. Some scenes in the film are more than reminiscent of Benjamin Christensen’s documentary Häxan, with occult origins and German expressionist influences all over it.

Twenty-five years later, Hilton Edwards’ Oscar-nominated short, Return to Glennascaul (aka Orson Welles’ Ghost Story), will always remain a milestone in this niche history, as Orson Welles lends weight to the ghost story’s narrative and his love of Ireland. Dig into FANGORIA #140, March 1995, page 31, and you’ll find an interesting snippet, summarized at the time as "interesting yet ordinary, evocative but a wee bit dull,” but, as approved as “still worth a look.”

Roger Corman’s production Dementia 13 is an early entry in the works of Francis Ford Coppola. Corman and Coppola’s film was the bottom half of a double feature with X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes and, although blatantly exploited the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, is closer in tone and atmosphere to Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. Although shot in Ireland and making use of the setting and the locals, the film not only relies too heavily on what it is emulating but also places American characters front and center. Of course, that would make complete sense based on the Corman method of cost-effective productions and a safe market back home. His business savvy approach eventually attracted the Irish government, where they were keen to develop their filmmaking on the west coast leading to Corman opening his short-lived production company, Concorde Anois, based in Ireland during the late 1990s.

From troubled tales of spilled blood, split personalities, haunted lands, the stolen child and other stereotypes, Irish horror films are less defined than you may think as they begin to accept genre conventions and find their own feet along the way. The examples presented here may not be as definitive as a certain Dublin writer’s work – where Mr. Stoker gave birth to the most prominent of vampires in his 1897 novel Dracula – but the untapped potential so far has delivered the odd masterful examples that dip into both the forgotten past and the immediate future.

The Stolen Child

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The Hole in the Ground.

It is an assumption to think that Irish horror would be laden with crucifixes, when it is, in fact, the works of poet W. B. Yeats and his collections Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry in 1888 and Fairy Folk Tales of Ireland in 1892 that remain the most potent of inspiration. Gathering Yeats’ original edited material for republication in 1973 as Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, the poet Kathleen Raine makes an interesting summary in the acceptance of Irish folklore alongside their Christian beliefs in her foreword, “...for in that oral tradition visions and beliefs survive in a part of the mind which does not come into conflict – or even, it seems, into contact with the daily beliefs, Christian or otherwise, of some particular man or woman. It is as if the mind of the race – the collective mind – though shared by all, keeps to its own knowledge and experience independently of, perhaps sometimes in spite of the personal views of the individual.”

Raine goes onto share an interesting point that reminds us of the distractions of the internet, streaming and the YouTube generation: “By those same turf fires where so recently the old tales were told the same people now gather around the television set, more potent destroyer of tradition than the rantings of Knox, the armies of Cromwell, or the compulsory Education bill; the last page of the Book of the People has been turned.” But... the great stories will always survive.

Aside from the classic ramblings of James Joyce and eloquence of Oscar Wilde, Yeats was a defining voice in Irish literature with his poem The Stolen Child becoming one of his most notable pieces of work. It is a beautifully written but rather harrowing poem that has gone onto inspire countless writers and filmmakers and often becomes a central premise within recent examples of Irish horror – reimagined for modern audiences and throwing all that poetry nonsense out of the window. Most of us just want to be scared, not sent to sleep.

I’m kidding, of course – the facade of poetry perfectly illustrated in Yeats’ The Stolen Child. The title alone is horrific, yet you are pulled in to the loss of innocence and a return to a more idyllic way of life that Ireland romanticizes over. But with Yeats, it was all about the shift towards a more modern time as he seemingly attempted to protect Irish youth from the horrors, the dangers and the pain of the real world, “For the worlds more full of weeping than you can understand.”

Alas, the horrors have been far too real in Ireland. When the fates of almost 800 infants were unearthed in the town of Tuam, County Galway, in 2017, the disturbing methods carried out by the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home – operating between 1925 and 1961 – exposed one of many cracks in the Catholic Church. Stolen children had become a disturbing reality and, amongst other revelations, it would seem that not even the Pope would be able to resurrect Catholic Ireland from the ruins of a corrupt and abusive institution.

