The phrase 'Irish horror film' sounds like a bit of a stretch of the imagination. After all, we're normally seen as the happy-go-lucky, often drunken, type — not exactly made for striking fear into the hearts of audiences. But when I look back to my own childhood and some of the things that scared me the most, it strikes me how distinctly Irish they really were. The Banshee, whose scream was most likely a fox or a cat yowling out on the road, had me fearing for my family's life in bed. Irish folklore, telling of Tír na nÓg and the Children of Lir, were cautionary tales not to follow magical forces, lest you be banished to far off lands without family or friends. And the songs that my parents would sing absent-mindedly from time to time weren't exactly nursery rhymes — She stuck the pen-knife in the baby's heart, down by the River Saile.
How fitting that this song (hauntingly sung by Lisa Hannigan) would be the closing number to The Hole in the Ground — a new film that has brought to light just how big the genre of 'Irish horror move' can be. The feature-length debut from director Lee Cronin follows single mother Sarah (played by Seána Kerslake, of Can't Cope, Won't Cope and A Date for Mad Mary fame) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) as they struggle to settle into a new life at the edge of a forest. The town and the local school are strange to Chris, and an elderly neighbour (Kati Outinen) makes Sarah uneasy. But things seem to be going okay, until one night, Chris disappears into the woods. When he returns, he's not the same energetic, present boy that Sarah is used to — and she begins to question what exactly happened to him that night in the forest.
The film takes the Irish folklore classic trope of the changeling — a child who has been taken from his home and replaced with a lookalike — and moulds it to intertwine with issues of modern Irish life; mental health, single motherhood, death, superstition. Is Sarah right in her concerns about Chris? Or is the move and previous issues taking their toll on her mental state? Is their elderly neighbour just a 'mad old woman'? Or is there something more to her behaviour?
We're still in the early stages in Ireland of positive conversations around women's health, and that goes for mental health too. This is what The Hole in the Ground takes, however subtly, and presents back to the audience so well — in many ways, Sarah's scenes with her doctor are the most compelling. Should we believe women when they speak up about something being wrong? Or should we pass it off as an over-reaction?
'A proper good horror movie'
But apart from the intelligent undertones that elevate The Hole in the Ground to such an interesting story, it is also just a proper good horror movie. The tension builds from the opening scenes (director Lee Cronin warned that it would get loud, and he wasn't lying) and peaks at numerous points throughout the movie. From Chris's creepily polite demeanour to Sarah's strained DIY efforts around the house, the audience is left clutching the armrests, dying for a break from the pressure. And it comes hard and fast, with creaking floors, creepy-crawlies, supernatural creatures, and, yes, a hole in the ground.
But one thing that doesn't punctuate the tension is the sound of a scream. You'd think that a new horror movie's first port of call would be employing a lead with a good pair of lungs, but that wasn't on Cronin's mind here — Sarah doesn't scream once throughout the 90 minutes running time. It's refreshing to watch a horror without the time-wasting that screaming takes up (movie heroines would probably escape a lot easier if they didn't spend all their time screaming, but I digress), and you find yourself rooting for Sarah a lot more because of it. Her son Chris's descent into blank-stared terror is perfect, and his young talent, paired with Kerslake's steadfast presence and Cronin's inspired vision (who knew the Wicklow mountains could look so horrifying and so beautiful at the same time), results in a triumph of an Irish horror movie.
I sat down with Seána Kerslake and Lee Cronin to chat further about their vision for The Hole in the Ground. It's out in cinemas on March 1.