Lifelong special effects enthusiast Corin Hardy has been making monsters in his bedroom since he was a kid. So it stands to reason that his debut feature as writer-director should boast some pretty cool creature creations. The Hallow (formerly known as The Woods) delves into the spooky Irish mythology of faeries, who live in the woodlands and steal the babies of unsuspecting couples.
And, although that premise might sound a bit hokey–like Lord Of The Rings by way of Tír na nÓg–it actually makes for some serious frights.
Relative newcomers Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovic are Adam and Clare, a refreshingly well-adjusted, happy couple, newly relocated to the wilds of West Ireland so he, an environmental conservationist, can inspect the landscape. The locals–hilariously played by two great Irish character actors, Michael Smiley and Michael McElhatton–don’t take too kindly to their presence, ominously warning Adam, in particular, that he’d do well to stay out of them there woods.
I jest, of course, but there’s a certain “us against them” charm to The Hallow that services the narrative quite well, and it’s not limited to the unfriendly people our protagonists encounter. The big, beautiful house they call home is the creakiest building imaginable. Even before venturing outside it, there’s a creepiness to their surroundings. The woods themselves are gloriously dense and maze-like, stretching out as far as the eye can see and positively dripping with history and lore.
We’re on edge from the moment Adam steps into the forest, newborn baby vulnerable in a pouch strapped to his back. We know there’s something weird lurking in there, so his stumbling upon some strangely oozing green goo barely even registers at first. It’s almost as though nature itself is inching ever closer, always just moments away from striking–as Adam himself notes to an understandably worried Clare: “This isn’t London. Things go bump in the night”.
The idea of the changeling, i.e. faeries that steal children and leave a horrific-looking substitute in their place, is one of the creepiest in Irish folklore (already quite creepy in itself). It’s rife for exploration in horror and, thankfully, Hardy doesn’t simply use this idea as a gimmick to prop up his monsters. He establishes a world, and a mythology, that feels instantly, recognisably real. The sense of foreboding never lets up, particularly in the second act when the action is suddenly cranked up a notch.
The Hallow is a film made up of arresting visuals, from Adam’s descent into Evil Dead-esque infection to the poor baby being dragged off into the forest by God knows what. It lives or dies on its creature effects, and our ability to buy into the threat. Happily, Hardy shows that all those summers he spent tucked away, making little monsters out of pipe cleaners, were definitely not a waste.
The first timer shows a real knack for understanding what makes creature features work, and it’s not a stretch to say this is one of the strongest offerings we’ve had from the sub-genre in years. Not only are his beasties three-dimensional and wonderfully gooey (a few minor CGI flourishes notwithstanding), but the forest they inhabit practically heaves with the secrets it’s holding (unsurprisingly Winston, Harryhausen and Dick Smith are all thanked in the closing credits).
The night shoots in the wilds of County Galway have paid dividends, as troublesome as they are sure to have been to capture in the typical Irish weather. The breathtaking landscape captures the kind of natural beauty that simply could not be replicated on a sound-stage and Hardy must be applauded for choosing to take his movie to the source, instead of using the English countryside as an unconvincing stand-in, as is so often the case. This isn’t technically an Irish production, but one almost wishes it were as the film makes a strong case for horror at home.
The Hallow‘s central idea of nature fighting back, as heavily suggested by the poster art and tagline, is a strong one. But if it’s not communicated effectively, it’ll come off corny, not scary. Hardy bathes his film in dark greens, so it seems as though night-fall is constantly looming. He takes his time setting everything up, allowing us to get settled before things turn properly nasty. It’s an old school method that was also employed, just as effectively, earlier this year in Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here.
Here, however, the action takes even longer to get started but once it kicks off, the movie barely pauses for breath. I think it’s safe to say we won’t see anything else like The Hallow this year. Creative, inspired and confident in its monsters, it has a nicely feminist backbone (Clare is elevated beyond the typical wife/mother role), the vistas are spectacular, the performances committed and well-judged, and, perhaps most importantly, the thing is really bloody scary.
There will be those who take against it, of course, because it takes its time with everything, but the delights contained within are too numerous to ignore. It will be interesting to see what Hardy does next (he was attached to the Crow reboot for a while there). As first attempts go, this is pretty damn impressive.
Along with Bite, The Hallow was the most hyped flick at Frightfest 2015. Its one and only screening sold out in a matter of hours. The queue to get in snaked around the foyer. Hardy’s Q&A was nerdy perfection. The film is set to hit theatres in the UK and the US in November, and, if there’s any justice, it’ll be a massive hit because, seriously, they don’t make ’em like this anymore (and they really should).
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Corin Hardy
Writer(s): Corin Hardy, Felipe Marino
Stars: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael Smiley, Michael McElhatton
Studio/ Production Co: Occupant Entertainment
Length: 97 minutes