Northern Ireland based writer/director/producer George Clarke specialises in micro-budgeted, high-energy, special effects-driven, kung-fu/zombie mash-up gore-fests that have trail-blazed through independent film festivals around the world. His debut film, the ground-breaking Battle of the Bone, follows a group of friends stuck between warring communities and a horde of marauding zombies on the streets of Belfast during the tumultuous ‘marching season.’ Bloody carnage ensures, naturally. His follow up, the hyper-violent reality TV satire The Knackery, skulked along a similarly gore-drenched trail and boasted genetically modified zombies picking off the contestants of a popular TV game show, sloshing their innards across the screens of primetime telly.
The indie filmmaker is following up these frenetic and blackly comic cult films with a drastic change of pace that should result in an altogether more unsettling affair. His latest film, The Last Light, is based on harrowing true-life events from the history of the reputedly haunted Cairndhu House, County Antrim. If that wasn’t enough, the renegade filmmaker opted to set and film his movie in the very same house.
The Last Light, which stars Robert Render, Jo Lamont-Crawford, Vivian Jamison and Peter Meehan, revolves around a maintenance man who is called on to ensure the derelict house is securely boarded up after a reported break-in. On what is supposed to be his last day on the job, he experiences increasingly chilling occurrences. Initially believing that wayward kids are playing a prank on him, it soon becomes evident that something much more sinister is afoot…
|Cairndhu House by day|
|Entering the house|
Prior to filming in February and March this year, Clarke had been waiting 17 years for an opportunity to sneak a peek inside the house. Paranormal Ulster invited him to join them on an investigation of the council-protected Cairndhu House last October and that was all he needed to get the creative juices flowing and the idea for a spook-laden story bloomed. “Although it was pitch black inside, I was able to piece the place together in torchlight,” says the director, explaining the genesis of the story. “As always I started thinking ‘movie.’ Within a few hours, I had the basic storyline laid out, and when I got home, I just started writing.”
Much like Brad Anderson’s darkly disturbing Session 9, Clarke’s latest flick was also inspired by and written for a very specific location. Cairndhu House is situated on the weather-lashed, picturesque Antrim Coast in the very North of Ulster, and has a full-blooded history just screaming to be adapted for film. The building was originally home to Lord and Lady Dixon, before it was given over to the council, who eventually turned it into a hospital. There have been many reports of paranormal activity at the house; a young child in Victorian clothing has been seen in the background of various wedding photographs taken on the grounds of the house, a former security manager at the house made reports of loud banging and a creepy figure has been glimpsed standing at one of the windows, to name but a few ghostly occurrences.
|Director George Clarke|
|A ghostly resident of the house|
The house has had a lifelong hold over Clarke, as he explains in typically enthusiastic fashion. “When I was 13 or so, I can remember stumbling across Cairndhu House with my best friend. It was an incredible sight. I have always been drawn to this area, and its neighbouring village Ballygally. Even with all my time spent around the world, this is the place I come back to quickest.”
Another excursion to the house with Paranormal Ulster, along with a medium, afforded Clarke the opportunity to develop the premise for the film. Not just content to use it as a location, Clarke now wanted to incorporate actual events that had taken place in the house into the story. “We returned with a medium, which opened up many new avenues for the story. I took into account what he and the rest of the team were experiencing and came up with an experiment for the film that would involve recreating the sightings and hauntings in the house, filmed in the exact same spot they are said to have happened. Strangely enough, there was one particular part in the story that I had already scripted long before meeting this medium, yet he described the exact event I had written, in the room I had written it for!”
