Northwestern Europe and the United Kingdom has a rich tradition of folk horror films. We did an episode for Horror Business on the phenomenon of folk horror. Generally, the plot of a folk horror film involves something, be it a religion, a ritual, or an actual deity, from the pre-Christian past of the UK and Ireland re-emerging or being introduced into modern society to disastrous results. We chalk it up to English people being afraid of their own imperial and colonial sins coming back to haunt them, but if you want more of that, go listen to the episode. Chris Baugh’s Boys From County Hell is the newest addition to the long lineage of films that wonder what kind of weird terrifying shit is buried in the countryside of the UK and Ireland, and it is a ton of fun. It’s lean, sleek, and absolutely vicious.
Boys… is about a small town in Ireland that is on the cusp of modernization through the construction of a freeway through the countryside. The town is famous for (allegedly) inspiring Bram Stoker to write Dracula after hearing the local legend of the abhartach, a figure similar to the vampire. According to village lore, the abhartach is buried under a cairn of rocks in the middle of a local field. Think Rawhead Rex but not as…Clive Barker-y. It’s heavily implied that much of the townsfolk think the story is nonsense, but it inspires enough tourism that they’re content to let it be so it can bring tourist dollars. Through a series of mishaps, the abhartach is released from its prison, mayhem ensues, and it’s up to our plucky band of protagonists to stop it.
From the gate one of the things that sets the film apart from the pack is its brand of distinctly Irish humor. At one point in the opening scene an American tourist the main character runs into at the bar sarcastically asks if he’s going to tell them to stay off the moors, and Eugene, our protagonist, deadpans that they’re in Ireland, not England. The whole movie has a sardonic midnight sense of ridiculousness about it. Nothing too flashy, just a lot of simple (and very profane) observations of the darkly absurd and profane reactions to the wholly terrifying. It’s (thankfully) not enough to make this a horror comedy. Instead, these brief flashes of humor make the horrific moments truly pop. It also does away with much of the traditional weaknesses of a Hollywood vampire and plays off these departures from tradition as a source of comedy.
The film brings to life a mythos that is just different enough from something we’ve seen to be intriguing. The films poster says it all: to hell with Dracula. Unlike Stoker’s titular count who lurks around a shadowy castle with his brides, or creeps on women in an opera house, the abhartach is wholly monstrous and not the least bit human or charming. It’s such a vile and evil entity that even its presence pulls the blood from the body, resulting in a gruesome intro to the film and plenty of interesting scenes involving blood suddenly leaving the body. That might not sound like much, but in a subgenre of horror that hasn’t seen much innovation for the last hundred years or so it was intriguing to see play out on screen.
The rejection of modernity was an interesting theme that was quietly running through this film. Six Mile Hill, the Northern Ireland village the film takes place in, is on the verge of being connected to the rest of Ireland by a modern freeway, something the town clearly resents. Indeed, much of the tension in the first act comes from the townspeople resenting Eugene and his father for agreeing to work on the project. Six Mile Hill doesn’t quite reach Wicker Man levels of rejecting the outside world, but the implications of a group of people adhering strictly to tradition and being suspicious of change are there, and it’s fitting in with the film’s theme of folk horror. Seeing the villain of the film (a monster that has been buried for hundreds of years and is now literally rising up to attack the village) as a metaphor for tradition dooming people to extinction isn’t that much of a stretch.
Boys From County Hell isn’t anything hugely groundbreaking, but it’s a fun horror movie with a ton of heart that knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t try to be anything but that. It’s simple without being boorish yet smart without being pretentious, scary but not overwhelming, and it walks a fine line between being excessively gory and violent while still being satisfyingly bloody. In short, it’s the perfect movie if you’re looking to get spooky for these next few weeks.
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