There’s always been a lot of love for the horror genre in Manchester, but it’s surprisingly rare for a horror film to be filmed here. Even the 1974 cult classic The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, despite the promise of its title, offers no more than a handful of exterior shots of the city before swiftly decamping to the Peak District. And most of the interiors were shot in, um, Rome.
But now comes a new feature film, Habit, which makes its debut at the Grimmfest horror festival on Thursday, and which is firmly located in and around the atmospheric back streets of Manchester city centre.
Habit started life as the debut novel of author Stephen McGeagh, which was published by Salt in 2012. It’s the gritty tale of Michael, a somewhat lost young man who finds himself working at a massage parlour in the city’s Northern Quarter. It soon becomes clear that the establishment offers some very specialist extras – and no, not that sort. Much, much worse. Told in first-person present tense, the novel brims over with an edgy, queasy immediacy which won it many admirers, not least esteemed Liverpudlian horror maestro Ramsey Campbell.
McGeagh is from originally from Liverpool too, but he’d long since relocated to Manchester by the time he did an English degree at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). What became Habit first began to emerge when he returned to MMU for a postgraduate course. McGeagh says: “I think it was about 2008. Warehousing had lost its sheen, so I took out a bank loan and went back to Uni. I’d been writing for years previously but I can work in a bit of a haphazard manner. It’d almost reached the point of mania. The setting and structure provided by the Writing School at MMU was fantastic.”
The nurturing, supportive environment of the postgraduate course enabled McGeagh to begin developing his thoughts for a novel, though it evolved considerably in the process. “There was a ridiculous, convoluted, fantastical idea initially, something I now know that I never would’ve been able to complete. Luckily, the peer group and a particular tutor – celebrated author, editor and now friend, Nicholas Royle – helped me recognise that my strength lay in realism. It’s a realism touched by the uncanny, darker shades used to cast scrutiny on the things that we try our hardest not to see, but which are there in the daylight. I don’t think I could write any other way now. It seems simple, but I didn’t realise that the way people write is a direct reflection of the way they see the world around them.”
Royle helped to convey the completed novel to Salt Publishing, and thereby the wider public. One impressed reader was director Simeon Halligan, who runs the production company Not a Number with his partner Rachel Richardson-Jones. Halligan says: “I just loved the way the book starts in a very matter-of-fact kind of way. It has a very gritty, realist feel to it, and then slowly but surely it draws you into this bizarre world. Michael’s sucked into this underworld, the underbelly of the city, where very dark things go on.”
Another appealing factor for Not a Number was that Habit was explicitly set in Manchester. Halligan says: “This is our third feature film and although we’re based in Manchester, the last two films weren’t set in Manchester. The first one, Splinter, was set in North Wales and the next one, White Settlers, was set in the Scottish border country. We suddenly realised: we live in Manchester and we’re not making the best use of the city we live in. When I read Stephen’s book I thought it would be great to do something actually set here.”
So, it was with that Halligan approached McGeagh about the possibility of turning Habit into a feature film. McGeagh says: “Sim and Rach got in touch, via Facebook of all places, to say they’d read it and wanted to talk about adapting it. I couldn’t have ever believed it’d get this far. When the book was finished, I had a few people say it was a very visual story. I’d wanted Manchester to be a character – the main character, if I’m honest. I hope that comes through on the page as well as it does in Sim’s screen version.”
For Halligan, the book conjured up a now lost incarnation of Manchester. He says: “Although it was only written a few years ago, it always felt to my mind like the book was set maybe twenty-odd years ago. The atmosphere it suggests is of a slightly older version of Manchester, before there was so much spent on it, before the IRA bomb. That changed the face of the city. Also, the Northern Quarter back then was a bit grotty, a bit dodgy. Some of the establishments that were there were pretty seedy. An awful lot of that has gone now, but through revisiting locations for the film I discovered that some of those little back streets around the Northern Quarter have still got a lot of atmosphere. There are still seedy little massage parlours knocking about – but you’ve got to search to find them!”
All of the settings in Habit were specific real locations, and in the early stages of the film project, McGeagh took Halligan on a tour of them. Halligan says: “There was a day when I was prepping the script that Stephen took me round all the places that it was set. Every single place in the book is real, even down to things like the flat that Michael lives in at the beginning of the film. Even the massage parlour, which is the main location. Obviously, it wasn’t necessarily possible to shoot in all of those real locations. We had to build the massage parlour interior as a set, in a studio in the Pie Factory in Media City. But we managed to get access to some buildings that were empty in the Northern Quarter and utilise those for our exteriors, so the outside of the massage parlour was a street which we created by dressing it up with neon lighting and so on. I’m really keen to shoot something else set in Manchester now, because it’s actually a really atmospheric city and not many people are making the most out of it as a location. Habit makes a character out of Manchester itself.”
Halligan suggests that the end result, which he wrote and directed, is something rather different from your run-of-the-mill genre picture. “It’s not a typical shock-and-suspense kind of horror movie. In a way it’s more of a coming-of-age drama with horror elements to it. Everyone’s bandying around this ‘elevated genre’ statement at the moment, and I suppose we’d like to think that it is ‘elevated genre’, because it isn’t a conventional, straightforward horror film. It’s almost like a Ken Loach film to start with. You’ve got this kind of gritty drama at the beginning of the film, which then takes a right-hand turn into a dark, film noiry feel with the smoky neon-lit backstreets.”
McGeagh found the whole experience of his novel spawning a film quite astonishing. “Even twelve months down the line and multiple meetings in, it felt like I’d wake up at any second so I never allowed myself to feel excited. Then we had a screenplay, a cast, sets, a first day of principle photography for fuck’s sake. I’m forever grateful to Sim and Rach for their vision. I don’t think I could’ve asked for a more caring and passionate team to work alongside than Not A Number.”
McGeagh declares himself to be very happy with the finished film. “It’s absolutely beautiful, it really is. The way Sim has captured the city is a real feat. Manchester, as a creative hub, has really been worming its way into the country’s consciousness over the last five or ten years. I think Habit can only serve to reinforce that feeling of The Alternative with its grim palette. There are so many beautifully dark corners here.”
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
Habit makes its public world premiere at the Manchester Vue Printworks on 5 October as the opening film of Grimmfest 2017.
Full details on the screening and the festival here.