First, some history: “Dracula” author Bram Stoker, the ostensible inventor of our modern idea of the vampire, was Irish. Now, some retconning: in the world of Chris Baugh’s plucky horror comedy “Boys from County Hell,” Stoker’s villain was inspired by the evil exploits of Abhartach, a resident in the tiny Irish village of Six Mile Hill who delighted in drinking the blood of his neighbors. A local offed Abhartach and he was buried beneath a tall cairn of rocks in a grassy field, never to be seen again. Maybe.
Such is the world of the shiftless Eugene (Jack Rowan) and his best pal William (Fra Fee). The Abhartach legend is a fun way to distract silly tourists, but these local boys can’t shake the sense that there might actually be something to the tall tale. Northern Irish filmmaker Baugh, best known for his Sundance feature “Bad Day for the Cut,” ably adapts his own 2013 short film for his second feature, one that weaves together good humor, gruesome horror, and the texture of real life.
While “Boys from County Hell” is unabashed in its affection for vampiric lore and reclaiming it for the Irish, Baugh is just as interested in making a slice-of-life dramedy that can contain both practical worries (a new highway bypass cutting through town) with the outsized (again, a vampire). Baugh and co-writer and frequent collaborator Brendan Mullin are just as compelled by the living characters and relationships as the exploits of the local undead bloodsucker. The result is an amusing horror comedy filled with characters we care about who often (gasp!) make good, understandable choices in horrifying situations.
Baugh opens his film on a charming older couple gently bickering in their living room: Should they go out for a drink at local pub The Stoker, or stay in for evening? Too late for that! The blood starts pouring out of them, seemingly pulled to some unseen entity. Baugh zips back to two months earlier, where Eugene and William stage their own gentle bickering at The Stoker and come across a pair of tourists eager to see the alleged grave of Abhartach.
The imposing stone cairn on top of the changeling’s resting place happens to be on land owned by William’s father, and the boys are all too happy to take these easy marks to see it. The whole thing might be bullshit, but there’s a lingering worry: What if it’s true? It’s an intriguing thread that Baugh and his cast love to pull. We know early on that the town is in serious trouble, and the eventual reveal is stretched out a bit too long for such a short film, but there’s still plenty of fun in the tease.
After a grim and bloody tragedy upends the BFF’s lives, they can’t escape the truth: The legend of Abhartach is real, and he has it out for Six Mile Hill. Only Eugene, his prickly father Francie (“Bad Day for the Cut” star Nigel O’Neill), William’s clever girlfriend Claire (Louisa Harland), and a motley assortment of Francie’s construction crew pals stand between them and a severe plasma shortage. Baugh and Mullin’s characters cycle through plenty of traditional horror movie beats — should they try to get Abhartach into the sun? can they just cut off his head? — along with some actual emotional twists.
Baugh doesn’t balk at the icky and gross, but he’s also adept at weaving those touches in with real humor and a generous dash of character building; a final-act injury that ultimately becomes a weapon for Eugene is disgusting, funny, and terribly clever. By the time “Boys from County Hell” works its way to its final face-offs, the film’s good humor and care for its characters is just as appealing as the gore. Vampire hounds might balk, but “Boys from County Hell” has it right: This is a story about people, not monsters.
“Boys from County Hell” starts streaming on Shudder Thursday, April 22.