Aislinn Clarke’s more than competent found footage horror The Devil’s Doorway is the only example explored that pays reference to Tuam along with the infamous Magdalene Laundries that housed “fallen women” who would atone for their sins through unpaid labor the Church profited on. Clarke’s feature debut is a personal response as an unmarried Clarke fell pregnant at 17, one year before the last laundry was closed in 1996. The Devil’s Doorway is a rare and honest piece and, perhaps having been produced by a Northern Irish production company 23ten, allows for some distancing from the subject matter.

Irish horror films centered on the more traditional folk tales of the stolen child have presented some more than solid examples. Aisling Walsh’s cerebral effort The Daisy Chain delivers little in terms of the scares but David Keating’s Wake Wood embraces the folklore and gore – a co-production between the revived Hammer Films and Oscar-winning Irish production company Fantastic Films – that is a crucial entry point into the Irish macabre. Reminiscent of The Wicker Man and Pet Sematary, it is also an excellent example in the resurgence of folk horror we have seen in the past decade. In Ciaran Foy’s Citadel – due to being filmed in Scotland and one of the many Ireland / UK co-productions – there is a crossover into English roots of tower block horror and demonized youth culture. The constant threat throughout surrounds a young agoraphobic father who protects his baby from hooded predators; this is Yeats on heroin, a grim and dirty little story and all the better for it.

There are many examples in this article that become multinational productions. Corin Hardy’s The Hallow shares some investment from both the UK and USA and presents a neat little take on the lore that permeates the land, melding mythology with grounded biological concepts. Hardy’s tale delivers a modern-day poetic creature feature. These Dark Faeries and Changelings lurk amongst the trees and move with similar ferocity to Neil Marshall’s Crawlers in The Descent, all of which have adapted efficiently to their surroundings.

As part of the European Union, Lee Cronin’s debut feature The Hole in the Ground is also a good presentation of Southern Ireland collaborating with production companies across Europe including Belgium, Finland and the UK. Continuing the theme of the stolen and possessed child formula, Cronin’s film leans more heavily towards the supernatural and is one of the purest examples of Irish horror that pays homage to both folklore and genre filmmaking. This is a simple tale with hints of abusive undertones as a single mother deals with the disturbing behavior that manifests in her young son that may or may not be linked to a nearby sinkhole. The performances from Seána Kerslake and young James Quinn Markey are outstanding – imagine if Damien Thorn was a product of the Body Snatchers rather than the Devil – and “grounds” the story completely. This is a horror that once again reinvents Yeats’ work and the changeling myth, taking the roots of the genre and pulling them deep, deep underground.

Evil Spirits and Bad Trips

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The Canal.

It would seem that some “trips” to Ireland rely less on planes, trains and automobiles, and more on recreational pursuits. Paddy Breathnach’s Shrooms is once again another multinational production with support from Denmark and the UK that plays very heavily towards the American market. Unfortunately, on this occasion, it is a shallow attempt to transport what has made American horror so iconic and only remains a checklist of slasher and hillbilly horror that, despite its twist, portrays the Irish as drooling redneck maniacs. The result is more wrong trip than Wrong Turn.

Lorcan Finnegan’s Without Name – one of the few solo Southern Irish productions on the menu – is another mushroom trip into the backwoods that explores the fine line between the natural and supernatural. It is a languid and more cerebral effort than Shrooms that, as with a lot of Irish horror, makes use of the settings, character and drama as a land surveyor measures an ancient forest for a developer as his mind slowly begins to unravel. The film is steeped with atmosphere but practically moves backward with its slow pacing.

At its best, Irish horror makes use of ordinary folk – a surveyor FFS?! – the everyday hero troubled by his past or even his surroundings. Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal is a UK co-production shot in Dublin that follows a film archivist delving into a murder case from the 1900s, and don’t you just love it when someone scratches away at closed cases and urban legends? Although it perhaps leans more towards a grimy British crime drama, it is still an excellent example of both psychological and supernatural horror reminiscent of Bernard Rose’s Candy Man.

Then we arrive at Brian O’Malley’s follow-up to his brutal Let Us Prey. The Lodgers wears its gothic origins like a black-laced glove, building an uneasy tale around twins Rachel and Edward and mirror imagery. The use of reflection is apt, feeling as though it is cut from the same cloth as Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. Filmed in Ireland’s most haunted house – Loftus Hall during its 666th year – the atmosphere is more than foreboding. It manages to mix the loss of innocence Yeats so eloquently captured in The Stolen Child along with Edgar Allan Poe’s suffocating atmosphere. The obvious plot devices more than echo Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, with its incestuous brother and sister, a young savior, a remote and dilapidated manor, a curse spanning generations and one’s life being connected to the house. Naturally, it feels at once a classic Hammer production and the best of M. R. James’ ghost stories rolled into one as it beckons us towards those dangerous waters.

