Boys From County Hell
You know, the 2020 Virgin Media Dublin International feels like such a long time ago, long enough that I had to actually look up what films that I saw at it. They were some of the last ones that I watched in a cinema before the big C came along to ruin things. One year later though, and the film festival is back, entirely online and with a programme that belies the fate of the industry that it represents. I was really looking forward to the films that I pre-ordered to watch at home, a chance to at least pretend that such normal day-to-day activities that we have been denied in the last twelve months can be what they once were.
And the first offering is also my first Irish film of the year. As I outlined in my review of Sputnik, I’m not really a horror guy, but I think that efforts like this one lie in their own little sub-genre: “creature feature” might be the best title, one that conjures up the aura of a low-budget splatter-fest, one frequently tied into comedies rather than horror. A whole generation of directors have emerged since Shaun Of The Dead re-vitialised the sub-genre, and Chris Baugh is just the latest one of those, looking to bring the blood effects and decapitated prop heads to the fields of Northern Ireland, working off of a short film he made a few years ago. Was his Boys From County Hell a nice addition to the new tradition started by Edgar Wright, or just another wasted effort trying to be the next Troll 2? I watched a showing of Boys From County Hell via the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
In rural Northern Ireland, directionless Eugene (Jack Rowan) spends his days trying to refurbish his late mothers house, clashing with his perennially unimpressed father Francie (Nigel O’Neill) or drinking in the local with friends William (Fre Fee), SP (Michael Hough) and Louise (Claire McCann). When William is killed in a tragic accident near an ancient cairn, Eugene’s life seems to have hit its lowest point, but that’s before people start showing up dead with their blood drained from their bodies. Now Eugene, with his father and friends, is forced to confront the possibility that a visiting Bram Stoker was once inspired by something more than just a myth.
There are two main aspects of Boys From County Hell that struck me immediately after seeing it that are worthy for further discussion, beyond the good work of its cast and crew. There’s bad and there’s good: the bad is that the film takes very few risk with its structure and narrative relative to the rest of the sub-genre, and the good is that it very much captures a certain aspect of the Irish ethos in the way that it presents itself. The bad would indicate that the film us unlikely to resonate very far with audiences, but the second means that it might actually be a worthwhile entry in the canon of modern Irish cinema.
If you’ve seen one creature feature, then you could map out the general spine of Boys From County Hell without seeing it without too much trouble. There’s a down-on-his-luck protagonist in a dead-end employment situation in a middle-of-nowhere town. There’s local legends of a scary monster. There’s a best friend, a wacky friend, and the girl he might want to be more than just mates with. Monster starts killing people. Antics ensure as protagonist and his friends wind up being the only people between said monster and the rest of humanity. Some gory deaths, some heroic sacrifices and a suitably located finale where the monster is subdued, for now, before we see once directionless protagonist getting his life together, and you have yourself a movie. Shaun Of The Dead really is a very apt comparison, containing many of the same themes, plot points and even character archetypes (Michael Gough’s SP is pretty much Nick Frost’s Ed).
I wouldn’t consider any of that a spoiler either, because that’s just how this sub-genre goes. Boys From County Hell has no interest in re-inventing the wheel in that regard, or even trying. It flies by, clocking in at not even 90 minutes, and there isn’t a single second of that you won’t see coming from a distance. Am I perhaps expecting too much? It must be easy to get sucked into the established constraints of the genre. But then again there should always be room for some manner of elaboration, some efforts at being a bit more daring than those that came before. Right down to the fact that there is only one female character of note – a decent Claire McCann, better known for her main role in Derry Girls – Boys From County Hell is toeing a line that was first drawn over half-a-centruy ago. I’m thinking about something like Extra Ordinary, which was willing to push the envelope a little bit, in comparison. Sure, there is an Irish legend – the “Abhartach”, though the source material has it as a dwarf not a vampire, but lets not split hairs – however it’s an Irish legend that could fit into any number of film premises with some slight changes to the script.
