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As I explored in my earlier article on the Irish god(s) of death, the Irish certainly seem to have a special relationship with death; a closeness; a comfortableness.
Couple this phenomenon with Ireland’s storytelling traditions, which are notoriously rife with spirits, demons, and monsters, and it should come as no surprise that Irish filmmakers have long been drawn to the horror genre.
What’s more, Ireland’s deep, dark forests and rugged, dolmen- and cairn-spotted countryside no doubt contribute to Ireland being a hotspot for horror filmmaking. It is the same landscape, after all, that inspired the scariest elements of Irish mythology: caves that lead to the Otherworld; forests and hillsides haunted by murderous fairies; an island ruled by the lord of the dead.
Over the past few years, a new generation of Irish filmmakers has emerged, one that draws inspiration from these ancient Irish storytelling traditions while simultaneously pushing the horror genre in exciting new directions.
Indeed, four of the ten Irish horror films on this list came out in 2020 or later—including the number one Irish horror film, which came out in 2021.
But enough preamble, let’s get to it.
The 10 Best Irish Horror Films
The following Irish horror films are ranked in order from worst to best based on their IMDb ratings (re: the green numbers). Ties were broken by referring to Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
10) The Hallow (2015) – 5.7
It’s your classic tale of an Englishman who moves with his family to the remote Irish wilderness only to discover that the area is inhabited by a race of “fairies, banshees and baby-stealers” known as “The Hallow.” Speaking of baby-stealers: did I mention that the Englishman, Adam, and his wife, Claire, have a baby? Yep, well, one night something smashes through the baby’s bedroom window. Was it the work of the unabashedly unwelcoming locals, a wayward bird, or something more sinister? More nocturnal “disturbances” follow, and Adam, a conservationist, begins to suspect that a mysterious fungus he found in the forest is connected to the supernatural goings-on. Spoiler alert: Adam gets infected by the fungus and grotesqueries ensue. To quote critic Simon Abrams: “These scare scenes aren’t just competent—they’re consummately disgusting and appreciably creepy, too,” (source: RogerEbert.com).
Watch The Hallow here:
9) The Canal (2014) – 5.8
It’s your classic tale of an Englishman who moves with his family to a spooky corner of Dublin only to discover that the area is inhabited by vengeful spirits. Yes, there are formulas to these things. Once again, we have a boringly named protagonist (David) who works in a profession (film archivist) that helps drive the plot forward. But The Canal is more than just The-Hallow-in-a-city. There is a lot going on here. In addition to being a horror film, The Canal is a supernatural urban murder mystery (think Gone Girl with ghosts), which also sees our protagonist cracking a cold case from the early 1900s (that’s where his archivist skills come into play). To quote film critic Stephen Dalton, The Canal is “a stylish and scary mash-up of various psycho-horror traditions,” which swerves “between different genres, from old-school ghost story to found footage to visceral body horror,” (source: THR).
Watch The Canal here:
8) Let Us Prey (2014) – 5.8
While set in Scotland, Let Us Prey is an Irish-British production which was directed by Irish filmmaker and TV series creator Brian O’Malley and which stars the Dublin-born Liam Cunningham (of Game of Thrones fame). Caveats and clarifications out of the way, the film takes place in a police station in a remote Scottish town. An unnamed, unknown visitor—played by Cunningham—shows up with a list of names and some biblical sounding banter. He also happens to have the fingerprints of a guy who was declared dead two decades earlier. Things get even weirder as the police officers start experiencing flashbacks of their past misdeeds. Skeletons are literally and figuratively exhumed from closets, and, this being a horror film, the bodies begin piling up. To quote from film critic Tara Brady’s review of Let us Prey: “The bloodwork is ketchup-y. The performances are big. The darkness never ends,” (source: The Irish Times).
