Saturday 24 March 2018

Irish horror is on the fright track

Brian O'Malley's eerie movie uses the War of Independence as a backdrop, says Paul Whitington

Sister act: Charlotte Vega plays an adventurous sibling in The Lodgers
Sister act: Charlotte Vega plays an adventurous sibling in The Lodgers

Paul Whitington

A decade or so ago, it would have been hard to talk with any conviction about Irish horror as a genre. Not enough native chillers were being made, and those that did appear weren't terribly good, for reasons that often, though not always, involved a lack of wherewithal.

Now, though, things have changed: films like The Survivalist, One Hundred Mornings, The Canal, Wake Wood and The Last Days On Mars have demonstrated the talents of a new generation of Irish writers and directors who are tuned into the genre's lore and traditions and not afraid to add new flourishes of their own.

There's real visual ambition to some of these films and The Lodgers is a perfect case in point. Directed by Brian O'Malley from a screenplay by David Turpin, it's set in 1920 in a small country village that's rife with tension following the outbreak of the War of Independence.

In a walled-in mansion on the edge of town (the reportedly haunted Loftus Hall in Co Wexford), two pale and interesting young Anglo-Irish siblings live in lonely isolation in their dilapidated home. Edward (Bill Milner) seems a gloomy and neurotic young man, and has apparently not ventured beyond the estate's overgrown grounds for years, but his sister Rachel (Charlotte Vega) is saner, more adventurous and braves the hostility of the locals when she walks into the village to get groceries.

On one of these occasions she's verbally harassed by a group of boyos who may have connections in the IRA, but a dashing young man with a limp comes to her rescue. He is Sean (Eugene Simon), a recently demobbed soldier who has his own reasons for resenting these swaggering corner-boys. He fought in the trenches and left a leg there, and must now endure accusations of being a traitor in the transformed political climate. Sean also fancies Rachel, but ought to have thought twice before doggedly pursuing her.

Because she and her loopy brother would appear to be cursed. She stares longingly at a small lake on their property, which seems to have associations with her late parents, but has a mortal dread of being caught there after nightfall.

Loftus Hall, where the horror was filmed
Loftus Hall, where the horror was filmed

At home, Rachel and Edward live by a strict set of rules apparently dreamt up by their ancestors: he in particular seems convinced that dreadful things will happen if they diverge from them for one second. He might be right: water wells up around a trapdoor in the hall late at night and ominous voices can be heard burbling beneath. What all of this is about will only be revealed if you go see The Lodgers, and overall I'd say that might not be a bad idea. It is not perfect and some of its ideas have obvious associations with Shirley Jackson's classic novel We Have Always Lived In The Castle, as well as with Jack Clayton's 1961 horror film The Innocents, and Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001). But I admire anyone who goes for a full-on Gothic tone, and for some of the time at least, O'Malley gets away with it.

An atmosphere of creeping dread is nicely established and sustained, and the idea that the old house is slowly rotting from within is a powerful one. Faded portraits of the siblings' ancestors hang forlornly along the mildewed walls, and seem at times to be watching them, and keeping score.

The fact that Rachel and Edward are part of a detested and superannuated class only adds to their overwhelming sense of having been abandoned, and when a cunning bank official travels over from London to inform them of their parlous financial state, you just know he won't last long.

He is played by veteran British actor David Bradley, and Moe Dunford and Deirdre O'Kane turn up playing, respectively, the village bully and the grocery shop owner. But O'Malley's film leans heavily on its young stars, who rise to the occasion well. Former child actor Milner is convincingly chilling as the morbid, forlorn Edward and Vega has a commanding screen presence and is loved by the camera. As is so often the case with horrors, The Lodgers comes unstuck a little late on, but it's a handsome film, full of good ideas.

The Lodgers (15A, 93mins) - 3 stars

Films coming soon...

Tomb Raider (Alicia Vikander, Walton Goggins, Kristen Scott Thomas, Dominic West); Peter Rabbit (Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Daisy Ridley, Sam Neill); Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tahar Razim).

Irish Independent

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