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Ireland is the nation that gave the world Dracula, Dorian Grey and Halloween itself. We practically invented pagan rituals and yet, its only recently this legacy of terror has been translated to the big screen.
Lee Cronin’s debut horror The Hole in the Ground is set to be distributed in the US by A24, the company behind modern horror classics Green Room, Hereditary and The Witch. It is the high point of a cinematic wave of new-Irish horror blossoming in the Emerald Isle over the past decade. To celebrate its release, HeadStuff have picked our 10 favourite movies from this movement.
Isolation (2005) – Dir Billy O’Brien
Not counting Neil Jordan’s work like The Company of Wolves or Interview with a Vampire (both made outside Ireland), Isolation is perhaps the first truly Irish horror. If so, what a gross if engrossing start to the movement. Essentially it’s an Alien riff whereby the monster is not from outer space but created by corrupt farmers and scientists performing genetic tests on cows.
While it features enough disgustingly squishy special effects to rival the Ridley Scott classic, what’s most effective about Isolation is its moments rooted in reality. It’s opening half hour – focusing on the birth of the deformed creature from its mama cow – is shot with such verisimilitude it made this reviewer want to hurl. Meanwhile, special props for the film for employing a bolt pistol as a weapon two years before No Country For Old Men.
Another surprising element of Isolation is how practically everyone onscreen and behind the camera went on to great success. Starring as a young couple on the run who get caught up in the creature feature is future Oscar nominee Ruth Negga (Loving) and Mission Impossible villain Sean Harris. The vet employed by the scientists is played by The Babadook’s Essie Davis. DOP Robbie Ryan’s work recently on The Favourite earned him an Academy Award nomination. Meanwhile writer-director Billy O’Brien went on to helm the criminally underseen brilliant horror-drama I Am Not a Serial Killer.
Wake Wood (2009) – Dir David Keating
A cross between Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man, Wake Wood is perhaps best remembered as being one of the first projects of the legendary Hammer Film Productions following its recent revival. It’s also the company’s best movie since its return.
Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle star as married coupled whose daughter dies in a tragic accident. Moving to a rural village called Wakewood, they are presented with a strange opportunity by the town leader (Timothy Spall). With a pagan ritual, their child can be resurrected for three days – giving the two a chance to say a proper goodbye. However, if the pair decide to proceed, they can never leave Wakewood.
Anchored by three great performances, particularly Gillen and Birthistle whose naturalistic turns help ground the horror in reality, Wake Wood feels authentic in its exploration of grief but also manages to terrify. It has a great three act script which constantly shifts, altering viewers expectations. Its pagan rituals are both truly creepy and gloriously disgusting and the last scene is a classic.
Citadel (2012) – Dir Ciaran Foy
An Irish take on the ‘hoodie horror’ genre, Aneurin Barnard stars as Tommy – a man suffering from agoraphobia after mysterious teenagers murder his pregnant wife, leaving him a single father. Nine months following the attack, he and his son are preyed upon by the same gang.
Like many hoodie horrors, Citadel’s thesis that society would be better if we exterminated those children from poor backgrounds we collectively neglected feels wrong-headed. Dodgy politics aside though, Citadel is as tense as they come, a white-knuckle thrill ride pitting a phobia riddled man against his worst fear. This is down to Barnard’s anxiety drenched performance – probably what landed him his role as the silent Frenchman in Dunkirk – and Foy’s direction – using dim lighting and shadows to enhance every terrifying scene.
Like the recent Mandy and Revenge, the film manages to craft a setting which feels simultaneously lived-in and recognisable yet otherworldly. The town where Citadel takes place – with its seemingly endless tunnels, random blackouts and lack of police presence and transport in and out of the place – leaves it feeling like the worst council estate imaginable meets purgatory. Look out for Foy’s next movie Eli, coming to Netflix this year.
The Canal (2014) – Dir Ivan Kavanagh
The Canal centres on a character we can all relate to – a depressed and stressed film archivist. His name is David and is played by Hellboy’s Rupert Evans. Already finding his sanity crumbling after he discovers his wife may be cheating on him, at work he is given an old 16mm film reel with footage from a horrific murder that occurred in the early 1900’s in his home – leading him further into a tailspin.
The Canal benefits from a twitchy, unhinged performance by its lead and a chaotic plot which mirrors its central character’s headspace. Does evil lurk inside the walls of David’s home or is he having a psychotic break? Writer-director Kavanagh’s narrative dances between the two possibilities quite effectively. Check out his cool homage to The Ring in the film’s climax, as well as the trailer for his upcoming Western Never Grow Old starring Emile Hirsch and John Cusack.
The Hallow (2015) / Without Name (2016) – Dir Corin Hardy / Lorcan Finnegan
A great double bill – these two films take the same premise of UK forest experts heading to Irish woods only to stumble upon old Celtic evils in totally different directions. The Hallow, particularly in its energetic second half, is as close to a Guillermo Del Toro gross fairy tale creature flick Ireland may ever get. In contrast, Without Name feels far more indebted to Polanski’s apartment trilogy, particularly The Tenant. It’s a slow burn dive into a man’s sanity unravelling, asking are wood faeries targeting our central character or is isolation just getting the better of him?
