Forget jump scares. The most terrifying horror movies are the ones that mess with your mind. Celluloid seems harmless until the imprinted images wriggle into your brain and abuse the caverns that control fear, panic and trepidation. When executed correctly, these are the flicks that keep you twitching in your little cot at night.
New Irish film Without Name carries that kind of psychological weight. Director Lorcan Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley’s story of a land surveyor sent on a job to the Irish wilderness is a chilling mindfuck. You sit, you watch and you distress. The projector hums and flickers and your arteries shrivel. The music and pictures hang over your psyche. Its spirit is part of you now – all over your cerebrum like chlorophyll on a summer leaf.
Without Name has already racked up festival screenings in Toronto, London and our own Dublin International Film Festival, among others, and is set to receive its Irish theatrical release on May 5. For Finnegan, Shanley and producer Brunella Cocchiglia, it’s the latest landmark in a creative undertaking that began with an application to the Irish Film Board’s Catalyst Project. The team had already sharpened their blades with Foxes, a creepy short film about a couple trapped in one of Ireland’s ghost estates as the animals ominously skulk on all sides. They were ready to level up.
Finnegan and Cocchiglia first met at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) while studying graphic design (as well as being long-time working partners they’re also married). Shanley hooked up the pair about 8 years ago. Foxes was based on his short story, and following its success, the trio began developing a feature called Vivarium, an ambitious sci-fi horror film set in an otherworldly suburb. When the Catalyst Project came around, they put the idea to one side to work on something that could match the budget on offer.One of three movies selected, Without Name received €350,000 and away the team went. Fracking protests and news stories surrounding the potential selling off Coillte assets at the time served as an inspiration for Finnegan and Shanley to develop an idea for a thriller set in a forest. These topical issues were then cut with the philosophical meanderings of American psychonaut Terence McKenna and movies like Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.
“For me they were really good horror films because they were more psychological. I’m not really into horror as in slasher films or those kinds of movies, but if you’re dealing with anything that’s supernatural, it gets called a horror film, says Finnegan. “Going into this, I knew I wasn’t going to go for jump scares or beheadings. There’s no monster or anything like that. It’s more metaphysical.”
Without Name mixes the mystical with the mundanity of modern life. When weary, middle-aged family man Eric Maybury (played by suitably jaded-looking British actor Alan McKenna) is deployed from Dublin to a rickety old cottage to chart ancient woodlands in preparation for a development, you suspect he welcomes the time away from an unloving marriage and untalkative teenage son. The circumstances seem sketchy (“You’ve a reputation for discretion,” a seedy corporate exec tells him) but Eric goes for it anyway, inviting along his student assistant-turned-lover Olivia (Niamh Algar) to share the workload.
Strange occurrences start to happen. The last occupant of the cottage has left notebooks laced with odd, supernatural-style stratchings. Eric’s equipment is on the fritz and mind is beginning to fray. Could it be down to the untrusting locals? Or hippy caravan dweller Gus (James Browne), whose deep bag of a hallucinogens does nothing to stem the descent of Eric’s unraveling mind? If you go down to the woods today, leave the mushrooms at home.
Without Name is a clash of the archaic and the modern. Like Foxes, it investigates the friction between humans and nature. The battlefield is one man, disillusioned with the crushing monotony of big city living.
“The central idea was a conflict between the modern world and something ancient and incomprehensible that is trying to protect itself,” says screenwriter Shanley. “If nature has a consciousness, it’s incomprehensible to us. It isn’t in any way anthropomorphic. If it fought back against us, its combat wouldn’t even be recognised as combat. We would probably be at its mercy.”
In the developing the woodland plot, Finnegan and Shanley drew from Irish mythology. “I grew up with a lot of those fairy stories,” Finnegan says. “My dad’s from Monaghan. He used to bring me up to fairy forts and there were all these stories of how they had fairies which were really intriguing as well. A lot of that Irish mythology and folklore is really rich and original. The Japanese make amazing horror films around their own folklore, but it hasn’t really been done here.”
Without Name’s heady eco themes are in the great tradition of genre joints that boast sharp social satire. Loose business ethics and the corrosive environmental affect of large corporations bubble beneath the menace. Finnegan saw the film’s horror essence as a way of delivering low-key lessons to his audience.
“John Carpenter used to smuggle in messages. Kronenberg as well,” asserts Finnegan. “They were always metaphors for other things. That always interested me.”
Horror movies aren’t always synonymous with quality. The genre itself is a kind of self-sustaining beast. Every weekend cinemagoers turn up to see “the horror movie”, no other information required when purchasing their ticket. The enduring interest in this brand of filmmaking had led to stacks of low-quality efforts, poorly conceived sequels and hollow Saw-jacking torture porn.
Without Name rises above the dregs of cheap thrills with its heavy atmosphere, eerie direction and taut execution that keeps the audience on a string. The unsettling soundtrack presses down on your chest and cinematographer Piers McGrail’s visuals shimmer like a spectral freak out. And, according to Finnegan, the film is finding an audience. “It was really embraced by the horror community because they want decent, intelligent genre films,” he says. “They don’t want just some cheap B movie that’s knocked out really quickly.”