Watch Let Us Prey here:
7) You Are Not My Mother (2021) – 5.8
Char is your typical Catholic high school student in the outskirts of Dublin who, as a baby, was taken into the woods by her grandmother and placed, screaming, inside of a ring of fire. You’ve heard of “hot yoga”? This was sort of like a “hot baptism”. But I digress. In the present day, Char’s chronically depressed, mostly bedridden mother Angela goes missing, only to return soon after with a vastly different personality. Char’s aforementioned grandmother, Rita, suspects a changeling is afoot. Turns out, Char’s mother was not the first changeling in the family. Writing for the New York Times, film critic Jeannette Catsoulis called You Are Not My Mother “a skin-crawling merger of Irish folklore and family secrets,” saluting first-time director Kate Dolan for her “[i]maginative and spooky” debut.
Watch You Are Not My Mother here:
6) Mandrake (2022) – 5.8
As the most recent film on this list, Mandrake’s IMDb score is prone to fluctuation (as is its Tomatometer score, which, at the time of this writing, is a perfect 100%). Disclaimer aside, director Lynne Davison’s debut feature avoids falling into the narrative and stylistic traps of your typical, “there’s something witchy in the woods” film. Mandrake follows probation officer Cathy as she visits the just-released-from-prison “Bloody” Mary Laidlaw, who infamously murdered her husband decades earlier. When two local children go missing near Mary’s property, the ex-con—whom many in their small Irish village already suspected of being a witch—becomes suspect numero uno. And yes, the mandrake root and all the folkloric baggage that comes with it will have a role to play before the film’s end. Unlike traditional fairytale– and witchcraft-inspired movies, which go heavy on the “autumnal hues” and “ethereal tone,” as film critic Kat Hughes explains, Mandrake “shirks those conventions in favour of a more stark and realistic appearance.” Hughes continues: “By doing this, it pulls the viewer along with Cathy into this dangerous branch of Paganism,” (source: The Hollywood News).
Watch Mandrake here:
- N/A (I’ll update with links once it’s available!)
5) Boys from County Hell (2020) – 5.9
In addition to claiming the number five spot, Boys from County Hell has the distinction of being the only film on this list to also feature on my list of the top 10 live-action Irish mythology movies. An innovative horror-comedy, the film follows a construction crew as they accidentally destroy an ancient cairn, inadvertently awakening Abhartach the infamous vampire, or neamh-mairbh (“walking dead”), from Irish legend. As I explain in Irish Monsters in Your Pocket, the legend of Abhartach likely helped inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Granted, director Chris Baugh’s version of Abhartach is not your typical vampire. To quote reviewer Phil Hoad, rather than sucking people’s blood, Abhartach’s “mere presence causes a haemorrhaging torrent of it,” (source: The Guardian).
Watch Boys from County Hell here:
4) A Dark Song (2016/2017) – 6.2
Here’s a welcome variation on the tried-and-true Irish horror formula: Rather than have a British guy move to an isolated house in Ireland, A Dark Song sees an Irish woman move to an isolated house in Britain—North Wales, to be specific. The grieving Sophia Howard is on a mission to communicate with her dead son. She seeks the help of occultist Joseph Solomon, who leads Sophia in a bizarre, months-long ritual to summon a guardian angel who can fulfill her wish. But is this occultist the real deal? Or is he an opportunistic creeper? (Or is he both?) A Dark Song is director Liam Gavin’s “confidently moody first feature,” to quote L. A. Times film critic Robert Abele, who continues: “Gavin’s specialties are emotional bitterness about the cruelty of the world, light-challenged atmospherics (Cathal Watters’ cinematography is evocative), and intense detail about the dos and don’ts of dark-arts ceremonies.”