But outside of the structural sameness, there is something new here, which is, well, the Irish-ness of the thing. The setting is Irish of course, and may I say that it is always nice to see a film set in Northern Ireland that doesn’t feel the need to reference the Troubles to some degree. But I talk more about the characters and the dialogue. Call it whatever you want: a certain sarcastic wit, or a bluntness in delivery that seems at the same time both humorous and serious. It might not be the genius of The Guard, but it isn’t all that far away either. Whatever it is, Boys From County Hell feels like a very Irish film in the way that its characters talk and interact, and this is its real saving grace. Perhaps no better example than when one of our erstwhile group of vampire hunters, when first faced with the reality of what is occurring, remarks “You mean it’s some kind of…” before someone else quickly completes “…c**t?”. The creative duo who made this one demonstrated a similar thing in 2017’s Bad Day For The Cut, which was also set in the rural North, though Boys From County Hell cleaves more towards the Wright-style (every thing the characters try to kill the vampires fails to work, engendering more frustration than terror for example, though this too is not an original idea: see The Lost Boys).
As a result Boys From County Hell manages to be infectiously endearing, an effect aided in no small part by the cast, who are clearly enjoying themselves in taking part in such a project. Rowan is a stand-out and is probably destined for greater things (aside from his role in Peaky Blinders of course), with the character he plays carrying a certain kind of sadness from the expectations of others he can never seem to meet and the constant resort to alcohol as a means of having any kind of social life. He’s the one who releases the blood-sucker, but not out of ignorance or rage, but just because no one seems to think he can clear the ancient cairn out of the way of his fathers construction project, and he rises to the bait in a bid to deflect accusations of listlessness.
It’s easy to see yourself in a lot of these characters: the young man short on prospects or familial affection; the other young man heading off to Australia due to the same lack of prospects; the other other young men facing the same lack of prospects with a greater degree of bonhomie. The film is able to capture something when it comes to such friendships in Ireland, where the lack of excitement or opportunities in small towns means you have only alcohol and your nearest companions to face the monotony. It also captures the all too common problems of distant paternal relationships, and shines a bit of a light on the boredom that naturally comes with life in small towns, such that the arrival of a blood sucking demon is less a cause of fleeing to the hills, and more something that everyone wants to get involved with in some fashion. It never gets too far towards serious and never gets too close to comedy, which is a good and bad thing, but it is most definitely an Irish film.
The film obviously had a limited budget, but doesn’t look too bad, all things considered. Those expecting a gore-fest will actually be disappointed, with the majority of the films violence left to the imagination. Still, one has to give credit to the practical effects on display, whether it is blood that sometimes cascades out of orifices, or the vampires themselves, that look suitably animalistic and scary. The Abhartach is a neat looking creature, more animal than humanoid, and there is something quite scary in the idea of a vampire that can force the blood out of your body from a hundred feet away. Baugh is of a mind to let the darkness that makes up most of the film do the scene-setting for him, and the eerie nature of that darkness – or day time shots where the lifeless expanse of the Irish countryside doesn’t look all that inviting really – is well-captured. There are a few scenes that catch the eye otherwise: a fight under the blue lights of a mortician’s workplace; a comical effort to try and wipe out the first vampire encountered, who just won’t stay down; or an affecting final reconciliation between father and son, even as the head demon lurks nearby.
So, the film festival, for me, got off to a bit of a mixed start. Boys From County Hell does good work with its cast, its script, its look and its capture of an very Irish flavour in what it is, but not so much on many of the other scores: its rigid adherence to a predictable structure chief among them. Shaun Of The Dead has a whole lot to answer for in terms of a more modern wave of these kinds of films, and its influence on Boys From County Hell is leaping off the screen as fast as a vampire would. This doesn’t mean that Boys From County Hell is a bad film, but it does mean it is unlikely to ever resonate too much with an audience, especially outside of Ireland. It’s partly recommended, and that’s as far as I can go: I could do with more Irish films of these kinds of sub-genres, they just need to go that extra mile.
(All images are copyright of Shudder).