Finnegan, Cocchiglia and Shanley now hope to complete work on Vivarium. The trio have developed the idea with Film4 over the past two years and are now set to shoot in September or October this year. “It’s quite an ambitious film so it has taken a while to get it right,” says Finnegan.
Fuelling interest in their opus is Without Name – manipulating frightener, food for the brooding, supernatural showpiece. One of the most nerve-racking trips into the woods this side of Goldilocks.
Without Name’s main character Eric was initially written as Irish, but when director Lorcan Finnegan came across experienced British actor Alan McKenna, he quickly became flexible. The key casting turned out to be an extra ripple in the film’s composition. “There was something kind of interesting about an English guy in Ireland being affected by the environment,” says Finnegan. “It added another level.”
For McKenna, the shoot included a lot of potentially daunting physical work, but the actor didn’t mind the grind. “The physical stuff is always the easier side of acting I find,” says McKenna. “It’s about getting to the place in your characters head where these things make perfect sense, like climbing a tree, running around naked in the woods and jumping in a lake of freezing water. You have to make them moments of Eric’s choosing and not something to overcome as an actor.”
Eric’s assistant and lover Olivia is played by Niamh Algar. The Dubliner was keen to delve deep into the character’s disposition. “Off the page she could be played as a clichéd home wrecker but I saw more depth. It’s never that black or white,” says Algar. “She brings light and energy to the story which balances out the characters. I wanted her to be three-dimensional and ensure the audience could connect with her as a person.”
Screenwriter Shanley shared Finnegan’s interest in Irish folk belief, though asserts there was no specific legends that informed Without Name.
“You could say the story is a combination of an Irish fairy story and a Lynchian psychogenic fugue, if you were given to that kind of fancy talk,” says Shanley. “As for other influences, there are many – from Bergman’s Persona and Hour of the Wolf to Émile Durkheim’s ideas on anomie that I picked up somewhere. The film has a socio-economic backdrop and the central character is having a mental health crisis. It’s not just the supernatural that informs the piece. Anyway, maybe there is no supernatural, there’s just natural that seems super to us.”
Shanley also swirled around the idea of a man who is a threat to an environment being forced to become the guardian of that environment. “I imagined what kind of man would be ironically suited to such a punishment and got typing.”
Shooting primarily took place in County Wicklow. The interior of the film’s cottage was shot in Kilternan, in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, while the exteriors were shot in Kilpedder. Two different woods were used. Glendalough was the main birch forest used and the filmmakers also used Massey’s Wood, near the Hell Fire Club, County Dublin, as a location.
“It was really difficult to find the main location because it was written as something very specific,” says Finnegan. “It needed to feel like a cage. I didn’t want to be able to see out of it, so it needed to be dense enough so that no matter where the camera was, you couldn’t see where you were.”
Composers Gavin O’Brien and Neil O’Connor were tapped early on in production to create a score packed with punchy menace. The pair – also behind the music of Foxes – read the script, watched movies recommended by Finnegan, and exchanged Spotify playlists with the director. Key scenes were identified and the pair started writing music for them before the cameras even started rolling.
“This is quite rare in film production,” says O’Brien. “Lorcan would hear certain temp pieces and then get ideas about how they could be used, sometimes in completely different scenes, as he was shooting. He’d then provide us with different sections from the film as soon as they’d been shot and edited so we could work on them asap.
“Through this process we were able to collectively establish a mood and atmosphere for the film in an organic way. Working with Lorcan was great in that he allowed us to experiment with mad ideas more than most directors probably would. Working in this way would definitely be our preference, but we understand that it’s the exception and not the rule.”
Without Name’s soundtrack will be available on scintillarecordings.bandcamp.com shortly before the film’s May 5 release.
Two posters for Without Name have been produced. The original festival poster – which features Eric’s face, filled with terror, emerging from a fractal pattern made from tree branches– was designed by Finnegan himself. “I wanted something bold and graphic that pops out amongst more generic movie posters at festivals and in catalogues,” he says. “I also love older screen printed posters, so I wanted to design a poster with only two or three colours that would screen print well.”
The theatrical poster was designed by Brandon Schaefer of design studio Seek&Speak. Finnegan says, “We wanted to make something that evocative of ‘70’s genre posters but felt contemporary.”
Finnegan on Instagram
Finnegan’s expressive visual instincts aren’t reserved for the cinema screen. His Instagram account is a fine portfolio of street photography, pulling in over 44,000 followers to date. “Street photography is instantaneous and random,” says Finnegan. “You never know what you’re going to see when you head out.”
The account captures eccentric ruffles of Dublin through images of architecture, nature and the population. “With real people in the street, you get a feel for them as characters,” Finnegan adds. “All of which feeds back into filmmaking and making actors feel like real people when you watch them.”
Words: Dean Van Nguyen