The writer / director and one of the stars of the new Irish vampire film talk about the journey of making the movie and balancing humor with horror
Boys from County Hell is a fresh and distinctly Irish take on vampire movies, one that mixes humor with the horror and livens up the genre the way Shaun of the Dead did for zombies. The film follows a young crew of road workers who are led by a pragmatic man named Francie (played by Nigel O’Neill) and his son, Eugene (played by Peaky Blinders’ Jack Rowan). Construction of a new road is set for the small Irish town of Six Mile Hill, but when it winds up disturbing the resting place of an ancient vampire, the overworked crew are forced to deal with the horror it unleashes.
Knotfest chatted with writer and director Chris Baugh and star Nigel O’Neill about the film and its inspirations from an actual Irish legend. The two discussed how they wanted to bring an authentic Irish tone and sense of humor to the big screen while still telling a thrilling story about dealing with unresolved emotions.
Let’s talk a little bit about the journey that Boys from County Hell took from being a short almost a decade ago to a full-length feature premiering on Shudder. I’m sure the pandemic played a role in that as well.
Chris Baugh: Yeah, for sure. It has been quite a journey, as you say, you know, it was almost almost a decade ago when we made a short. It started with me coming up with the idea for the movie, wanting to do a film that was sort of set where I grew up in Northern Ireland and felt authentic and true to that part of the world, but to do it within the architecture of a vampire film, or within the architecture of genre. I wrote a couple of drafts of the feature version of Boys from County Hell, but it became apparent that it was gonna be difficult to get that made as a first feature. So me and Brendon Mullin , my producing partner, co-writer on the story, decided to go off and make a proof of concept short. And we got some funding for that and went looking for actors and saw this amazing actor called Nigel O’Neill in a film called Behold the Lamb at the Belfast Film Festival. We had this character of Francie, who remained very constant throughout all the iterations of the movie, but we knew it was going to be hard task because we wanted, you know, an actor of a certain sort of type and who would get the humor of that role and also have the sort of charisma and the kind of imposing physicality.
So we made the short and Nigel was in it and he was fantastic. We expected that we would just finish this short film and then we would go off, and someone would automatically give us, you know, two million to go make it. (Laughs) And that didn’t happen, thankfully, because we probably weren’t ready at that point to go and make the feature. So instead, as we tried to raise finance for Boys from County Hell, we went to Cannes and pitched it along with all the projects we had. We got the opportunity to make another feature, which is called Bad Day for the Cut, and because we had worked with Nigel and developed a really good working relationship with him- we were friends at that point – we wrote that movie for Nigel. It was very low budget, and we were like, let’s just take the lead actor question out of the equation. We know a guy who’s amazing, let’s just write the role for him. We made that film and we had a bit of success with that and went to Sundance. It got us in the door with some people off the back of that, then we were able to finally get Boys from County Hell financed the way we wanted to.
Why choose a vampire film out of all the different supernatural horror there is?
Chris Baugh: I’ve just always liked the genre from when I was a kid. I was probably, I don’t know, eight or nine and a babysitter showed me The Lost Boys and I was way too young. It was just a genre that I loved and a creature that I loved. As we were developing the story and developing the script, we came across this story of Abhartach and the legend of it and how that ties in very nicely into Irish mythology. We’re trying to do an Irish vampire film and that made it feel fresh and different.
Both Bad Day for the Cut and Boys from County Hell have this sort of cheeky sense of humor. How do you find that balance from a directing and a writing perspective and acting perspective? Between the parts that need to be serious and the parts that are funny, how do you make sure you don’t end up swinging one way or another too much?
Nigel O’Neill: Chris seems to have a good balance with his writing. It’s all about being able to observe the mannerisms of people from here, you know what I mean? Chris has a great way of tuning in on that sort of thing and then they just develop we work over the years. Donal and Francie are two very different characters, but for me, it’s just lovely to hear local accents on the big screen, because where we come from you never would have dreamed of that. So it was nice to bring them to life and exaggerate them a bit and try to find the balance with the humor and the relationships between the characters. I enjoyed all that part of it, the different arcs of the relationships, especially Francie and Eugene. It’s a nice way of discovering what’s going on and why they’re the way they are and why Francie is the way he is and how they sort it out by the end. To me, that’s all fascinating.
Chris Baugh: The tone, for me, a big thing is to not overthink it. To just trust my instincts in terms of how it feels with not trying to overplay the humor. I think something I said to Nigel was Francie treats killing vampires the same way as he treats digging holes or having to do overtime. He’s just annoyed. That was true for all the characters, to try and create people who seem real and have truthful reactions to these over the top situations, and hopefully the humor will grow out of that, as opposed to trying to, you know, trying to be jokey or whatever.
For the rest of the characters, especially for Eugene, it’s more like he’s processing the absurdity of what’s going on. Like this is exhausting, this is ridiculous, but it’s a job.
