Raised from the dead: Hammer returns with horror set in Irish village

Picturesque Pettigo turned into a film set for cult movie company's gory comeback
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The Independent Online

For the past six weeks, the inhabitants of a remote Irish border village have been witness to chilling scenes of violence, death and attempts to bring people back from beyond the grave.

Yet the residents of Pettigo are quite pleased, for what has been going on in their streets and surrounding countryside has been not a crisis but a drama.

Two separate resurrections are going on here: actors have been filming a new horror movie in which attempts are made to bring a dead girl back to life. And Hammer Horror is in the process of being revived.

Fans of the cult company had always hoped that it could come back to the big screen, and now their hopes are being realised. Hammer has arisen from its cinematic crypt and after a 30-year absence once again stalks the land, intent on thrilling and terrifying a new generation.

There is a particular reason why the new film, The Wake Wood, is being filmed in and around Pettigo on the Donegal-Fermanagh border. The village is picturesque and distinctive, and the area around it is heavily wooded.

In addition, locals are keen to point out, it is a place that soaked in history and a sometimes bloody heritage. Indeed, the village is festooned with 30 historical plaques.

And while Pettigo largely escaped the ravages of the Troubles, it was the scene of a long-remembered violent skirmish in 1922, when soldiers from the newly-formed Irish government strayed across the border. The colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, sent in infantry and there were a number of casualties. But bloodshed on the Hammer scale was avoided.

Some locals eagerly relate that, long before then, the village had homegrown ghostly legends. A long-dead clergyman, they solemnly attest, has been seen haunting the main street.

There was also a highwayman who met a grisly end worthy of a Hammer costume drama. Black Frank McHugh, one of the last highwaymen of Ireland – who robbed the rich and gave to the poor – was strung up in 1780 and is buried nearby.

The new Hammer drama is not a medieval melodrama but is set in the Ireland of the present day. The old brand has been modernised: there are no vampires or monsters, with the emphasis instead is on Hitchcock-style features of terror and suspense.

The Wake Wood's plot sees a vet and his pharmacist wife attempt to bring their only daughter back to life after she is ravaged by a dog. The couple use a pagan ritual. It marks a return of the legendary British film brand that saw the likes of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing star in films such as Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein.

The new film stars Timothy Spall along with Irish actors Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle. And the weeks of filming in Pettigo have produced an unexpectedly talented performer, according to producer Brendan McCarthy, in the form of a local bull which goes by the name of Simple.

"He's been fantastic," said McCarthy. "He's been a real star. He's had a leading role, really getting into it – he's started responding to his cues."

It is not known whether in the movie the bull is depicted as coming to a gruesome end – generally, a pagan ritual, when it is put into the world of Hammer, means blood being spilt. But Simple has certainly not been harmed during the making of the movie.

Pettigo's shopfronts have been transformed with signs renaming them as Wake Wood Pharmacy and the like. The area's heavily-wooded surrounds are also said to be an integral part of the film's narrative.

"It's the physicality of the trees around it that makes it so interesting for us," McCarthy said. "It's wonderfully atmospheric and it lends itself very well to the story."

Local development worker Natasha McGrath agrees. "We're hearing talk of all sorts of gory details in the film but it's gone very well. It's been good for the local economy, brilliant, a great buzz for the village."

Now the new horror film is adding another chapter to Pettigo's long history: perhaps in future years people will come to see where the horror film was shot. If it is a success, Hammer will be re-established, showing that the company and its genre were not defunct but simply undead.

Gore fest A history of Hammer

*Hammer FIlms were in production from the mid-1930s until the late 1970s, turning out many movies with leading actors such as Christopher Lee, right, and Peter Cushing. For many years, its movies were reliably successful at the box office.

In particular, it produced more than a dozen Dracula and Frankenstein films, whose Gothic horrors sent shivers down the spines of millions of film fans. There were zombies, werewolves and witches, as well as mummies, which were forever rising from tombs.

The genre was parodied, often affectionately, in films such as Carry on Screaming. Despite attempts to diversify its output, Hammer did not move with the times and, by the 1980s, the screaming had to stop. That is, until now.