Horror fans might be forgiven for thinking they are at the wrong screening when they settle in to watch Killers Within at this year’s IFI annual film celebration of all things horror. Brian O’Neill and Paul Bushe’s feature bursts onto the screen with a gritty opening that seemingly provides the set-up for a crime thriller. A mother is violently attacked and her son taken away from her by a criminal gang. From here the films takes another turn into home invasion territory, as getting him back involves a group of friends and family plotting a tiger kidnapping. Their plan is to get their hands on enough cash to pay for the son’s release. Just when the audience settle in, there’s a seismic shift; things go somewhat haywire as we enter a world of mythological monsters and here is where the horror really kicks in, applied liberally with a double dose of action. It’s not your typical horror and to say much more would take away from the delirious fun that ensues.
Paul explains to Film Ireland that Killers Within is a genre-bashing film. “We initially set out to make a pure horror and it evolved and evolved again as we wrote and rewrote it. It became more thriller and then more action, with touches of sci-fi in there. Then we introduce a different type of villain that is not as prevalent in horror films.”
The bulk of the film takes place in Springfield Castle, Limerick, the home of a wealthy banker and his la-di-da family, who are set upon by Amanda Doyle, together with her ex-husband and three unlikely allies. The cast and crew lived in the Castle for the 10 days of the initial shoot. Brian says, “It was like Evil Dead stuff – where we live; where we shoot. We had a very bizarre existence there. There was no phone signal in the castle and you had to walk around 500 metres down the driveway to get a phone signal. In a way, it was like we were in an alternative reality living in this castle.” In this particular alternative reality, the band of ragtag amateur kidnappers and uppercrust elite family come together with catastrophic results as opposites clash, worlds collide and divides are crossed.
Leading the way is Sue Walsh, who plays Amanda, the Mother of the captive son. Her journey as a character is the stand-out role in the film, from victim to empowerment; she certainly is no damsel in distress, blazing her way through the film with a nutribullet blend of maternal love, unyielding determination and a ready-for-battle steely grit. “She was someone we hadn’t worked with before,” Paul says. “We didn’t know her at all. We did a big casting job and met some really extraordinary actors. It was such a hard thing to cast that lead female role because there’s so many things she has to embody more than anybody else in the film.” Brian explains how “as the protagonist, there was a lot of elements we wanted to hit. And Sue totally pulls that off.”
That’s the good, but what about the bad and the ugly? The monsters that comes to life are certainly impressive creatures but this element wasn’t all plain sailing according to Brian. “Creating the monsters for the film provided one of the biggest challenges. We ended up re-shooting a lot of scenes. We hadn’t anticipated how long it would take. By the time we got actors on set and even though the make-up was great, everyone was just fatigued and they were shot really badly. That’s on us.” Paul adds,”It’s that logistical thing. First time doing a feature like that. Brian had done How to be Happy and myself and Brian had made loads of shorts together and proofs of concept – but just this kind of animal of a film, with prosthetics, stunts, then it’s raining and finally we had trouble with lighting and logistics on the night. So when we got to the edit, we knew we needed to go back and redo scenes. Thankfully the producer said yes, which was great. We had the opportunity to really rethink how we did it. Really liaise better with our stunt team. Think about make-up more. Just pure logistics really. Like how can we get a stunt actor into the scene? How can we get this done in 20 minutes rather than 8 hours.”
Talking to Paul and Brian it’s obvious they are passionate about film and how horror affords them to a chance to mix it up. Paul speaks about it as being a genre “with the most subgenres… Everything mixes with it and people accept that. They’ll take comedy in their horror, romance, action, whatever it is people will take it with horror. That’s why Horror is such a broad topic. A lot of the films we like, like Dog Soldiers, From Dusk till Dawn, they’re all genre-blending horror films. I love my pure horror as well but I love those blending of things. That’s what this film is – taking all these things we love, or are interested in, or find curious and sticking them all in one film together. And horror lets you do that.”
For an Irish horror, Killers Within could be a story told anywhere. “We didn’t want the film to be typical Irish film but there is some Irish in there, particularly in the dialogue,” Brian says. “But yes, the film could be set anywhere in the world. That was important for us making a genre film, not to be too colloquial. Paul goes on, “that’s part of how we write in general. Our influences are international and we write the story we want to see. It’s not specific to a location. This could be in the London, the Hamptons. It could be anywhere. It just happens just happens to be set in Ireland. If you look at English break-out films like Shaun of the Dead, yes they’re set in London or where ever but again that story is universal. The themes are universal.The characters are universal. The monsters are universal. That’s what we wanted to do here.”
If there was ever a PSA against tiger kidnappings, this would be it. Avoid those monsters, buy a lottery ticket, and join us in the IFI for a horrorful bank holiday screaming… I mean screening.