Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
Fantasy and horror is a wonderful combination, and it almost works for Corin Hardy’s The Hallow. Set in Ireland, the story follows a small London family shacking up in a remote millhouse that’s surrounded by a mysterious forest. They’re not making friends with their neighbors; however, because Adam (Joseph Mawle), the patriarch of the house, works for a logging company hellbent on chopping down some of that sweet Irish wood. “But people need paper,” you say. Well, the townsfolk believe the woods belong to an elusive clan of creatures dubbed, you guessed it, the hallow. Spoilers aside, they’re not too happy, either.
“We’ve read fairy tales all of our lives, but what truth might they be based on in a modern, grounded, non-gothic reality,” Hardy recently postulated to The Playlist. “Essentially it’s about those two things; folklore and nature and what happens when you mess with either of them.” It’s also a nightmarish metaphor for why parenting’s a slog, but more on that in a second. For now, let’s discuss the film’s fantastical merits, of which there are quite a lot. Everything from the setup to the mythos to the design of the monsters work in the film’s favor; Hardy has an intriguing blend of body horror and ancient terror that recalls the likes of David Cronenberg and Peter Jackson, respectively.
The problem is in the execution. Which, to say, isn’t that surprising considering The Hallow is Hardy’s debut feature film. Despite a number of supremely original sequences — one of which involves a car trunk, another a cavernous dwelling — they’re all carried out rather predictably, cinching any warranted tension within seconds. At the film’s best, it’s a pale imitation of Straw Dogs, The Evil Dead, or The Descent; at its worst, it’s a point-and-awe celebration of mundanity. And that’s a shame because not only is the film shot to perfection, thanks to cinematographer Martijn van Broekhuizen, but it’s also capitalizing on an intriguing blend of genres that sparingly co-exist today.
It’s a classic case of show vs. tell: Hardy keeps the fantasy at arm’s length and fully indulges in the terror. His smoking gun to all of the madness is the ingenious “Trojan horse of parasitic fungi” that’s introduced three minutes into the film. While out walking with his toddler, Adam discovers a dead deer smothered with thick goo, which he brings home to analyze. Now, what should have been a slow burn into infection is quickly derailed by a flagellation of jump scares and an irritating lack of subtlety, all involving our should-be shadowed beasts, that’s exhausting nearly 45 minutes into the film. So, by the time the fungi goes full Brundle, well, who gives a shit.
The Hallow is also the rare film in which the corollary characters are far more interesting than the principals. The scholarly Adam is a pathetic mess, and his wife, the tear-stained Claire (Bojana Novakovic), is given next to nothing to work with outside of a pair of sneaks to run and scream. Game of Thrones actor Michael McElhatton is the real star of the film, whose character, Colm Donnelly, is meant to be the cruel human antagonist, only he carries the most intriguing story. His daughter, Cora, was once taken by the hallow, and let’s just say she’s not exactly a gone girl. There’s a genuine pathos to McElhatton, and it’s his scenes that stabilize the film’s actual thread. Sadly, they’re only a whopping total of 10 minutes of the film.
Hardy has outright said this is a film about the struggles of parenting. That much comes across in the film — two parents fight to the death to protect their child from ravaging monsters, we get it — but none of it resonates. When Claire dives after her toddler into the lake, it’s undoubtedly a terrifying image, but missing is a certain gravitas. I just don’t care. It’s a strange predicament because all of the elements are there, and they’re all connected, but the power’s just not surging through. Perhaps it’s the boiler plate characters, perhaps it’s predictability. Whatever the case, The Hallow is exactly that: a hollow piece of fantasy horror that opens the door before knocking. Hardy sure has an imagination; he just needs to sort out the details better.
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