When our central young heroine Rachel (Charlotte Vega) leaves the confines of her family home during the day, she ventures into the nearby village, where we begin to witness the tensions of the Anglo-Irish divide in post-WWI Ireland. The tension that the locals evoke brews under the surface and, although it doesn’t weigh itself down in the politics of the time, we are more than aware that traitors, outsiders and strangers are not welcome in these parts.

Strangers and Strange Folk

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A Dark Song.

There have always been dreadful Irish stereotypes. Irish characters have often been portrayed as the simpleton, the drunk, rascals or the terrorist. During such prevalent times as “The Troubles” from the late ’60s to the late ’90s, the threat across the UK – predominately in Northern Ireland – dominated the news during these times and, much like the post 9/11, minorities were targeted and lambasted. Of course, there is a great deal of truth in how outsiders would have been accepted in Ireland, especially based on your religious beliefs and place of origin. Times change... unfortunately some views may not.

This sense of tension and the outsider (or foreigner) arriving in a strange land or lost in open spaces isn’t unique to Ireland at all – just read your Lovecraft for the foreign invasion dressed as horror. Minus the tentacles and weird shit, we see these pockets of communities (or the lone killer) out there off the American back roads, the Australian Outback or European backwoods that have become a major trope that 21st century horror has returned to. It makes complete sense when everyone has been fearful of who will be attacked next.

Jeremy Lovering’s only feature to date, In Fear, is a brilliant little horror-thriller reminiscent of Greg McClean’s Wolf Creek. The premise is simple: traveling back from a music festival a young couple, Tom and Lucy, become lost in the Irish countryside. As they drive around in circles they pick up a local along the way who may or may not be their tormentor. Technically, this is a British film shot entirely in England and with no funding from Ireland at all with only one of the three actors, Allen Leech as antagonist Max, originating from Dublin. I’ll be honest, as good as the film is, it wouldn’t do any favors for Irish tourism or sway anyone’s opinion on being welcomed with open arms. But, unlike Shrooms and its abysmal use of stereotype, there is a distinct balance amongst the three characters as they all begin to clash and reveal their true nature. As the tension mounts and the couple become more stressed, it seems “the troubles” may have been with them from the offset when our main protagonist, Tom (Iain De Caestecker), upsets one of the locals.

In Fear doesn’t set out to paint the Irish as the bad guys, but it does set up a microcosm of tension that could be seen as an analogy for The Troubles and dealt with in a more liberal way than you would expect, right up to its shocking ending. Max may fall into the “strange folk” category but it’s all about perspective as strangers Tom and Lucy (Alice Englert) gradually fall apart themselves.

In contrast to such a finely executed film, we have Anthony White’s The Devil’s Woods, a zero budget horror that follows a similar premise with a group of Irish friends traveling back from another music festival. They set up camp in the local woods, notorious for its strange occurrences, and are slowly bumped off one by one by an evil cult. So far, so Kill List. The fact it was sporadically shot over a year with no production values whatsoever... well, it looks as amateur as you’d imagine.

Strange tensions (and intensions) present another look at evil cults in the Irish and British co-production A Dark Song. Liam Gavin’s film follows more of a British folk horror vibe, dressed as a supernatural horror. However, as with a lot of the Irish horror discussed so far, the story relies heavily on the drama and conflict where a young Irish woman hires an English occultist to carry out a dangerous ritual that all goes a bit Aleister Crowley. Alas, not much happens. The strange, angry occultist shouts and abuses the woman for 100 minutes. The end.

Monsters Inside and Out

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Isolation.

Few deliver the monstrous as well as Clive Barker and, although his true vision often remains in his writing, even the likes of Rawhead Rex have a certain throwaway charm about them. As an entry into the history of Irish horror, it’s a maligned effort, to say the least, with its original setting from Books of Blood: Volume 2 altered for production. Barker told Dread magazine back in 1992, “They called me up and said, ‘Well, we’re going to make the movie, but we’re going to make it in Ireland, and we’re going to make it in February.’ So immediately, a whole counterpoint of this blazing English summer and this ravaging monster just went out of the window.”

