Arts

Co Tyrone film-makers Chris Baugh and Brendan Mullin on bringing new horror comedy Boys From County Hell to Belfast Film Festival

The Co Tyrone film-making duo behind Bad Day For The Cut bring their brand new movie to the Belfast Film Festival next week. David Roy speaks to writer/director Chris Baugh and producer Bendan Mullin about following up the success of their debut feature with Boys From County Hell, a fresh, funny and distinctly Irish take on the vampire genre

The cast of Boys From County Hell, featuring Nigel O'Neill and Jack Rowan (centre). Picture by Aidan Monaghan

"WE WERE supposed to have our world premiere at Tribeca in April," explains producer Brendan Mullin of the original plan for launching Boys From County Hell, the new Co Tyrone-set horror comedy movie in which a motley crew of manual labourers face off against an ancient, terrifying Irish vampire.

Of course, Covid-19 had other ideas, forcing the cancellation of the film's New York premiere and many other planned live festival screenings for the film which features Cookstown actor Nigel O'Neill, who previously starred so memorably in Bad Day For The Cut, the acclaimed 'Tryone farmer revenge thriller' co-written with director and Six Mile Hill Productions partner Chris Baugh, which premiered at the Sundance film festival in 2017.

"It would have been a nice year of travelling with the movie if things had been normal – but we can't complain," comments Baugh, writer/director of the new movie – the second instalment of a planned 'Tyrone trilogy' – adapted from the pair's award-winning 2012 short film of the same Pogues song-inspired title.

With a cast also featuring Jack Rowan (Peaky Blinders) alongside a host of other Irish talent including Louisa Harland (Derry Girls), John Lynch, Fra Fee (Animals), Stella McCusker and Lalor Roddy, this laugh-out-loud blood-splattered genre gem builds on the international success of the pair's acclaimed 2017 debut feature, adding extra shocks and a wealth of impressive practical special effects to the darkly comic mix.

Thus, Boys From County Hell has been making its way around the European film festival circuit unaccompanied over the past few months – and, at time of press, it looks likely that next Friday night's showing at Odeon Belfast as part of the Belfast Film Festival will go ahead as local entertainment and hospitality venues begin to reopen.

Just don't ask Chris and Brendan what's happening.

"We don't have any kind of total clarification yet, but we're hoping that there might be a way to screen it," says the former, Eskra-born film-maker.

"We're really just crossing our fingers that we'll finally get to see it with an audience at some stage, because it's a film that's definitely made to be watched by an audience at the cinema. If we can get just one screening where we can actually see it with other people, I'll be happy."

Indeed, your enjoyment of joyous horror fare like Boys From County Hell can only be enhanced by experiencing it en masse with fellow cinema goers – especially since the 'home crowd' here will be primed for all the colloquial quirks packed into the largely Co Tyrone-shot feature.

"The original spark for it was just wanting to make a creepy horror film," explains Baugh, "but set in rural Northern Ireland in the kind of places we grew up, and to make it as authentic as possible in terms of the characters and people who live there, because I hadn't really seen that before.

"We knew no-one would give us the money for a feature version of it unless we had something to show them, so we went off and made the short. That's where we first met Nigel, who's been amazing for us.

"We kind of thought at that point, 'we'll show this to people and they'll give us money to go out and make the feature' – but it didn't quite happen like that. And I'm actually glad it didn't, because we weren't ready: Boys From County Hell is full of special effects and stunts, it's a 'big' film for the budget."

Francie (Nigel O'Neill) and co get more than they bargained for on their latest road building job. Photo by Aidan Monaghan

Indeed, making the original 2012 short was a crucial moment for the Six Mile Hill duo: O'Neill's turn impressed them so much that they went on to write their first feature project, Bad Day For The Cut, specifically for him.

The actor's deadpan, taciturn yet soulful turn as Donal, a quiet Co Tyrone farmer pushed into exerting bloody revenge on a gang of big city crims, was the backbone of the hugely enjoyable film which served as a proving ground for Baugh and Mullin in terms of giving them much-needed practical experience of making a feature production.

"We really benefited from going off and making Bad Day For The Cut across all departments," explains Strabane man Mullin.

"It was made with a very modest budget but we managed to pull it off with a really good cast and crew. That really did pave the way [for Boys From County Hell]. As Chris was saying, like Bad Day, our ambition was always to make an authentic genre film with a dark sense of humour."

"We had some success with Bad Day, so we were able to light a fire under Boys From County Hell in terms of getting it financed and actually finally getting it made," explains Baugh of their second feature, a co-production with Blinder Films, Automatik and Endeavour Content.

O'Neill plays Francie, a small town contractor turned reluctant vampire slayer alongside his wayward son, Eugene (Rowan). It's set in the fictional Co Tyrone village of Six Mile Hill – a quiet burgh keen to remind visitors that Bram Stoker supposedly stopped off there for a pint prior to penning his seminal vampire tale, Dracula, and thus may have been inspired by the legend of a literally blood-thirsty Irish chieftain, Abhartach, whose grave is said to lie beneath the stone cairn that's the town's main/only tourist attraction.

"We thought that would be an amazing jumping off point, for the characters in this town to be really annoyed that they never got any credit," Baugh tells me.

"Then with Abhartach being this creature that can't be killed, only buried, whose grave has to be piled with stones to hold him down, like a cairn – it just seemed like an incredibly Irish aesthetic that's never been seen in the vampire genre before."

Jack Rowan co-stars as Eugene. Picture by Aidan Monaghan

While O'Neill's co-star may hail from London, Rowan makes a valiant attempt at an authentic Tyrone accent in the film – no doubt helped by the odd coincidence that he has an actual family connection to the area, as Baugh explains.

"The first thing he said to us was during casting was, 'oh, my dad's from Northern Ireland' – it turned out he's from Coagh, which is where Nigel is from, and that their families know each other," laughs Baugh.

"Then he read for us and he just blew us away. His humour and his intensity just seemed to be a perfect fit."

As for how the film-makers coped with the amount of special effects needed to bring their ambitious horror comedy to life, preparation and collaboration were key to their blood-splattered success.

"I always wanted the effects to be as practical as possible so we'd have almost like an 80s kind of feel," explains Baugh.

"We didn't want a lot of CGI, so that instantly made shooting a bit more tricky. But we found an amazing effect company, Bowsie, who were magicians in terms of coming up with great practical effects gags, storyboarding everything and working closely with our DP Ryan Kernaghan.

"Also, we knew Abhartach had to look world class, otherwise the film would fall apart. Millennium FX and our key make-up person Clare Ramsey worked together to create incredible make-up for our actor, Robert Nairne [Rogue One, Penny Dreadful], who was excellent too."

"It's really all about knowing what you want and surrounding yourself with great collaborators who 'get it' and can help you deliver," agrees Mullin.

Suck it and see next Friday night.

:: Boys From County Hell, Friday November 27, Odeon Belfast. Tickets and full festival programme available from Belfastfilmfestival.org

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