Paddy Breathnach's new movie, Shrooms, is an eye-popping, gore-drenched carnival ride. Screaming teenagers tripping on psychedelic mushrooms are disemboweled in the misty Irish woodlands; zombie clerics go on the rampage with pointy sticks; talking cows offer philosophical insights. It's a far cry from the ribald rural comedies I Went Down and Man About Dog that made his name.
"What I was interested in was not so much the shrooms per say or depicting the psychedelic experience of shrooms," says the director, over tea in Dublin's Clarence Hotel. "It was the idea of taking something that makes you vulnerable. That makes you uncertain as to whether your experiences are real or not. And then finding yourself in a situation that's very threatening -- I felt that was an interesting thing."
Shrooms isn't the first low-budget Irish horror of recent years (lately there's has been a glut of home grown splatter-pics: Isolation, Boy Eats Girl, Dead Meat). But it may well prove the most successful. The film has created a sensation on the festival circuit (it was a hit at the Halloween Horrorthon fest in Dublin). And it's being rolled out with a lavish marketing campaign in Ireland and the UK.
Some people are already talking about it as this year's Blair Witch Project, while the movie's haunting camera work has evoked comparisons with the super-hot Far Eastern horror scene.
Breathnach says Shrooms has serious undertones (he talks at length about what happens when our notions of reality are spun on their head -- whether by drugs or manipulative politicians). Initially, however, you might mistake it for a comedy slasher in the vein of the 1990s Scream series. A group of whiny American backpackers arrive in Ireland, under the apparent misapprehension that the country is home to the best psychedelic mushrooms in the world (haven't these people ever heard of Mexico?). Accompanied by a posh local hippy (Jack Huston, grandson of John), the shroom-heads plunge deep into the border-county forest in search of the finest mind bending fungi. You can guess what happens next: reality bleeds into nightmare, strange things gibber in the shadows. And blood is spilled in generous quantities.
"It feels strange saying this, but to be covered in blood, even if it's fake blood, is just the most powerful feeling," says Lindsey Haun, the Los Angeles actress who, as sweet and innocent Tara, is the voice of reason in the film (her character is initially reluctant to join the shroom orgy and the first to twig things have started going wrong). "I mean, you're there, caked in stuff and you feel, I don't know, energised or something. It's so weird."
Shooting in the wilderness was often a spirit-sapping experience. Haun recalls having to lie face down in the cold, Monaghan muck, as worms crawled over her. Once, it took nine hours to wash the mud from her hair. "It was pretty real out there," she says. "But I loved it because I really like working with Irish people. What struck me, having come from the US, is that people are far less respectful of hierarchies here. Like, if you're ordering food from someone in a restaurant, it's not as if I'm 'above' you or anything. You are just two people. You're equals. Which made for a great atmosphere on set."
This is Haun's second horror movie. As an 11-year-old, she was one of the eerie alien children in John Carpenter's Village Of The Damned remake. Christopher Reeve played the lead, one of his last major roles before he was crippled in a horse riding accident.
The film's flawed hero is well-to-do-slacker Jake, played as a roguish charmer by Huston. While he's supposedly Irish, Jake speaks in a cut-glass English accent -- the result, we are informed, of a stint in a British boarding school. "He's Anglo-Irish," says Huston.
"We thought that would give it more colour. My dad grew up in Galway and he has an English accent. So it's not that much of a stretch. Part of me was a little disappointed because I wanted to do the Irish accent. I got the part playing him with an Irish accent."
Neither Breathnach nor the cast will admit to having sampled psychedelic mushrooms (the only one to 'fess is scriptwriter Pearse Elliot: he says the idea for the movie came from the personal experience of tripping in the woods). However, Haun says she did see friends at Berkley College near San Francisco flip out after shrooms binges.
"I'm also a singer and, with drugs, the first thing you do is smoke pot. And I don't smoke 'cos it would harm my voice. So I never graduated to anything else. People in LA don't really do shrooms. You do pot or else coke or ecstasy. It was only when a few friends of mine started going to college in Berkeley that I learned anything about mushrooms. It was kind of weird, being in that situation. Looking back, it was fantastic research, though."
For his part, Breathnach hopes the vision of distorted reality presented in Shrooms speaks to the phobias and anxieties of a world in which governments tell big lies and the line between spin and truth is sometimes vaguely drawn. "They said there was a bogey man in Iraq who is frightening us and we have to kill him because he's got these weapons," muses the director. "And then you're suddenly told that, actually, the weapons didn't exist. And you think: who usurped power at that moment in telling us he was a bogeyman?"
Late in the movie, the plot coalesces around an undead cleric who, as a schoolmaster long ago, inflicted sadistic beatings on young boys. Growing up, did Breathnach suffer at the hands of brutish teachers? "No, I went to a very nice secondary school with incredibly nice liberal nuns -- The Holy Child in Sallynoggin. They were very far sighted about doing all the right things. So I never had that experience.
"But a lot of horror films tap images that have been very prevalent in society. And the story of abuse in Ireland is such a dominant theme. In a way, it's probably our horror story." n
Shrooms opens today.