Barker wrote half a draft and was never invited onset only hearing about the nightmare production. Other than its transposed setting, cast and Irish co-production, the adaptation of Rawhead Rex is pure schlock that only touches upon the potency of the original story of a Pagan god, raised from the dead and wreaking havoc. The original short story devours religion and xenophobia, and even Freudian undertones with the film struggling to deliver much at all – less Barker, more barking mad.

There’s a dose of the mad in Billy O’Brien’s Isolation. Not only is this one of the best Irish horror films ever made, but also a prime example of how the genre can fly way under the radar. Similar to Conor McMahon tapping into the mad cow disease pandemic for his low budget zombie horror Dead Meat, O’Brien shows the same gnarly, gruesome effects as parasites infest a farmer’s livestock. What he does exceptionally well is cast believable actors (John Lynch is phenomenal) in an absurd situation, directing with the same tension he also brought to I Am Not A Serial Killer. One sequence involving the birth of a cow is “taut” to say the least; it’s the perfect lockdown horror if you have nerves of steel and are not climbing the walls right now. It would be too easy to label this “The Thing on a farm” because it more than stands up on its own amongst the cow shit, the mud, blood and offal our central characters crawl through. I mean there’s just not enough cow horror out there, right?

Although so far there have been few Irish horror films that have dealt with their troubled politics, The Cured – an Irish / French co-production written and directed by David Freyne – is an earnest account of people returning to society after having been contaminated by a lethal virus (another lockdown movie for you all) that has turned a large part of the population into zombies. Social unrest is brought to the surface immediately as those cured from the virus are discriminated against and left to deal with what they have destroyed. The militant government rallies martial law and chaos ensues. For the most part, Freyne’s script plays as a drama and is an interesting take on the sub-genre despite its constant solemnity.

So far... so serious. You want light-hearted, check out (if you must) the uninspired Boy Eats Girl or Conor McMahon’s inventive kill-counts in killer clown movie, Stitches. But you’ll find nothing better than Jon Wright’s Grabbers, a film that shamelessly embraces Irish stereotypes (and then some) as a sleepy (drunk) fishing island are plagued by alien invaders. They quickly discover that getting pissed is the only way to survive their bloodsucking enemy as we are taken on a tongue-in-cheek ride via Shaun of the Dead territory. Safe to say, it’s brilliant fun and does exactly what it says on the beer bottle.

There are more tentacles, fishermen and fisherwomen in the recent Sea Fever. Neasa Hardiman directs another multinational production via the USA, UK, Sweden and Belgium that once again deals with a parasitic organism and quarantine aboard a fishing vessel off the coast of Ireland. Hardiman also wrote the script and although she also taps into John Carpenter’s The Thing, there are also traces of James Cameron’s The Abyss and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. As the ship is caught in the grip of a Lovecraftian beast, it contaminates the ship and eventually the crew, as eyeballs squirm and explode. Despite its heavy influences, Sea Fever should remain a crucial entry in signaling the rising tide of Irish horror.

Come away...

Much like Yeats’ eponymous poem, Irish horror seems to be a “wandering water,” fearless and wild in its approaches as it continues to embrace genre filmmaking. It doesn’t need to dwell so much on the horrific truth – the people have lived it – instead, they return to the same places their ancestors and writers retreated to all those years ago, another realm that shows some strange truth in its fantasy.

These places could be seen as an analogy for Irish themes – begorrah, the young were taken – and this is why, similarly to British horror, drama grounds most of these films as the genre taps into the dread and darker aspects of humanity. Irish horror focuses on the individual and small groups remaining free to explore boundless themes that create enigmatic little gems on a small budget – and the horror genre has always offered financial opportunities for such independent features. Having produced Wake Wood, Stitches, The Hallow and I Am Not a Serial Killer, Fantastic Films is the Irish production company to watch right now when it comes to genre filmmaking. In discussing horror with The Irish Times in 2017, founders Brendan McCarthy and John McDonnell stated, “We feel there is a dedicated audience for these films. In the horror idea, if you look up sites like Bloody Disgusting and FANGORIA, you find that core audience in abundance. If they like a film, there’s a chance it might break out.”

And there is still a wealth of untapped potential and source material. Irish horror films may barely fill a faery vat, but I’ll guarantee more will be on the way even “While the world is full of troubles... And is anxious in its sleep.”