By James Mahon
Mixing horror with comedy has never been particularly well executed in the modern film industry. Although an appealing combination, most directors and writers don’t seem quite able to create the correct blend of fear and laughter, often resulting in a total absence of both. The trio of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright are members of a select few who have succeeded. Films like Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007) evoke the gory reality of the situation with a sense of self-acknowledged absurdity and a convincing emotional narrative at its centre. The distinctly Irish Boys from County Hell (Chris Baugh, 2021) attempts to follow in their footsteps.
Set in the bleak Northern Irish town of Six Mile Hill, the film centres on Eugene Moffat (Jack Rowan), a 20-something slacker with little going on except an acute fondness for a pint at the local village pub, appropriately named ‘Stoker’. With his mother dead, and a consequently strained relationship with his father, Francie (Nigel O’Neil), his universe centres around his friends William (Fra Fee), Claire (Louisa Harland) and the garrulous SP (Michael Hough). Much of their time consists of scaring tourists, who they take on a tour to the town’s lone attraction, a bundle of rocks above the ground, underneath which the true original vampire Abhartach lives – or so the myth goes.
This is indicative of what the film claims is its unique selling point; its Irish twang, counterpoised with the recycled and generic settings of other vampire films. It emphasises its possession over Abhartach as not ‘any old Dracula’ almost immediately, with Eugene quickly informing us of Abhartach’s transformation from medieval chieftain to immortal, bloodthirsty vampire. This authentically Irish aspect is the centerpiece of the film’s attempts to elevate itself above the homogeneity of its competitor’s output. There is no denying that it offers a refreshing spin on the genre, albeit perhaps not one as groundbreaking as the filmmakers think.
Making further use of its geographical setting, the dialogue consists of the typical Irish humour, accompanied by incessant expletives. This is not a fault of the script, written by Baugh and Brendan Mullin, which is genuinely funny. David Pearse’s cameo as a serenely detached local policeman is wonderfully droll, complemented excellently by O’Neill as the productivity-obsessed Francie. Yet it’s Hough who provides most of the comedic relief, as the quintessential pint-loving acerbic Irishman, although Baugh and Mullin just about avoid caricature and self-parody in the character’s construction.
Nonetheless, the film’s core relationships – stripped of the surrounding horror – are repetitive and mind-numbingly monotonous. The freshness of the Irish setting cannot obscure the predictability of the main relationship arc with Eugene, as he searches for paternal validation from his grieving father. Simultaneously, characters do well to convey distress at certain twists throughout the film, yet the lack of any exploration of these twists above a superficial level undermines its legitimacy in the viewer’s eyes. Fundamentally, the film fails to expound upon the substantive thematic tensions and character interactions which are at the heart of any movie.
Although not particularly innovative, The Boys from County Hell is genuinely scary. While it’s overly reliant on traditional jump scares, the gory vampire imagery and verifiably evil depiction of Abhartach conjure up a level of complete immersion and believability in the threat faced by Six Mile Hill and its residents. Ultimately, The Boys from County Hell succeeds in its dual objectives of horror and comedy, with a revitalising element of ‘Irishness’. However, the hollow emotional core provided by its central figures proves to be its Achilles heel, ensuring that it falls short of the great contemporary comedy-horrors.