Each year, in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, horror sites share lists of the best scary movies Ireland has to offer. Typically included are cuts from the illustrious Leprechaun series, none of which were Irish productions, alongside something like The Hallow, a terrific film that’s actually a British-Irish co-production with a British director (Corin Hardy) at the helm. The reality is that Ireland doesn’t do horror very well. We can do dark and dreary like nobody’s business, but, for whatever reason, horror escapes us. One only has to look to the execrable Shrooms, or the more recent Hole in the Ground, for examples of Irish filmmakers failing miserably to capture the inherent spookiness of our little island.
Boys from County Hell, the latest offering from Chris Baugh, seeks to correct this imbalance by tipping his hat to Bram Stoker aka the writer of Dracula, one of the greatest horror novels in history. The setting is Six Mile Hill, a small town in Northern Ireland where the local, vampire-themed pub is called The Stoker, despite the fact the townspeople are still stung that the man himself allegedly stole the idea for his vampire from their real-life bloodsucker, Abhartach (pronounced like Av-Are-Tack, and an actual local legend, FYI). Now safely buried under a cairn, Abhartach has been refashioned into something of a tourist trap, and one local quips that he’s the only reason anybody even knows the place exists.
Indeed, a couple of Canadian backpackers, gussied up like they’ve just walked off the set of An American Werewolf in London, arrive and are taken to the site, where the titular protagonists scare them with a fake hand. Suffice to say there isn’t much to do in Six Mile Hill, which is why Eugene (Peaky Blinders star Jack Rowan), SP (Michael Hough, Game of Thrones) and William (Fra Fee, who appeared in the recent film Animals) spend most of their time necking pints wherever they can manage, from The Stoker to Eugene’s dilapidated farmhouse (where the memory of his deceased mother still lingers). Begrudgingly along for the ride is William’s long-time girlfriend, Claire (Derry Girls’ Louisa Harland, proving that her accent wasn’t a fluke).
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Life is pretty boring all round until the planned building of a new bypass unwittingly puts Eugene in the position of being the most hated man in town. His father’s company takes on the job, forcing the two men to work together while batting away criticism from everyone in Six Mile Hill. The other major problem is that Abhartach’s gravesite must be destroyed to get the diggers through the field, but the pile of stones rather ominously keeps rebuilding itself whenever somebody knocks it down. Before you can say “he is risen,” corpses are being reanimated and blood is being drained from live bodies at an alarming rate, forcing Eugene and his pals to either save the day or perish alongside their (sort of) beloved town.
Boys from County Hell is a co-production between Northern Ireland and the Republic, so its Irishness is bonafide. Horslips’ classic track “Dearg Doom” kicks in right as the title pops up, over gorgeous, sweeping shots of the almost unnaturally green countryside. The characters’ reactions to getting hurt, and to the escalating situation in general, are unmistakably Irish too; when Claire begins to say, “he tried to bite you, like a…,” Eugene’s father cuts her off, exclaiming, “like a cunt!” Likewise, when a corpse’s leg pops up out of the ground, someone demands to know, “Whose foot is that!?” The scares, which are beautifully done and impressively avoid cliché, are frequently undercut by something wacky happening, such as when Eddie Cochran’s “Come On Everybody” is used to score an otherwise horrifying tussle with a vampire.
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The man in question has been graphically skewered. There’s a brilliant shot of him pulling himself up the stick in an attempt to escape that’s equally disgusting and hilarious. Boys from County Hell is advertised as a horror-comedy, and it’s worth noting both elements are deftly handled here. There’s plenty of blood and guts, while Abhartach himself is a nightmare-inducing creation brought to life with wonderfully gruesome makeup design and prosthetics. Wisely, Baugh teases his arrival for much of the movie, with shadowy glimpses seen in the reflection of a character’s glasses, for instance, before the full reveal in all its feral, bony glory. Evidently, Abhartach’s look was painstakingly created, and the filmmakers understandably want to showcase all that hard work as much as possible.
The legendary vampire’s method of blood-drinking is horribly inventive. He stands close to victims and drains the red stuff out of them, so it trickles down their faces and along the ground to him. This is established in Boys from County Hell’s gory opening sequence, which sees a couple of elderlies falling victim to an unseen force as their blood quite literally gushes out of every orifice. The vamps themselves, who aren’t turned in the usual way either, look and act a bit more like zombies at times. Considering they are technically reanimated corpses, not to mention the vampire myth has been retreaded beyond recognition at this stage, Baugh and co-screenwriter Brendan Mullin should be applauded for taking risks with the material in Boys from County Hell, most of which pay off.
Although Boys from County Hell makes several nods to vampire classics such as The Lost Boys, the core relationship isn’t romantic or even between friends. Rather, the broiling issues between Eugene and his father, Francie (Nigel O’Neill, who starred in Baugh’s previous effort, Bad Day for the Cut), gradually take center-stage as the supernatural situation escalates alongside them. Evidently, the death of Eugene’s mother, and Francie’s wife, has driven a wedge between the two men, but the more son tries to impress father, the less pleased the older man seems to be with him (a misunderstanding over a hug is particularly heartbreaking).
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Francie is a cantankerous, borderline rude man who’s so stuck in his ways that he may as well be standing in one place, shouting obscenities at everyone who comes near him. O’Neill’s look resembles Sam Neill’s similarly kind-hearted but hard-edged character from Hunt for the Wilderpeople and watching his relationship with Eugene slowly thaw under admittedly bizarre circumstances is comparably heartwarming. Both O’Neill and Rowan do fine work in their respective roles, neither painted as the aggressor necessarily but both similarly at fault for letting the relationship sour to the extent it has.
The deaths in Boys from County Hell, which has an impressively high body count for a horror-comedy, have a real weight to them. One culminates with a speech about a can of beer but still manages to be incredibly moving, thanks to the strength of the writing and the skill of the actor’s performance. Steve Lynch’s epic score also helps elevate the story beyond its genre trappings, resembling something with a far wider scope. Unsurprisingly, Boys from County Hell isn’t really about vampires so much as it’s about being proud of where you come from, and of the bonds forged there.
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Boys from County Hell is shot through with verve and panache, but certain scene transitions feel a bit hasty, almost as though the filmmakers couldn’t wait to get to the next bit. Likewise, although the various needle drops are mostly in good fun, there is an overabundance of rock ‘n’ roll stylings that grate as more and more of them interrupt the action. And, although Claire is a major character in the story, she’s unnecessarily sidelined during the final battle, which is a shame considering that Claire is the only female character of note, not to mention the only one who isn’t a straight, white man. An argument could be made that this is to ensure the focus remains on the key father-son dynamic, but it’s still disappointing to see in 2021.
Still, there’s plenty more to love about Boys from County Hell than not. Extra Ordinary, its closest recent comparison, is more whimsical, with a drier sense of humor since the focus is on exorcism and ghost-hunting. Baugh’s film, meanwhile, has cracks about “the good room” as well as lengthy, hilarious arguments about the best way to kill a vampire, almost giving it the feel of an Irish take on Shaun of the Dead. The recent spate of decent Irish horror, which includes Extra Ordinary, Sea Fever, Vivarium and The Cured, runs the gamut from creature feature to zombie movie. Boys from County Hell fits snugly amongst their number as a genuinely great vampire film, set in a tiny town in Northern Ireland that has nothing going for it until the moment it has way too much.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.