'Boys from County Hell' Finds the Heart in Vampire Comedy Directed by Chris Baugh
Starring Jack Rowan, Nigel O'Neill, Fra Fee, John Lynch
Published Apr 22, 2021What would you do if the man you paid with a bottle of whiskey to guard the construction site your dad put you quasi in charge of turns into a vampire and then has his heart stabbed out by your friend, the girlfriend of your best friend who only three months ago was killed when he was pinned to a pile of rocks covering an ancient vampire's grave by a bull? If you're a character in Boys from County Hell, you'd be confused, bickering with your dad about the best way to kill a vampire.
Boys from County Hell is good in this way — on the surface it's a horror comedy filled with cussing, but dig a little deeper and you'll find yourself moved, because the film taps into authentically human responses to trauma. A simultaneous delight and a heartbreaker, this vampire flick tackles grief with bravado masking a well of feeling and a dry wit.
Written and directed by Chris Baugh, Boys from County Hell follows Eugene Moffat (Jack Rowan), a young man whose life consists of getting drunk at the local pub, the Stoker. The Stoker is beloved in the town of Six Mile Hill, whose only claim to fame is that Bram Stoker once passed through it and gained inspiration for his Dracula from the local legend of a vampire, Abhartach, who used to live on the land. A pile of stones marks Abhartach's grave, to which Eugene and his friends William (Fra Fee), SP (Michael Hough), and William's girlfriend Claire (Louisa Harland) take tourists to prank them. The grave is on William's family's land. A bypass has been planned for the site, its construction headed by Eugene's dad Francie (Nigel O'Neill), which will level the land and throw William's family off it. The construction begins after William's death, awakening Abhartach, who rains terror on the town of Six Mile Hill.
One of this film's most endearing aspects is the respect and paradoxical gentleness Baugh has for its characters. Eugene is working through the trauma of his mother's suicide when the film opens, and Baugh gives him the space to deal with it in a dipsomaniacal way. Francie, meanwhile, deals with his wife's death by ignoring it and being an all-round asshole to everyone, especially his son. Claire, too, lost her father as a kid, and there is a deeply intimate scene wherein she teaches Eugene that it's okay to still feel the pain of loss. William's death is painful for everyone in town, as he was a beloved kid; accordingly, the characters are given space to grieve openly and uniquely about his loss. William's mother Pauline (Andrea Urvine) feels a palpable sadness at the loss of her son — a poignant example of how grief appears in bodies: she becomes quiet, immobile, and unresponsive. A functional black hole, her love is affective, a stark contrast to Francie's anger and disdain for not only his son but also the town. Baugh shows a deep understanding of grief — which is gentle and shows no judgement about the right way to grieve. Sadness in face of visceral horror is diverse.
In a similar vein to other Irish films like In Bruges and Calvary, Baugh's characters are quick-witted, wry, and full of the best insults, at times using humour as a defence mechanism. O'Neill is a delight as the curmudgeonly Francie, who, as people on his construction site are being exsanguinated, worries about his costly bulbs that are being used to light up the site. You can tell he loves his son in the toxic way that some parents do, unfortunately. And you can see the toll this takes on Eugene, who craves his father's love and weathers his verbal abuse.
Each character is well developed, and this is noteworthy because it's a difficult thing to achieve in a horror film. It's easy to put the gore front-and-centre, trading any kind of meaningful character building for jump scares and special effects. It's furthermore easy to have your characters bloodied and murdered for the sake of being bloodied and murdered, with the consequence being that the audience doesn't care what becomes of them. Baugh's characters are endlessly likeable, even when they're assholes, because they're authentic, their responses organic.
Eugene is the protagonist, and in him you would expect a natural-born leader who knows exactly what to do when shit hits the fan. But Baugh turns this tired trope on its head by giving us a sad boy with daddy issues, a lot of fear, and no ambition. Eugene is dumbfounded, sometimes actually dumb, and very much open to taking suggestions about what to do in order to save Six Mile HIll. Rowan is good in a brooding sort of way, with James Dean-like eyebrows that are perfect as they furrow with the strain of internal conflict, and arch with fright. The respect Eugene shows the grieving Claire is refreshing: she is intelligent and kind, but also brassy in demeanour and language. She loves both William and Eugene, and her relationship with Eugene is delightfully platonic. Harland is captivating as she outwits the men around her, but also moving as she weeps about her father's passing and William's.
Boys from County Hell is emotionally intelligent without losing its sense of fun. The comedic timing is unpretentiously genius, the squelching and oozing gore satisfies, and the violence is carefully uncontrolled. This movie isn't like Shaun of the Dead, nor does it contain creepy villagers like Hot Fuzz does. Though Boys from County Hell shares a spoofy sense of humour with these movies, it's in a league of its own by virtue of its humanity, which is ultimately what makes a horror flick good. It's not quite perfect — there are certain jumps in logic in the dialogue, which poke some holes into the plot, but this is easily overlooked. Ultimately, this movie is about a group of people as they figure out how to move on in face of generational, existential and physical trauma, as they become strong enough to work through grief. Watch it, but make sure you have your subtitles on. (Shudder)