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.”
It shouldn’t need to be said that horror-film directors rarely come across as maniacs. Indeed, the reverse is usually the case. Few gatherings are as packed with reasonable people as the average extreme-cinema convention. Sure enough, Foy turns out to be a perfectly mannered, endlessly chatty young man with long limbs and neat features.
As he explains it, he grew up in that part of north Dublin where, according to the whims of correspondents, letters come addressed to Donnycarney, Killester or Artane. (Locals can probably pinpoint the street from that description alone.)
“I am from a working-class background,” he says. “My mother would now be known as a homemaker. My dad was a radio technician. I have to blame my dad for christening me in genre film. The first film I saw was Return of the Jedi – at the Adelphi, I think. That had an unbelievable impact on me. After that I devoured everything. I had a friend who had a VHS player. So I think I saw Robocop when I was 10.”
The generation of film-makers who began by shooting films on Super-16 cameras is fast receding into oblivion. Foy confirms that his first teenage experiments were on consumer video cameras.
For a few brief years he thought about becoming a video-game designer, but the release of Jurassic Park propelled the young man back on to the path of righteousness. Eventually, he found himself peering through a viewfinder in Dún Laoghaire.
At the turn of the century that institution’s film department, which became the National Film School, was really coming into its own. Eager to move away from stock student naturalism, Foy joined forces with the nostalgia master Andrew Legge and the gore hound Conor McMahon to create a loosely bound undergraduate cadre.
“We wanted to make genre shorts,” he says. “But here was a sense that you were there to make your kitchen-sink drama in your final year. We saw very few shorts from previous years that looked like what we wanted to make. We banded together. The equipment was there. But the sense was that you didn’t use it until graduation year. We couldn’t understand that. So we began shooting.”
Legge and Foy eventually made a very clever silent short called 1902, and throughout their time there they kept themselves busy making further off-centre, agreeably peculiar little films. Foy later made a name for himself with a spooky, technically brilliant fantasy entitled The Faeries of Blackheath Woods.
A hit at film festivals around the world, the short should have secured Foy a prime spot at the top table. But the movie business isn’t quite like that. It took another six years for him to get the funding to make Citadel, which premiered at the prestigious South by Southwest festival, in Texas, last year.
“Between Faeries and Citadel even starting [took] the guts of five years,” he says. “And that was all taken up with paying the rent by doing corporate videos and [getting] loans from the Irish Film Board. So I got by very frugally.”
During that time Foy had been pondering the notion of turning that earlier trauma into art. Another director might have taken a social-realist approach. But he remained true to his genre roots.
“I would invariably talk about my experiences, “ he says. “And I always got the same reaction every time: you should put that into a story. It just began this strange fusion of the personal with my love of horror. The more I thought about it, the more I realised there is something here that could help tell a dark, gothic fairy story.”
Citadel eventually emerged at South by Southwest and rapidly picked up serious acclaim from horror fanatics. The picture combines gritty naturalism with the fantastic impressively seamlessly.
“It was a tense time,” he says. “It wasn’t as if I had just created some piece of fluff. The film had this personal connection. I was putting a lot of my life on screen in the realms of fantastical horror. Watching it and seeing people frightened by it was amazing.”
Foy has already kicked up some small controversy. Over the past decade a new school of cinema, sometimes nicknamed hoodie horror, has found its villains in distorted versions of the urban underclass. The excellent 2006 French horror Ils (Them) was vague about the social undercurrents. But the 2008 British shocker Eden Lake came across as a hysterical Daily Mail editorial made cinematic flesh. Does Foy worry his film might be seen as an attack on the inner-city underclass?
“I have heard this argument,” he says. “I heard quite articulate objections at festivals. I know what they mean by it. And it does irk me watching a film such as Eden Lake, in which you have two overtly middle-class characters being chased by the evil working class.
“But I wanted to do a story with entirely working-class characters. That’s the difference. Tommy, the hero, is from a working-class background. It’s not as if his BMW broke down in the middle of Sh*tsville.”
And the villains are not exactly ordinary human beings. We wouldn’t want to give too much away. But the film does veer towards the supernatural.
“In Amsterdam somebody asked if it was right to just ‘burn these kids’.”
He pauses for a hearty chortle. “If they are inbred feral mutants, then yes! Yes!”
Sometimes an inbred feral mutant is just an inbred feral mutant.
Citadel opens on Friday