Chris Baugh: It’s like the worst night of overtime you’ve ever had to do. None of these guys want to be here anyway digging this freaking road in the middle of nowhere, and it’s like, now I’ve got to stay up all night and deal with this crap.
There’s a lot of other ideas in the film as well, like the passage of time and coming of age for the younger characters. Deciding where you want to take your life, what direction you want your life to go, and of course, there’s a fair amount of dealing with loss and grief as well. What emotional level were you hoping the audiences would connect with?
Chris Baugh: It was important that the audience felt the emotions and the relationships between the characters as deep as we could possibly make them because in any kind of film, not just horror, that’s what connects you to the story, is the characters. Very early on, I knew that I wanted to do a father and son story because I hadn’t seen that a lot in this genre, like an older son and father where there’s this rift between them that is based on loss. A lot of the movie is about the danger of complacency, of not dealing with things that need to be dealt with. Burying Abhartach and just forgetting about him is gonna come back and bite you eventually. It’s the same with Francie and Eugene, they have all this unresolved baggage in the relationship based on the death of Eugene’s mother that they haven’t been able to reconcile. And they’re not the most emotionally intelligent guys in the world, so that kind of festers and manifests itself in a way that is hopefully funny. This bickering between them is masking this deeper thing that they have to eventually reconcile at the end of the movie. That was always something we were thinking about. Maybe it’s an Irish trick, but like, whenever you have deep wounds that you’re not dealing with, a lot of the time the thing to do is paste over it with humor. Or just annoyance, the way Francie does. And we thought that would be funny.
You purposefully avoid a lot of the classic vampire tropes in this. Impaling them doesn’t quite kill them, sunlight doesn’t kill them, and they’re more like speechless undead monsters. How did you approach creating the vampires themselves?
Chris Baugh: We definitely started off wanting to try to make them scary and intense and to feel like they’re an actual genuine threat. We were trying to do something that felt fresh for Abhartach, even in his design, something that felt like I haven’t quite seen that before. I was really inspired by pictures I’ve seen of bog bodies in Ireland, which are old corpses from thousands of years ago that have been preserved in peat bogs. They get dug up and they have this kind of crazy leathery skin and they’re really gaunt and elongated. Sometimes they still have hair. It’s just a very unique weird thing that feels very Irish as well for some reason. So that was the sort of starting place for him as a piece of design and then finding the right actor to pull it off. Robert Nairne was just an amazing kind of physical performer who brought a real creepy presence to it. Millennium FX did the the makeup on Abhartach and they did an incredible job for what we had in terms of budget and time and stuff.
Going back to the script, it was trying to come up with stuff that felt like it would be a fun take on vampire mythos. In the actual legend of Abhartach, one of the really interesting things about him is that he can’t be killed, he can only be imprisoned in the ground. We thought that was really cool but then we built on top of that as well with like, he’s able to draw blood out of people just by being near them, he doesn’t have to bite them. All you have to do is be near him and you start bleeding and we thought that was fun. So it was just a process of taking the actual myth as the basis and then trying to build our own stuff on on top of it and give these guys fun stuff to react to.
Could you talk a little bit about the best scene in the movie, where Francie uses his own leg as a makeshift weapon?
Nigel O’Neill: When I read it the first time I thought, my god this is crazy. And it was a very complex thing to shoot. It was good fun and a good crack, but physically very difficult just because of the whole prosthetics that they use and all that. I’ve never seen anything like that before and it’s very unique and the first time ever this has been used. For Francie, that’s his way of thinking probably, it’s of no use to him and it’s done so use it for something else, you know what I mean? That’s his way of dealing with stuff, like a day’s work as Chris talks about, he just deals with things as if he’s going to do work. So if the legs hanging off might as well use it to kill whatever is coming around the corner. It was great, it was a lovely scene, very nice to work on.
Chris Baugh: That scene goes back to what I was saying, in writing this, we knew it was going to be low budget. I knew we’re not going to have the money or the time to create this huge climax with lots of extras and explosions. In the writing of it, you’re trying to come up with stuff that you can achieve but that’s going to feel like, Oh, Jesus, I haven’t seen that before and it’s going to be shocking or fun. That was a process of just trying to be like, what would be the most effed up thing that can happen here that will also tie into the relationship of the characters as well. Like a kind of weird resolution in a way. I just shot Nigel’s reaction and he was probably hoarse by the end of it because he gives such a good reaction. There’s like seven takes of him just screaming.
Are there any future stories that might be told in Six Mile Hill?
Chris Baugh: Well, we’ve done two now, so it feels like there should be some kind of Six Mile Hill trilogy. Bad Day for the Cut is, I wouldn’t say the same universe, but the same part of Northern Ireland as Boys From County Hell. So eventually we’ll do, I don’t know, maybe a Western or something. We’ve done a revenge thriller, we’ve done horror, so now we need Nigel in a cowboy hat. I don’t know what it’ll be, all I know is it’ll be set in the fictional world of Six Mile Hill and it’ll have Nigel in it.
Boys from County Hell is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.