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Eva Birthistle stars in the Donegal-based horror film, Wake Wood

"Wake Wood" begins new wave of Irish horror movies

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Eva Birthistle stars in the Donegal-based horror film, Wake Wood

When a young Irish couple loses their 9-year-old daughter Alice to a terrifying attack, they discover a way to bring her back to life that ends up putting all their lives at risk.

Thus begins "Wake Wood," the tense psychological horror film from Dublin-based writer and producer Brendan McCarthy and John McDonnall. Starring "The Wire’s" Aidan Gillen and up and comer Eva Birthistle, the film is a genuinely atmospheric spooky triumph for the Irish film company.

When vet Patrick (Gillen) and pharmacist Louise (Birthistle) relocate to the remote village of Wake Woodin Donegal, they soon learn of a pagan ritual the locals perform that will allow them three more days with their deceased daughter. The couple find the idea disturbing and exciting in equal measure, but once they agree to the terms with Arthur, the village’s leader, a far bigger question looms -- what will they do when it's time for Alice to go back?

“The people of the village have maintained an ancient ritual that allows them to bring the dead back to life for three days a year after they’ve died,” McCarthy, who co-wrote the script, tells the Irish Voice.

“It’s their opportunity to say a final farewell to their loved ones. When Patrick and Louise arrive in the village to reinvent their lives after the tragic death of their daughter, they ask the people of the village if they will bring their daughter back. But when she’s brought back to life they try and keep her. All the laws of nature are being broken.”

For centuries the Irish have been known for crafting unforgettable tales of the supernatural -- Dracula, after all, was created by an Irishman -- and both McCarthy and McDonnall have obviously been inspired by that heritage.

But horror is also a niche market in the film world, and there’s no harm in creating your own unique expertise in a crowded market.

“John and I are very interested in that area and that became our take off point. These are the kind of movies we like, and it does fit very naturally with the traditions and profile of the country,” McCarthy says.

“We also took a look at what other companies were doing and said lets try and specialize in our own kind of thing, that we know a bit more about. So it was a practical decision.”

Finding the village of Pettigo, which they loved for what they call its otherworldly eeriness, took quite a while.

“We searched the entire country for a village with the right sort of menacing atmosphere and we did a huge tour of the country. What we wanted most of all was a place that had an oppressive feel, where the trees surrounded and sort of pressed in upon the village. Pettigo is surrounded by tress and it’s in a kind of dip, so it worked very well from that perspective,” says McCarthy

The eeriness of the scene must have inspired the actors, who deliver remarkable performances. Gillen in particular turns in a powerhouse interpretation of his character that draws you into the film from the first frame.

“It’s very natural for the mother to want to save their child from death, but in this film it’s the father who is prepared to risk everything to protect his baby girl,” says McCarthy.

“We think they both gave luminous performances and the result is a very original and very scary movie. The story is very unique and I think it will stand out from the run or be chopped type of horror film.”

McDonnall, who makes up the other producer in the Fantastic Films outfit, is particularly interested in the psychological realism of the horror genre. But he also knows keeps his eye on the thrills that audiences are looking for.

McDonnall has been working professionally producing films since his early days in Dublin in the 1980s and excels as a producer and director.

“It wasn’t set in Donegal when we started but then we found the village of Pettigo and it was almost half deserted which gave us tremendous atmosphere,” he says.

The other new horror film from the Fantastic Films stable -- both of which you can catch in early 2010 (watch our for them at the New York Irish Film Fleadh) -- stars Irish screen favorite James Nesbitt, and is an Irish and Scottish co-production.

Outcast tells the story of Petronella, a Scottish/Romany girl and Fergal, her mysterious Irish traveler boyfriend.

As their doomed relationship plays out, a marauding beast stalks the eerie Edinburgh council estate where they live, killing the locals and working its way towards the two lovers. Meanwhile Cathal (Nesbitt), a mysterious traveler from Ireland, uses ritual and magic to find the two young people and save them from their fate.

Nesbitt’s co-star is the new Irish film is Scottish actress Katie Dickie, who starred in the award-winning film Red Road. She plays Mary, one of the Sidh, an ancient race with magical powers.

After her relationship with Nesbitt’s Cathal, she flees Ireland with her teenage son, Fergal, played by Niall Bruton, and the pair takes refuge on an Edinburgh housing estate where mayhem quickly follows. 

“Accessing financing for new films in recession Ireland is a tough call. The challenge with Outcast is that although it was a horror-based script it was very based on Celtic mythology and its set between Ireland and Scotland. The Irish Film Board have been very supportive and our main focus was to attract Scottish financing,” said McDonnall.

Ireland has a great history of stories about the banshee and those kind of imaginary, mythic figures that exist within the natural world. This Irish spin was the inspiration that brought the script to life,

“We just decided to work on those kind of themes based on the knowledge that there is an audience there who want to watch them. Our interest is in thrillers and that will be consistent going forward.

“We’re already in the postproduction stage with these two films and we’ve several projects in the pipeline already. The recession that we’re hearing about is a worldwide phenomena and its more difficult to raise money for any film than it was a couple of years ago but then it was harder a couple of years before that,” says McDonnall.

“It’s getting increasingly difficult to raise money for films in Ireland but I think its down to the tenacity of the people involved to have faith in there project and keep going. "Wake Wood" and "Outcast" will represent two new important Irish supernatural thrillers and obviously we’ll be looking to the U.S. audience for releases later in the year.”

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