Watch A Dark Song here:
3) Grabbers (2012) – 6.3
While the aforementioned Boys from County Hell is often touted as a breakthrough Irish horror-comedy, Grabbers left its tentacle-marks on the genre nearly a decade before. This “creature feature” sees Garda Lisa Nolan accept a temporary assignment on a remote Irish island (modeled after the Aran Islands, of sweater fame). The gruffness of the locals is soon outshined by a greater threat: whale corpses are inexplicably washing up on shore, and people are starting to go missing. The titular, tentacled, blood-sucking aliens are to blame, of course. Fortunately, the island’s residents have a silver bullet: alcohol. Turns out, the Grabbers avoid feasting on the blood of the inebriated, as alcohol makes them sick. Writing for Empire, film critic Kim Newman dubbed Grabbers a “near-irresistible Friday-night-out monster picture in the tradition of Lake Placid or Tremors, with a boozy Irish charm that makes it a distinctive addition to the catalogue of alien invasions.”
Watch Grabbers here:
2) Byzantium (2012/2013) – 6.5
The follow-up to his 2009 film Ondine (which, FYI, took the number six spot on my list of the top 10 live-action Irish mythology movies), director Neil Jordan’s Byzantium stars Gemma Arterton as the centuries-old vampire Clara and Saoirse Ronan as her daughter—and also centuries-old vampire—Eleanor. The mother and daughter vampire duo take up residence at a run-down coastal resort called the Byzantium Hotel. Eleanor shares the story of her past (which we see in flashback) with a local love interest. It’s a story that begins with her mother Clara being forced into prostitution by a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars. In the present day, a sort-of league of extraordinary gentlemen-vampires called The Brethren is hellbent on destroying Eleanor, whom Clara was never supposed to have turned into a vampire in the first place. If you think a director could potentially struggle with a vampire story that bounces between horror and historical fiction, and between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first, rest assured that Neil Jordan previously helmed 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, arguably one of the greatest vampire films of all-time—and certainly one of the hunkiest. I mean, come on. Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Christian Slater, and Antonio Banderas. (AND Irishman Stephen Rea!) But I digress. Film critic Ian Buckwalter described Byzantium thusly: “Moody, lush and lurid, Jordan’s film revels in the dangerous sensuality at the unbeating heart of the genre,” (soure: NPR).
Watch Byzantium here:
1) Bring Out the Fear (2021) – 6.9
The opening premise of the Richard Waters-directed Bring Out the Fear is simple enough: a couple whose relationship is on the rocks decide to go for one final walk together in the woods near Wicklow. But, inevitably, things take a Blair Witch-esque/The Endless-esque turn. The falling-out-of-love-birds, Rosie and Dan, discover that their favorite hiking spot has some new twists and turns. No matter which direction they walk in, they end up back in the middle of the forest. Our protagonists have been thrown for a loop—literally. Temporal distortions. Strange symbols. Is it all in their imaginations? Or is there, as there so often is in Irish horror films, something wicked in the woods? To quote film critic Kat Hughes writing for The Hollywood News: “A couple getting lost in the woods isn’t a new story to the world of horror, and yet somehow writer and director Richard Waters has managed to create a film that feels unlike its peers. Bring Out the Fear has a great aesthetic, generates a genuine foreboding atmosphere, and has two excellent central performances.”
Watch Bring Out the Fear here:
- N/A (I’ll update with links once it’s available!)
- Stitches (2012) – 5.7
- The Hole in the Ground (2019) – 5.6
- The Cured (2017) – 5.6
- Isolation (2005/2006) – 5.6
- Wake Wood (2009) – 5.5
- Let The Wrong One In (2021/2022) – 5.4
- Citadel (2012) – 5.4
- Without Name (2016/2017) – 5.3
- The Devil’s Doorway (2018/2019) – 5.3
- The Cellar (2022) – 5.3
- Rawhead Rex (1986) – 5.2
- The Lodgers (2017/2018) – 5.1
- The Daisy Chain (2008/2010) – 5.1
- Don’t Leave Home (2018) – 5.0
- Boy Eats Girl (2005) – 4.9
- Nails (2017) – 4.7
- Shrooms (2007/2008) – 4.6
- The Devil’s Woods (2015) – 3.1
Stay tuned for my future post about the best animated Irish mythology movies!
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More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.