With his debut feature-length Let Us Prey, director Brian O’Malley made a strong first impression and solidified himself as a filmmaker with a bright future ahead of him. Let Us Prey is a violent genre offering that’s steeped heavily in horror and terror-inducing thrills, with some gallows humour peppered throughout to complement the carnage that unfolds. His sophomore feature, meanwhile, is a different beast entirely; a traditional Gothic ghost story in many ways, yet something else entirely.
Set in 1920, The Lodgers centres around Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner), a pair of orphaned siblings who live in an old family estate in rural Ireland, bound by an ancestral curse which forbids them to ever leave the creepy property. Yet, with its strong sexual undercurrent and themes pertaining to colonialism, there’s much more going on underneath the surface here than spirits dwelling beneath the floorboards.
With the film set to be released on Feb. 23, I seized at the opportunity to chat with the director about the film, his love of Gothic cinema, the infamous Loftus Hall and more.
Diabolique: What initially attracted you to the project?
BO: Having made Let Us Prey, which was received really well and batted well above its weight, I found myself being offered a number of heavy-duty violent horrors. Whilst I enjoy making that kind of film, my tastes in cinema are very wide, particularly when it comes to genre. I adore science fiction, westerns, ghost stories, thrillers, and my favourite directors are the likes of Sergio Leone, Michael Mann and David Fincher. I really want to explore genre beyond horror, so I knew if I were to follow up my first film with another violent horror movie, I’d run the risk of being typecast as that kind of director. However, I was aware that I needed to stay within the umbrella of horror if I were to make use of the value I’d gained from Let Us Prey.
Whilst searching for a script the producers of The Lodgers, Tailored Films in Dublin, saw Let Us Prey at a screening in Montreal. They were seeking out an Irish genre director for their script by David Turpin and they asked me to read it. Gothic period ghost stories are a real love of mine. When I first saw the 1966 Deborah Kerr film The Innocents I fell in love with the fairytale type ghost story that could exist as a horror, yet remain elegant and disturbing, without the need for cheap shocks or violence. Unfortunately, those types of ghost stories are few and far between, with notable recent additions being The Devil’s Backbone, The Others and The Orphanage. So, in this script I found a story that would allow me to explore a world that so few directors get to — the gothic period ghost story.
Within 15 pages of David’s beautiful script, I was hooked. There’s an exchange in the forest between Rachel and Sean when she asks him, “You won’t follow me all the way home limping like that will you?”. It’s a cutting remark towards an obvious cripple, to which Sean answers ”I would if you asked me to”. I thought that exchange was so elegant and so telling that I knew if the rest of the script was this well observed it was something I was going to really want to make. As I continued to read I discovered a beautifully realised ghost story with many traditional elements that make these kind of stories so seductive, but with a strange sexual undercurrent which made it stand out on its own. It was everything I wanted from a ghost story, and I knew it could be made within the budget being proposed, which was very low.
I would say I definitely ticked a box of the type of movies I want to make with The Lodgers. All I need to do now is a sci-fi, a spaghetti western, a thriller…..
Diabolique: There are a lot of classic Gothic horror movies out there. Were you inspired by any in particular?
BO: As I mentioned, I was inspired hugely by The Innocents. It’s such a beautifully staged production with the most strange, eerie atmosphere that envelops you, even when it’s not dealing directly with the haunting. This was something I wanted to bring to The Lodgers, but somehow my film has managed to become far more gothic that 1966 classic. I suspect this is down to both the subject matters in the script, but also my own personal sensibilities.
Let Us Prey has a strong gothic quality to it, despite being set in a police station, and I think it’s just an aesthetic that I’m drawn to naturally. I love the idea of being immersed in a world for 90 minutes which is somewhat removed from reality. And there’s something about ghost stories from that period that lend themselves perfectly to it. I think it’s because in those times ghosts and spirits were very real for superstitious people who inhabited small towns and big houses, so it feels almost like a natural texture to the film. Tony Scott’s The Hunger has long been a favourite of mine. Other than Man on Fire (that’s another type of film I need to make!) it’s my favourite of his films, and I consider it to be David Bowie’s best. So I took quite a lot of inspiration from the visual style and tone of that film. The way it shoots into mirrors a lot, and the sexual undercurrent throughout. Also, the sex scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon is remarkable for the way it first manages to be incredibly sensual (in an overblown 80’s manner that I love) but it then segues into a much darker tone and blood-sucking begins. This is something I used in The Lodgers for the love scene by the lake. It’s a far shorter scene, but it begins with a strange, melancholic sensuality, which then shifts into a more malevolent tone when the ghosts manifest in the bushes nearby. So thanks, Tony!
Finally, I always like to try find inspiration from a non-genre source. I believe if you’re making genre movies and your only source of reference or inspiration is other genre movies, then you run the risk of simply repeating what’s gone before. There’s no doubt The Lodgers is a traditional ghost story in many ways, but I wanted to find a way to tonally make it something other than that. So I took inspiration from Peter Strickland’s Duke of Burgundy. This masterpiece of a film has its own strangely gothic atmosphere, which I shared with my Director of Photography Richard Kendrick and my Production Designer Joe Fallover. But it’s through the use of sound that it also manages to create an audible aesthetic that places it in a space that feels otherworldly. I encouraged everyone to watch both The Innocents and The Hunger first, for their dose of horror inspiration, but to then take a big leaf out of the book of Duke of Burgundy, and to allow that seep into their thought process. As our film is very different, I knew if the key crew absorbed that film and allowed it to inspire their decisions we would create a gothic ghost story with its own particular atmosphere which wasn’t solely genre derived.
