‘The folklore lends itself to it’: Ireland’s horror films find mainstream success

A century after Bram Stoker introduced Dracula to the world, Irish storytellers are again conjuring vampires – as well as zombies, ghosts, changelings and grisly, mysterious diseases – and this time on the big screen.

Young film directors are channelling Ireland’s dark folklore and contemporary social ills into a wave of horror films that are finding mainstream audiences overseas.

The country’s small film industry has made 20 horrors in the past six years, with another two due for release in autumn. The output ranges from slashers to horror-comedies to psychological thrillers with supernatural elements.

Four of the 11 films shown at the FrightFest festival in Glasgow earlier this year were made in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The US network TBS, part of Warner Bros, is turning a 2019 film, Extra Ordinary, into a TV series.

You Are Not My Mother, which was runner-up for an audience award at the Toronto International film festival, recently landed on Netflix.

“Irish folklore is particularly dark and lends itself to horror,” said the film’s writer and director, Kate Dolan, 31. “Not a lot of happy endings – a lot of people being dragged to their doom.”

A scene from the 2018 film The Hole in the Ground
A scene from the 2018 film The Hole in the Ground Photograph: Screen Ireland

Her debut feature, which costs €400,000 (£338,576), tells the story of a bullied teenager in a Dublin suburb who becomes alarmed at her mother’s transformation, hinting at supernatural causes, mental illness and social alienation. The New York Times called it impressive, skin-crawling, deeply metaphorical and genuinely distressing.

Dolan grew up in Dublin listening to her grandmothers’ tales of changeling, maladies and curses, causing her to wonder at the origin and power of such beliefs. “I grew up in a line of terrace houses and the idea of ​​something could happen there, and you’d be equally isolated as in a cabin in the woods, with no one to help you – I think I found that even more scary.”

Dolan is now writing scripts for two horror-tinged films with LGBTQ themes.

Hollywood has noted Ireland’s emerging talent. Lee Cronin, who made his name with the 2019 chiller The Hole in the Ground, set in rural Ireland, directed the upcoming Evil Dead Rise, the latest in the Evil Dead franchise.

The ability to make small budgets go a long way, and to tap into old and contemporary Irish anxieties, had drawn film-makers to horror, said Louise Ryan, a spokesperson for Screen Ireland, a state agency that has funded many of the films. “The flexibility in the genre has attracted a lot of directors.”

Vivarium, a 2019 science fiction horror starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots that premiered at Cannes, drew on Ireland’s ghost housing estates, which were abandoned during a financial crash. “It was a way about talking about the social contract, and people being trapped by a system,” said the director, Lorcan Finnegan, 43.

Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots in the 2019 film Vivarium
Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots in the 2019 film Vivarium Photograph: Screen Ireland

His next film, Nocebo, is about a London fashion designer who seeks help from a Filipino nanny for a tick-related illness. Filmed in Dublin and Manila, and starring Eva Green and Mark Strong, it explores cultural exploitation.

It took a long time for Irish film-makers to embrace Ireland’s legacy of storytelling and folklore, said Finnegan. “I grew up hearing stories from my parents about banshees and fairy curses but it wasn’t really represented in film until 10 or 15 years ago.”

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Let the Wrong One In, a comedy horror about Dublin vampires due for release around Halloween, paid homage to Bram Stoker, a Dubliner, by filming a scene at Castle Dracula, a visitor attraction in Dublin that claims to have the world’s only Bram Stoker Dracula vampire museum.

“It always struck me as odd growing up that there weren’t Irish horror films,” said Let the Wrong One In’s director, Conor McMahon, 42. When he started making short films as a teenager, he noticed the horrors got the best response .

“All my feature films have been in the horror genre and I’ll probably stay there. It’s what I love to do. There are so many sub-genres it never feels like you’re doing the same thing.”

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