Both debut films, the two’s directors have gone on to great success. Hardy went on to helm Conjuring spin-off The Nun. Meanwhile Finnegan has shot new thriller Vivarium starring Imogen Poots and Jesse Eissenberg which we here at Headstuff are eagerly anticipating.
A Dark Song (2016) – Dir Liam Gavin
Perhaps the best film on this list, A Dark Song is proof that when working with a limited budget – a gripping story is all one needs. The great Catherine Walker (The Delinquent Season) stars as Sophia, a woman grieving over the senseless death of her son. Seeking vengeance, she hires alcoholic, short-tempered occultist Joseph (The Canal’s Steve Oram) to lead her in a grueling, months-long ritual shut off from the world to get what she wants via the dark arts.
Also penning the screenplay, Gavin does a terrific job at making the black magic elements of his screenplay feel authentic. He emphasises the grueling mental and physical sacrifices those willing to perform these tasks must go through, as well as the endless painstaking rituals. It helps too that Gavin directs his script in a very stripped back manner. For the most part, he eschews typical horror beats, creating more of a drama feel. Both these elements pay off in dividends as the movie progresses and gradually leans into its supernatural elements. This is because by that point, viewers thoroughly believe in the world and its characters.
The true secret weapon of the film is Joseph. So abrasive, rude and generally horrible to be around, viewers will ask what’s more scary – dark occult rituals or being trapped in a Welsh cottage with him? Yet, there are moments where we see he is capable of warmth and truly dedicated to his craft. His anger is out of fear, as his line of work and what he has seen has left him permanently haunted. It’s a wonderful creation brought to life by a live-wire Oram.
Don’t Leave Home (2018) – Dir Michael Tully
Released on streaming service Shudder, this quirky thriller is most noteworthy for being written and directed by an American and for its comparisons to more famous horrors. It centres on a US artist (Anna Margaret Hollyman) specialising in diorama miniatures a la Toni Collette in Hereditary. She’s commissioned by an ex-priest (Lalor Roddy) living in an Irish rural village where children disappeared to visit the area and craft a special piece. Delighted at first, her happiness turns to confusion when her hosts – the former priest, his housekeeper (Helena Bereen) and their Lurch-like servant (David McSavage) – all seem strange, exuding Get Out vibes.
Clocking in just under 85 minutes, Don’t Leave Home feels slightly undercooked – wrapping up without a cathartic conclusion and before delving thematically into what could have been an exploration of the Catholic Church’s sins. That said, its gorgeous opening scene – depicting what is best described as an ‘evil miracle’ – is breathtaking, casting a cloud of unease over the rest of the film. This coupled – with director Michael Tully milking the foggy bogs and ominous forests of his Irish setting for all their worth, a handful of creepy dreamlike images and a nicely circular narrative – leave the movie a mostly satisfying little tale, feeling like a short story stretched to feature length. It also boasts two great performances from Roddy and Bereen who each appear in the next movie on this list.
The Devil’s Doorway (2018) – Dir Aislinn Clarke
Ireland’s first good found footage film, The Devil’s Doorway fully engages with Ireland’s history of church-sanctioned horrors – unlike Don’t Leave Home. In 1960, the older jaded Fr Thomas (Lalor Roddy) and the younger wide-eyed Fr John (Ciaran Flynn) are sent by the Vatican to investigate a miraculous event in one of the Magdalene Laundries – Irish asylums for so called ‘fallen women’. Run by the sinister Mother Superior (Helena Bereen), the two uncover something much more horrific.
Shot on 16mm cameras – often placed in fixed positions – The Devil’s Doorway is far more visually appealing to watch than a lot of the shaky cam films which clog its sub-genre. For the most part, Clarke and her co-writers bravely depict the cruelty inflicted by the nuns upon those not fitting into Irish society’s view of good women, while also acknowledging the true villains were the male heads of the Catholic Church who turned a blind eye. All that said, The Devil’s Doorway is more anti-establishment than religion, dedicating a hefty part of its running time to Fr Thomas wrestling with his faith.
The movie is far more effective in depicting the true horrors of the Magdalene Laundries – casual physical assaults on the inmates, a chilling scene depicting a symphysiotomy – than the generic demonic horror it eventually becomes. Mileage may vary on its final act, featuring the typical ‘running around in the dark with a camera-ending’ so often seen in found footage films. Overall though, The Devil’s Doorway is profoundly creepy, shedding further light on a truly evil part of Ireland’s recent history.
The Little Stranger (2018) – Dir Lenny Abrahamson
Perhaps Ireland’s most lavish horror to date, this adaptation of Sarah Waters 2009 gothic novel of the same name stars Domhnall Gleeson as Dr Faraday, an uptight working class doctor living in post-WWII Britain. He is called to treat a patient housed at a crumbling manor of which he was once obsessed. As he forms a bond with one of the home’s wealthy inhabitants (Ruth Wilson), strange occurrences begin to plague the building.
Lenny Abrahamson’s first project following his Oscar nomination for Room, The Little Stranger was met with lukewarm reviews and low box office returns. However, we here at Headstuff were big fans, with it ranking on our top 20 films of 2018. Perhaps, the film’s misleading marketing – overplaying its supernatural elements – were the source of such middling reaction from the public. It’s a shame because The Little Stranger’s central conceit that ghosts may not be the spirits of those who died but are manifestations of the evils and obsessions held deep within living humans was truly haunting.