Diabolique: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during filming?
BO: The biggest challenge was undoubtedly the underwater climax of the film. Originally, in the script the water spilled out a basement door and filled the house each night. The climax involved Rachel on the top floor swimming down through the house where she encounters the ghosts involved their nightly orgy of past generations. It was all very strange, beautiful, disturbing, and incredibly expensive. So once it became apparent we couldn’t afford to shoot that, David was tasked with finding an inexpensive solution, which would also be strange and mesmerising.
So, from this he developed the idea of the trap door, underneath which was an inverted version of the house. This idea of the lives above being mirrored below is really beautiful and very original, so despite the elements of the original idea that I really liked, I knew our best chance of creating an ending on our tight budget, which maintained the high standards we were confident we’d achieve up until this point in the story, was though this new concept. From that came the idea of the upwards dripping water, which again feels totally original and is executed beautifully by our lead VFX artist Ben O’Connor from Bowsie Workshop.
We then had to shoot it throughout the two weeks shooting inside the house we picked up various empty plate shots which I had planned for the underwater sequence. Once we got to our swimming pool we then filmed Eugene Simon, who plays Sean, swimming against a black backdrop at angles that would match our Loftus Hall background shots. And then through compositing, and the addition of water reflections and underwater murk, we created the sequence where Sean swims through the submerged, inverted house. It was quite lo-fi, but the end result is pretty convincing, or at the very least, very effective in story terms.
The underwater shoot was 4 days in total, which included shooting Bill Milner and Charlotte Vega together for the 3 scenes where we see the ghosts over the lake. We also had to shoot the section of the dream sequence where Sean meets a floating Rachel on the stairs. That was all shot underwater and placed back into the respective locations. And then we had to shoot that huge sequence at the end where Sean finds Rachel in the black void, and then they have their encounter the six generations of ghosts.
It was a lot to do in four days and involved detailed storyboarding. Once I completed the boards, I then cut them in half until the only thing left was the bare essentials. Shooting underwater is at least four times slower than above water, so I knew I could not expect to get any more than 15 shots per day. So with those boards, which were assigned to a very tight and very strict schedule, we shot all the sequences underwater. It was quite a challenge, but with our renowned underwater cameraman Rob Franklin, who turned up at the swimming pool with the most compact and most complete underwater set up, everything went incredibly smoothly. Richard Kendrick handled the lighting and Rob dealt with what was happening beneath. It was a very tough and fairly gruelling four days, but the end result, whilst a far simpler version what David had originally envisioned stands up against everything else and I’m proud of everyone who made it happen.
Diabolique: The movie was filmed in Loftus Hall. Did you encounter any strange happenings?
BO: Loftus Hall is without a doubt the most remarkable building I’ve ever set foot in. When you step across that threshold, as David Bradley does in The Lodgers, sealing his fate, it’s literally like stepping backwards through time. As the house is very much as it was rebuilt 250 years ago, there’s almost nothing inside it from this century, or the last! Other than a few electric light fittings, it’s like a preserved moment in time. When you walk up the truly magnificent staircase you see the darkening of the wooden handrail, impregnated with the oils of the many hands that have glided over it throughout the centuries. And on one occasion whilst sitting alone in the room we used as Rachel’s bedroom, I got a very real sense of what it may’ve been like living in this huge, monolithic monument to wealth, placed on a barren peninsula in rural Ireland. It’s strangely detached from civilisation, yet only exists due to the unfathomable wealth of centuries old capitalism, and there’s a very present sense of the people who lived in the house, who treaded the floorboards, and who died in those rooms.
I didn’t personally experience any strange happenings, however, the caretaker of the house tended to sleep there overnight if he was working late. Once we installed the gothic bed you see in the master bedroom, he took to sleeping in it. On the first night, moments after laying his head on the pillow, he heard footsteps from the 3rd floor above. The house was entirely empty as all the crew had left hours previously, yet as he lay there he heard footsteps circling in the room above him, over and over. This is one of a number of encounters he had in the house over the years, and whilst I’m very skeptical of it all, I don’t think I’d sleep in that house alone if you paid me. It’s a house which permeates the presence of its past, and that’s very unnerving.
Diabolique: What are you working on next?
BO: Next up I have a number of projects on the coals. One is a very Gothic story called Soulless which I’m developing with Fantastic Films (Let Us Prey), but this time it is very much a “horror”. The screenplay is by Tony Philpott, and it tells the tale of a Victorian surgeon who must travel to a rural maternity hospital run by the Catholic Church in order to find evidence which can help clear his name in a malpractice case. There he finds evidence of massive infanticide covered up by the Catholic Church, and behind it a malevolent force which has ‘reawoken’. This horrific presence is connected directly with the baby deaths, and has its soul set on him, and his family…. It’s pretty creepy stuff.
I’m also working on a sci-fi with David Turpin, writer of The Lodgers. It’s a very beautiful, high concept story in a single, vast, incredible location, with a very small cast of characters. We’re at early stages, but I think it’s going to be a good one!