Usually when film productions claim that their set was plagued by strange occurrences - audiences tend to be quite cynical. When the cast and crew of films like The Exorcist and Poltergeist said they experienced ‘odd’ things on set, most assume it was merely a publicity stunt. In the case of The Last Light, the cast and crew are all quite open about the odd things they claimed to have experienced while wandering the dark and lonely hallways of the house. Actress Jo Lamont-Crawford reveals the house had an effect on those who left themselves open to ‘contact’ with whatever still lingered within its damp and sullen walls. “Once in Cairndhu it isn't hard to get into character,” she explains. “The house can be a bit unnerving, especially as you can't even see your own hand in front of your face in some of the rooms. When we arrived in the early morning, it was exciting. When darkness fell though, the mood of the house shifted. It is dark, cold and dusty, and it made me feel apprehensive, as I have experienced certain things throughout life that have formed the basis of my belief in the existence of spirits. Filming in Cairndhu I have seen and felt things that reinforced my beliefs.”
|The dead don't like to be disturbed|
|Clarke and cast|
According to Clarke, the darkness in the house provided the perfect setting for things to go bump in. “There is always going to be an argument in these circumstances if something goes bump or something passes the corner of your eye. Not everyone believes, and not everyone is open to seeing with their minds eye what is going on. I do, and can experience these things, and know what I see when it happens. Jo (Lamont-Crawford) and I were in the kitchen area - a place I had previously experienced negative things, and found the character of ‘Alexander’ who appears in our film. After I had explained his past to her and she cursed him for bullying the women staff, she began feeling a pushing sensation on our way out. When she told me to keep walking because she felt someone was behind us, I turned back to look and saw the shadow of a man - at least 6,4 in height, standing over us.
“I think everyone is a sceptic until something truly happens in front of them. I have seen enough from childhood to believe in the spirit world, and I don't expect everyone to be as open. But things do happen to us all and whether or not you take that as something paranormal or not, is up to you.”
Lead actor Robert Render, who has worked with Clarke a number of times before, relished the chance to work in such an atmospheric location. “The house is absolutely awesome,” the actor enthuses. “The first few days here felt really creepy, as it gets so dark in some of the rooms. After I got used to the layout of the house however, it got a lot easier to get around. I was happy to get out of there on the last day of filming though, but I was also sad to leave.”
|Clarke and crew|
|Setting up a shot|
What about the fact that the plot revolves around alleged real-life occurrences? Did this have an effect on the cast and crew? “I tried not to focus on the fact that the film may depict true events,” reveals Lamont-Crawford who plays the sceptical sister of Render’s character’s wife. “However I believe that it was because of this that I was driven out of the house one evening by an intimidating presence. That was the one and only time I felt intimidated in the house. The rest of the time I was in my element and I felt a great energy. This tends to go hand in hand with working for George though!”
According to Render, it was quite a physically demanding shoot, but also a rewarding one. “A lot of the floors were so damp and degraded, they would almost give way underneath you, so you had to be alert at all times as to where you were going and where you were stepping. Our safety was always the first priority though, and George would never make us do anything we were not comfortable with. Second priority was not to do any more damage to the house than there already was, so we took great care in that. I think all in all, it was well worth it, and even though I was there during the filming of every scene, I really cannot wait to see the finished movie!”
House On Haunted Hill, The Grudge and such like, so I wouldn't get any ideas implanted. I always try to keep it straight from my own head when shooting. One film I did want to better though was Paranormal Activity - yet only for the first half of the movie, with our use of the camera-torch.”
According to Clarke, the change in tone and pace of The Last Light, compared to his earlier films, was also brought about by the location. “I was set on losing the gore side of things. The idea of doing a classic ghost story has always played on my mind. I'm a massive fan of the old Hammer flicks, and horrors from yesteryear, so once I got this location confirmed I knew just what I wanted to do.”
Working with such a low budget, tight schedule and in a potentially dangerous location is nothing new to Clarke, in fat you could say that he thrives on such challenges. “The shoot was a 12 hour a day challenge! Very long, very draining, but a lot of fun! Apart from two days, the rest were spent in the house - pitch black even in daylight. Our only lighting was some lamps powered by a marine battery, torches and an iPad. When we were shooting, Robert’s character uses a torch for a short period of time before moving on to a Zippo lighter and matches; with the flame creating some amazing shots. Any problems that arose, we were lucky enough to overcome them through creativity or just the sheer determination to get it done.”
The Last Light is set to premiere at Clarke’s independent film festival (Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival) in Belfast's Black Box this evening (18th Sept) before being released on DVD.