Hoodie horror that hits home
Rather than kitchen-sink dramas, Ciaran Foy’s student shorts marked his work out as different, and his debut horror feature is rooted in personal trauma
Foy story: Aneurin Barnard as Tommy in ‘Citadel’
Foy story: film director Ciaran Foy, whose new feature, ‘Citadel’, is inspired by the trauma he suffered after an assault. Photograph: Alan Betson
We don’t need Sigmund Freud to tell us that all horror stems from unhappy truths about everyday humanity. For centuries, writers have filtered meditations on sexuality through vampire mythology. And while a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, the violent penetrations of flesh in body horror are almost always something else besides.
Citadel, the fine first feature from the Dubliner Ciarán Foy, certainly works well as a quasi-supernatural horror. Mostly set on a grim Scottish housing estate, the picture follows a stressed young widower as he seeks to evade the malign attention of possessed hooligans. Whereas once the demons lurked in unexplored woods, they now huddle in subways and underlit alleys.
The connections with real life are, however, more than usually explicit in Foy’s film. The film has its roots in a trauma that the director suffered when he was just 18.
“I was at the local cinema in Coolock,” he says. “And there was a gang of youths hanging out. They pushed this 10-year-old into me, and before I had a chance to react they began shouting: ‘Why are you pushing him?’ I got a hammer across the face. They then pulled back my hair and threatened me with a dirty syringe.”
The film does, indeed, begin with a savage, powerfully shot attack on the protagonist’s pregnant wife. The child survives, but the mother dies.
As awful as his own attack was, Foy says the subsequent post-traumatic stress was worse. Like the hero of Citadel, he found himself saddled with an irrational fear of leaving the house. (Actually, the fear is not so irrational in the film. But you get the point.)
“I really didn’t have a word for agoraphobia at the time,” he says. “I now know that post-traumatic stress brought on this agoraphobia. I was stuck with this for four months. It reached the point where I couldn’t even look at the front door without having panic attacks. I was living with my parents, and they didn’t have a word for it either. ‘It’ll be better tomorrow,’ was what we said.”
It would be only a slight overstatement to say that film saved Foy from his own crippling neuroses. What turned things around was a letter of acceptance from the film school at what is now Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology. He had not left the house for four months. Now he found the courage to cross the city. But open spaces still worried him. He felt safer in a packed rush-hour train than in empty darkened streets.
“To cut a long story short, I met the woman who is now my wife at college and eventually confided that I had this thing,” he says. “She was wondering why Ciarán made his excuses and left at 5pm. I never went out at weekends. She pointed out that there was a free counsellor at the college. I thought that was rubbish. I really went to impress her. But it was the best thing I could have done.”