You Are Not My Mother (Kate Dolan, Ireland, 2021)

Irish Horror Cinema Comes of Age

by Emer O’Toole Volume 27 Issue 11-12/Volume 28 Issue 1 / January 2024 5 minutes (1145 words)

You Are Not My Mother (Kate Dolan, Ireland, 2021). (Photo source Magnet Releasing)

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s – mapping onto a transformative economic boom known as The Celtic Tiger – Ireland produced a wave of low budget horror films, some of which were, to everyone’s surprise, really rather good. Paddy Breathnach’s Shrooms (2007), for example, gave the whole “bad teens in the woods” thing a smart twist, set against the background of a derelict Catholic industrial school. Or Billy O’Brien’s Isolation (2005), with its shaky camera and zombie cows, managed to tap into a host of contemporary Irish fears as the country changed from an ethnically homogenous and economically agricultural nation to the globalized place it is today.

These films horrified different people in different ways, and one group of people they horrified particularly was Irish film scholars, who saw the funneling of Irish creativity and resources into genre flicks as a betrayal of the values of independent Irish cinema. Since the ‘70s, independent Irish filmmakers had been battling twee and reductive stereotypes of Ireland – largely aimed at nostalgic Irish-Americans – to represent the country on its own terms: with grit, with authenticity. And now that Ireland finally had some money of its own, the whippersnappers were making what now? Zombie nonsense? Vampire rubbish? Mad scientist crap? Woe and calamity.

Being of the generation raised on the first great Irish-themed horror blockbuster – that’s right, I’m talking about Leprechaun[1] – I never shared these particular fears. I felt, as the theorist Emma Radley articulates with more academic eloquence than I,[2] that horror movies could express us just as well as any other medium. And I saw a lot of promise in a nascent Irish Horror cinema, because Ireland has vast horrific potential to mine, both in its history and its folklore.

As the wave settled, I was impressed by Colin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015), a debut eco-horror based on Irish folklore, in which a British conservationist is colonized by parasitic Irish moss. A genuinely terrifying film, incorporating well-researched mythology and folk belief with nods to Straw Dogs and The Evil Dead, it nonetheless makes a few mis-steps – we see the monsters too soon, for example, and they lose much of their power. Nonetheless, the film excited me, and I wanted more: I wanted a film with its roots deep in the earth of the Irish supernatural, saying something about Ireland now, and also aesthetically on fleek. And, reader, I got exactly what I wanted.

Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother (2021) is a film about being “away with the fairies,” a term used liberally in Ireland to describe anyone who’s a bit odd, a bit detached, or maybe even a bit mad. Irish fairies are not to be confused for Tinkerbell and company. Rather, terms like “fairies” – see also: “na Daoine Sídhe,” “the good people,” “the wee people,” “the gentry,” “the other crowd,” or, simply, “them” – are ways to refer to the Tuatha de Danaan, that is, a race of supernatural beings driven to a parallel world by the invasion of the Gaels.

The Daoine Sídhe have portals to our world through magical places, including (but by no means limited to): fairy stones, fairy forts, fairy trees, fairy woods, fairy roads, fairy wells, and various fairy-flavoured bodies of water. In You Are Not My Mother, we find ourselves in a fairy housing estate – a place where, I imagine, construction ignored the landmarks of the other crowd, an ill-advised act which can result, as folklorist Eddie Lenihan warns, in “serious consequences.”[3]

Dolan’s film focuses on changeling lore, whereby the good people, angered by perceived trespass against them, steal a person away and replace them with a fake. The dummy might look like your loved one, might sound like them, but it is not human. Your loved one is below ground, in the world of the Tuatha de Danaan, and will only be returned if you burn or kill their fairy form.

In You Are Not My Mother, Char (Hazel Doupe), our taciturn teenage protagonist, has a mother who is “away with the fairies” in the colloquial sense. Angela (Carolyn Bracken) is depressed, finds it hard to get out of bed. Char walks by her mother’s bedroom – the door slightly ajar, gloom seeping out – and Doupe’s subtle performance communicates a host of difficult emotions. When I screened the film to my Irish Cinema class last year, numerous students remarked just how powerfully it evoked their own experiences with parental mental health. I didn’t share it with the students at the time, but the same was absolutely true for me – I could practically smell the unwashed, sad, silent adult behind that door. I could feel with Char – her expressions understated, her body hugged by the camera – that helplessness when a parent is rendered incapable of parenting by a sadness that nobody truly understands. The horror of it.

Char, late for school, fumbling around for breakfast when there’s no shopping in, wakes her mother, asks for a lift, then berates her in the car – she wants food in the house when she gets home. Angela drops Char to school, barely keeping it together. As she’s driving back, she screeches to a halt: a black horse stares at her through the windscreen. The car is found, door ajar, shopping on the passenger seat, but Angela is gone. Given her mental health, her family fears the worst. But only Char’s grandmother (Ingrid Craigie) might suspect the truth: that the Púca has stolen Angela away.

A woman returns who looks like Char’s mother, sounds like Char’s mother. This version of Angela is happier – she’s taking her meds, she’s cooking dinner, she’s twirling Char around the kitchen to golden oldies on the radio. But as Halloween approaches and the membrane between “them” and us grows thin, Charlene begins to understand what she has to do.

Slow-paced, quiet, painted in concrete and overcast skies, with a tension that builds as we balance and rebalance our rational and supernatural frames for the unfolding narrative, You Are Not My Mother is a supremely creepy horror film. It’s also a delicate exploration of mental illness and the impossible desire that so many of us have felt for a parent to come back from that other world.

Having burnt the monster that looked like the person she loves most, Charlene answers the door and finds Angela – dripping wet, traumatized, still sad. They crumple into each other’s arms. Sick or well, Charlene would never wish for any other mother.

[1] Jones, Mark. Leprechaun. 1993.

[2] Radley, Emma. ‘Violent Transpositions: The Disturbing “Appearance” of the Irish Horror Film.’ Viewpoints: Theoretical Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts. Ed. Clare Bracken and Emma Radley. Cork: Cork UP, 2013.

[3] Mulvanny, Amy. “The fairy bush in County Clare that moved a motorway.” The Journal 24 Apr 2019

<i>You Are Not My Mother</i> (Kate Dolan, Ireland, 2021)

Emer O'Toole is a prof at Concordia University, where she teaches theatre, performance, and film in the Irish Studies department. She is author of Girls Will Be Girls (Orion: 2015), a funny introduction to academic theories of gender, and Contemporary Irish Theatre and Social Change (Routledge: 2023), an exploration of the relationship between activism and aesthetics on the Irish stage. Emer has contributed to a wide variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Independent, Paper Visual Art, Winter Pages, Mirror Lamp Press, and Somesuch Stories. Her work has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Icelandic, and Korean. She is the proud custodian of two beautiful little boys, one handsome Frenchman, and a very ugly cat.

Volume 27 Issue 11-12/Volume 28 Issue 1 / January 2024 Film Reviews   horror   irish cinema   irish horror