Erin Go AARGH! (Review: Boys From County Hell)
Boys From County Hell is streaming on Shudder
As I write this, we’re well into springtime in Colorado’s Front Range.* The sun sets later, flowers are beginning to bloom, and the promise of renewal is upon us. It’s a time for us to emerge from the snowy gloom of winter and embrace all that life and possibility have to offer. What’s the best way to do that? A good vampire movie.
You don’t buy it either, huh?
Bloodsuckers were around in the infancy of film, and even though most people haven’t seen the original Dracula, virtually everyone knows Bela Lugosi and his iconic performance.** There have been more than 170 versions of Dracula alone, and vampires have appeared in hundreds of iterations, if not thousands.
Want your vampires romantic? I give you either Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Twilight. Want them to be ravenous beasts? You have From Dusk Till Dawn and 30 Days of Night. Near Dark portrays them as murderous rednecks, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night features them as the scourge of misogynistic Iranians, and Blade deposits them into the superhero mythos. There is a hell of a lot more than thirty-one flavors of vampire.
That must mean that everything of the nosferatu persuasion has been done, right? No, because here’s the thing. As played out as I am with vampire movies, when I was made aware of Boys From County Hell, a horror-comedy set in a remote Irish village, I was into it.
There’s not a lot to lure travelers to the itsy-bitsy town of Six Mile Hill. Once you get past the moody Irish landscape, it becomes clear that it’s one of those towns you travel through, not to. Eugene (Jack Rowan) is acutely aware that he occupies the ass end of the Emerald Isle. That’s probably why he spends so much time at the local pub.***
Our boy Eugene could be called directionless. His dad Francie (Nigel O’Neill) wouldn’t argue with that. Francie has put in the work building a moderately successful road crew, and he wishes his boy would do more than the bare minimum of work. You have to give Eugene credit, though, as he and his pal William (Fra Fee) have a pretty good side hustle keeping them in beer money.
You see, a whole bunch of years ago, Bram Stoker visited the tiny hamlet. A few years later, he wrote a certain novel about a certain Count. Eugene and William have gotten good at directing dipstick tourists to the stone cairn built in a local field. The story goes that an ancient vampire known as Abhartach was imprisoned under the cairn, and Stoker drew his inspiration from the real local beastie. Eugene and William take the tourists out to the cairn, bombard them with blarney, give them a good scare, and go home with a laugh and a pocket full of cash.
The locals don’t buy the legend, or at least not until Francie’s company is hired to develop the field. Wouldn’t you know it, they knock down the cairn, and wouldn’t you know it, they accidentally release an unholy evil. With blood streaming through the town and a nightmare stalking the streets, the crew must try to save the town and/or die trying.
I had an expectation of Boys From County Hell. I expected something in the same ballpark as Shaun Of The Dead, a genre-bender featuring underqualified protagonists, repressed family issues springing to the surface, and gallons of blood. For the most part, my expectations were met. Director Chris Baugh wisely uses the green Irish landscape and gloomy skies to enhance the mood. Like the shark in Jaws, we never see too much of the wicked Abhartach, which lends a nice air of mystery. The scenes of the gang hanging out have a relaxed vibe, and the more horror-tinged moments are creative, particularly the energetic third act. My main issue was that Baugh doesn’t always shift gears smoothly between the comedy and the terror.
I think that’s mostly due to a structural flaw in the screenplay, also written by Baugh. His script spends a lot of time with the shiftless Eugene and his emotionally withholding father, as well as the competing influences between his slacker pal SP (Michael Hough) and the responsible Claire (Louisa Harland). I’m a sucker for character development, but Baugh spends so much time on the decisions Eugene must make on his future that it feels abrupt when blood starts flowing. Ideally, a good script ought to have the plot and the emotional journey come together to make an impact. With Shaun Of The Dead, your plot is a couple of best buds dealing with the zombie apocalypse, and the emotional journey is Shaun feeling that he’s living his life as a zombie. So what’s the vampiric metaphor here? The script never figures that part out, and we’re left with a clever and amusing story that doesn’t fully gel.
The cast has relaxed and lived-in chemistry together. Everyone goes a little deeper than the lazy brushstrokes common in horror movies, and we get a good idea of who these folks are and what they want. Jack Rowan is likable as Eugene, a decent enough guy who could do with a little motivation. I enjoy it when actors never get the “You’re in a horror movie, no need to try hard” memo. John Lynch is one of those actors, and he goes deep as George, one of Eugene’s neighbors who suffers a terrible loss. His performance makes you truly feel for the character and it makes a movie that’s a bit of a lark feel more grounded.
I appreciate it any time a filmmaker has an interesting take on well-trodden cinematic ground. Vampires running amok in a dinky Irish village is a good take, as it turns out. Boys From County Hell doesn’t reinvent the wheel and I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing I’ll return to throughout the years. But it’s a scrappy little crowd-pleaser that stakes out new territory.
*Here, we like to celebrate the reawakening of nature with massive snowstorms.
**I haven’t seen it, but I understand that the Spanish-language version made simultaneously with the original is superior.
***You might snicker at the prodigious alcohol consumption and figure, “That’s just Ireland!” I’ll direct you 9.7 miles West of me to the University of Colorado at Boulder, an institution of learning that floats on an ocean of IPAs.