Although Ireland has a long history steeped in folklore and legends of hauntings, banshees and supernatural encounters, it is a country not exactly renowned for its cinematic horror output (ghastly Oirish accents by the likes of Tom Cruise and Richard Gere aside).
With the exception of the gothic visions of Neil Jordan and, more recently, several low budget indies such as Dead Meat (dir. Conor McMahon) and Isolation (dir. Billy O’Brien), this lack of horror cinema is surprising given the rich depths of creepy tales and odd literature on offer here. Dracula for example, a significant mainstay in horror cinema, was the creation of Dublin writer Bram Stoker. Francis Ford Coppolla’s first film was essentially an Irish slasher movie (and a damn good one at that).
Elements of spooky Irish folklore such as the banshee and the leprechaun have been mined to various degrees of crassness in the likes of Banshee (dirs. Emil Novak and Mike Bohatch) and Leprechaun (dir. Mark Jones) respectively… as ‘horrific’ as the resulting films were, the less said about them, the better.
This could have the potential to change though with the release of Shrooms, the latest Emerald Isle shocker, on DVD. I thought it might be appropriate to pick the brain of it’s writer, Belfast born Pearse Elliot, about the possible turn around of Ireland’s horror offerings and the impact Shrooms could have on the fledgling sub-genre.
Given the dark visions that abound in Shrooms I was half expecting to meet up with Pearse in a backwoods shack or abandoned asylum. No such luck. Brushing aside my suggestions, he opted for a safer alternative, a rather plush bar in Belfast. No mushroom tea either, just coffee. Spoilsport.
When I asked Elliot about the genesis of his script he revealed that it was the result of ”A misspent youth basically! In a kind of rites of passage sort of thing, everyone was afraid of having a bad shroom trip – then as we got older this ‘bad trip’ sort of became mythological. I have also always been interested in the concept of something that allows you to enter another world.”
Shrooms follows the exploits of several American teens and their Irish friend as they set off on a road trip into the dark heart of rural Ireland to plunder it for a specific type of magic mushroom that has become infamous in certain circles for its potency. They’ve been promised ‘the trip of a lifetime’, but as this is a horror movie, what they find plunges them into a hallucinogenic and bloody nightmare that they may never get out of… alive. Not only do they have the nightmarish hallucinations of the drug to contend with, but also several Deliverance-style rednecks and a sinister slasher monk. Some ‘trip’ indeed.
Elliot informed me that Shrooms is ”a horror film with a psychological edge. You never know whether what the characters are seeing is a figment of their own drug induced imaginations or is really happening.”
It’s this blurring of reality and imagination that gives Shrooms its edginess and places the film alongside other feverish and hallucinogenic classics of the genre such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Jacob’s Ladder where the horror comes from another dimension that exists within us at certain times.
Another interesting element of the script is the use of drugs as a doorway to untold and awaiting horrors. While it’s certainly not uncommon to see teens indulge in drugs and alcohol in horror movies, in fact its pretty much expected, it is rare that we see the effects of the drugs take on such hellish dimensions and even more rarely is this angle explored in the genre as a main theme. Requiem for a Dream (not strictly a horror film, but still profoundly disturbing) and Blue Sunshine, a psychedelic horror film from the 70s, follows the shocking effects of an LSD trip on a group of suburbanite graduates – are two such films.
Critics have noted that the slasher movie in particular, of which Shrooms could be viewed as a variant of, is blatantly conservative in its outlook because those partaking in drugs and sex usually end up meeting a violent and horrific demise. In a sense, they are being punished for their indulgences. And our protagonists in Shrooms will almost definitely follow down this dark and brooding path for their psychotropic dabblings.
Throwbacks to slasher heydays of the seventies are all the rage at the moment and this referencing is apparent in Shrooms too. Pearse explains; ”We wanted to retain the independent spirit of film-makers like Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and the way they made films. We also wanted it to be quite stylistic and glossy like many Asian horror films. There is a marriage of inconvenience when you try to group together the sensibilities of the Asian horror genre with the real cinema-veritè and grit of someone like Hooper’s earlier work.
These things happen in trends though. I came up with the idea for this a number of years ago when there wasn’t really anything else like it around, now I hear there are a couple of low budget horror films being produced here and as you know, there are many remakes and rip-offs of classic horror around at the moment. Our film looks like a studio produced it though, as well as retaining its indie appeal.”
When I asked Elliot to share his secret recipe for ripe horror with me he wryly added ”It’s hard to say really! I think you’re going back to pre-historic times before the discovery of fire in order to tap into the essence of terror and if your instincts weren’t honed and you weren’t aware of what was out there in the dark, you died. The genre and the trend has transformed over the last few years to a certain level. It has to have a certain amount of gore and splatter to satisfy certain fans and audiences are more savvy now, so it has to have a certain psychological edge, which I think this film has.”
As the screenwriter of this flick I asked Elliot if he suffered at the hands of the studio wanting to make changes or reign in his macabre imagination;
”Well we’d done numerous drafts and had been trying to second guess what studios wanted. It was a hard gig but we got there in the end. It was Paddy Breathnach who decided to make a go of it. I had to let it go and let it breathe as they say. Paddy is a colleague and a friend of mine. His earlier films, stuff like Ailsa, are very dark and atmospheric, so I was confident with him. He’s also good with humour. As best we could, we tried to come up with a product that could help him realise his ambition and talent.”
As Elliot explained, director Breathnach has an established and eclectic body of work, though no stranger to creating a dark and suspenseful mood, Shrooms has been his first foray into out-and-out horror territory, as he fully realises Pearse’s script to menacing and brooding effect.
But what of the lack of horror films in general coming out of Ireland? According to Elliot it may not just be an aversion on the part of Irish film makers to create scenes of terror and disturbing imagery, but more realistically, and sadly, a lack of resources. ”One of the main reasons for it is, and this is a main gripe about film making here, the facilities just aren’t there. I don’t think we would have been given the support we were given had it not been for our track record and the films that we’ve made such as The Mighty Celt and Man About Dog. You really have to broaden your scope in terms of whatever film you’re making.
One thing about Shrooms is that with it we have a film that looks every bit as good as an American studio film. This film sold to 32 countries. The main thing is having the ambition and not to be put off by making a film this size. I don’t think any film that has been made, independently in the north or south here has sold as strongly as this film. We have a big ambition to create a great cinematic experience. Our ambition has been big and perhaps people haven’t tried to do something of this size or scope before.
I was watching The Sopranos recently and there is a certain symbiosis of characters, like ourselves, trying to make a horror film that is commercially viable – it has a good concept and there is a huge audience for these sorts of films and we wanted to tap into that.”
Elliot believes Shrooms can offer viewers the chance to see something different in a time when local multiplexes are spewing out a clotted glut of horror films, varying in quality and innovation.
With this current climate of seventies inspired horror-grit and J-Horror Hollywood bastardisations, it would appear that the time has come for horror to find a new trend. Perhaps Pearse’s brand of ‘Irish’ horror may inspire a host of filmmakers here to investigate the shadows of their psyches and shock us with something refreshingly dark and morbid. With the likes of Michael Almereyda’s The Eternal and Brendan Muldowney’s The Ten Steps, Irish horror, while scarce, has proved it can be chillingly atmospheric and nightmarishly surprising.
Pearse muses that ”Shrooms has been getting great reviews and horror fans apparently can’t get enough of it. It has the chance to become a real break-out hit, which is something the industry needs here.”
With all the Wrong Turns, Timber Falls and One Missed Calls horror is churning out, hopefully he’s right.