Irish horror movies have experienced a bit of a resurgence as of late. Since 2012 particularly, there has been a steady production of creepy flicks emerging from the Emerald Isle and within the last three or four years, Irish horror has probably hit its peak production period with the likes of Sea Fever (2019), The Hole In The Ground (2019) and The Cured (2017) all garnering a positive reaction from fans and critics. Irish folklore and mythology seem to have been embraced more than ever by a plethora of filmmakers and Chris Baugh’s newest effort, Boys from County Hell, attempts to provide a new interesting twist on old ways.
Presumably taking its title from the similarly named The Pogues song, Boys from County Hell (originally a short film by Baugh) focuses on Eugene Moffat (Jack Rowan) and his mundane day-to-day living within the small rural town of Six Mile Hill in Derry. Eugene is a young man who has built up a sizable drinking tab in the local pub aptly named ‘The Stoker’ and is constantly badgered by his father Francie (Nigel O’Neill) to make something of his life. This is as his best friend William (Fra Fee) is leaving for the harsh heat of Australia. Things aren’t looking great for Eugene and when tempers flare between Eugene and William after a drunken binge in The Stoker, proceedings take an emotional turn and with it, an ancient vampire is awakened from its stone tomb.
Co-written by Brendan Mullin, Boys from County Hell has a bit of a rocky start. A focus on two elderly people bleeding from the eyes and nose with no real context is swiftly followed by backpacking Canadian tourists in search of scary stories to bring back home. This usual campfire horror story approach follows every cliché you could expect ranging from super loud jump scares when you totally don’t expect them (sarcasm) to the maniacal warnings of townsfolk babbling on about age-old wives’ tales. It’s extremely predictable stuff. Thankfully though the setup is quick and once things do kick off, Boys from County Hell is a lot of fun.
For one thing, the cast are all great – meaning this may just be the first Irish horror movie in quite a while that doesn’t suffer from at least one over-the-top performance that feels remarkably out of place. Rowan as Eugene is a confident and funny lead while Fee, Louisa Harland and Michael Hough as the main character’s close friends provide solid turns playing the most unlikely of vampire hunters. Even O’Neill as Francie provides moments of laugh-out-loud material that Baugh and Mullin should be proud of. Hell, even the infamous creature of the night, Abhartach is menacingly portrayed by Robert Nairne with such creepy care that you can’t help but admire it all from a safe distance.
The writing is surprisingly solid too, marking a real improvement from Baugh after his debut feature Bad Day for the Cut. Together with his frequent collaborator Mullin, he creates a handful of entertaining set pieces that provide both gore and laughs. There is nothing on display here that pushes Boys from County Hell beyond fun into truly terrifying yet Baugh and Mullin bring the laughs and thrills they need to with simple but straight to the point writing – something many other similarly styled comedy-horror movies in recent years should have taken note of.
Here the pair attempt to take established genre norms and completely rip them apart and reconfigure them to their own personal liking and for the most part it works. The established methods concerning the slaying of vampires are stripped back for a more basic methodology suited to Irish folklore and mythology specifically. Staking vampires through the heart won’t do much, sunlight just provides a fresh tan and let’s not even try garlic.
Instead, Baugh and Mullin opt for a different method of slaying that feels fresh and dare I say it, exciting – breathing new life into tired tropes. Even the movie’s approach to infection and subsequent turning is an approach not seen before (to my knowledge anyway) and reminded me of Guillermo Del Toro’s fascinating take on vampirism in Cronos, which is high praise indeed.
Where Boys from County Hell suffers a bit is in the build-up to its climax. A poorly paced section involving Eugene and co seeking the help of William’s father, George (John Lynch), leads to an undeniably silly set piece that feels like unnecessary Evil Dead worship. With Baugh and Mullin’s obvious focus on giving a different kind of vampire experience, this whole section felt like a completely different movie that just didn’t work. That’s not to say some elements of this section don’t provide an emotional response, the segment ultimately just jars with what comes before and after it.
Thankfully, not all is lost, and the finale rights those wrongs. Baugh knows exactly when to show the audience what they want to see and when to reel it back in and build necessary suspense for full effect. Abhartach is mostly relegated to the darkness but when the filmmaker carefully showcases the ancient vampire slumbering through Eugene’s home intent on draining those who stand before him dry, he nails the creature’s characteristics and menace perfectly for the most important piece of this little horror flick.
It also helps that the makeup and creature effects are of an incredibly high standard for such a low-budget horror flick, and it has been quite a while since I have been so impressed with such a gnarly-looking vampire. Nowadays, vampires are all about perfect good looks or over-sexualised seduction so it’s nice to see this ancient vampire looking so decrepit and terrifying with its sole focus being ravenous bloodshed. I have no doubt that Count Orlok would be proud.
In closing, Boys from County Hell may not win any noteworthy awards in the film industry and definitely has its flaws but Chris Baugh has crafted an extremely enjoyable comedy horror flick that isn’t afraid to take risks and show off its blood-soaked fangs for all to see. Irish horror fans are sure to rejoice.