Debuts don’t get much better than Kate Dolan’s homegrown Irish horror You Are Not My Mother. Premiering in the Toronto International Film Festival’s much-fabled Midnight Madness section, where it nabbed runner up to the People’s Choice Award (losing out only to Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winner Titane), it’s a hugely confident, terrifying piece of work that’s hopefully due to be equally celebrated back home too.
One of an exciting new wave of horror filmmakers to break out of Ireland and the UK over the past year, Dolan joins the likes of Prano Bailey-Bond and Rob Savage, the latter of whom she’s truly risen through the ranks with. When this writer first saw Dolan’s work – her vicious little short Catcalls, at FrightFest 4 or 5 years ago now – it was playing alongside Savage’s short Salt. Now it’s their critically acclaimed features playing side by side at festivals all over the world.
“It was really lovely to be with Rob at TIFF.” says Dolan over Zoom from her native Ireland.
“Those things can be a little bit daunting and overwhelming, so to have someone who’s in the same boat as you, that you know and that you feel comfortable with, and you can chat to about it, it’s really lovely. It takes the edge off.”
Although it must be said that You Are Not My Mother and Savage’s accompanying feature Dashcam couldn’t be more different. Diving deep into local folklore, Kate Dolan’s first feature is about as Irish as they come, and getting that authentic voice right was incredibly important.
“As an Irish person, there’s elements of our folklore that’re used all the time in films, and I always laugh. There’s an episode of Buffy – which was one of my favourite shows growing up – where they’re trying to expel an Irish demon. And there’s a paragraph that they have to recite, written in Gaelic. But they just copied and pasted it from a press release about a new bus route.”
“Unless you’ve been immersed in the culture of Irish folklore since you were a kid, your perspective of it is slightly different. I wanted to make something that felt, in a lot of ways, very down to earth.” Which certainly rings true; so much of what works in YANM is the realist, almost kitchen-sink foundation.
“I was told stories like that while my Granny was taking me through the drive-thru at McDonald’s.” Dolan laughs,“So it’s not so mystical and magical, it’s just part of your life. That’s how I wanted to approach it.”
And while these stories of the occult certainly form the backbone of the film’s plot, they have a huge effect on its tone too. YANMM is a truly frightening experience, shunning jumps in favour of some really twisted, unrelenting scares. Case in point, a central dance sequence that sees Carolyn Bracken’s potentially possessed mother Angela dialling it all the way up to 11.
“Faeries are known to love music and there were stories of people being lead to dance with the faeries, but dance so much that they couldn’t stop dancing, til their feet were bleeding and they died.” Dolan pauses to let that sink in, “That kind of thing always interested me as a filmmaker, those kinds of images.”
But that’s only half the story. The real inner turmoil of the film isn’t just in how Dolan and her team play out the local folklore, but in how they balance it against the much more real threat of mental illness. What we see Carolyn Bracken’s Angela go through could ultimately fall on either side of the mystical divide.
“I think that’s maybe why [the scares] hit home,” the director chips in, reflecting on how important it was for the fantasy of it all to be a question mark, “They remind you of times when you’re maybe scared of your parents, or a family member. That feeling unsafe, as a child.”
It’s also very clear, watching Dolan’s films, that she’s not just throwing in scares for the hell of it. She’s a die-hard horror fan too. YANM is brimming with genre influences, with shades of a wild variety of cult favourites. When we offer up Donnie Darko, she nods enthusiastically, riffing on watching the VHS with her mum, and relishing the “angsty teen” vibes of the Gyllenhaals, Jena Malone and co. But her “horror homework” didn’t ignore the classics either.
“A big one for us was Rosemary’s Baby because it’s through the POV of one protagonist character. That’s something we wanted to achieve with Char – you’re seeing everything through her, so the audience is very much rooted in her perspective. The paranoia and fear that she’s feeling is given over to the audience as well.”
“I love The Exorcist too. Not even the big obvious moments – the puking, or the masturbating with the cross. More the scene when she walks into the party, and is wetting herself in front of all the party guests. That to me in that film is scarier than the later scenes. I love that really grounded horror that taps into things you experience as a person day-to-day that disturbs you.”
In the past it’s been harder for genre filmmakers outside of the US to get their early projects off the ground, with public funding usually leaning more towards traditional storytelling – drama and comedy – but Dolan sees the tide as turning, especially in Ireland. For one thing, she’s the product of the great public support schemes run by Screen Ireland (formerly the Irish Film Board) to invest in local talent. They backed her breakout short Catcalls, and were eager to work with her again on a first feature, no matter the genre approach.
“Screen Ireland are much more genre agnostic than they used to be. I think they can see the potential of how big of an audience you can get, the stories you can tell and the creativity of it. You can feel the effect of – I hate the word but, ‘elevated’ horror.” There’s a collective laugh at the use of a term that horror fans all over the world have come to despise. We can both feel the lingering groans of critic and horror aficionado Mark Kermode bellowing “it doesn’t exist” over and over. But Dolan has a point.
“When a movie like Get Out came out in 2017, it created a lot more horror fans because people realised they could watch horror films and it wasn’t exactly what they always thought it was going to be. So I think it’s definitely getting easier to make horror, which is exciting.”
And why should it matter what the wider public call it if, like Dolan says, in the end we ultimately get more fans and, as a result, more top tier horror filmmaking too. Which You Are Not My Mother is happily a perfect example of.