So, is this a movie that can stand up to the serious weight of expectation upon its shoulders?
THE HALLOW (2015)
Dir: Corin Hardy
Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton, Gary Lydon, Michael Smiley, Stuart Graham
SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here, but continue at your own risk.
As the growing economic crisis in Ireland forces the government to sell off swathes of its ancient woodland to the highest bidders, large companies move in, much to the chagrin of the local people.
London-based arborologist Adam (Mawle) is sent to check the woods before the deforestation crews can move in. With his young wife Clare (Novakovic) and their newborn son Finn in tow, Adam spends his days roaming out into the forest and exploring, documenting any and all flora and fauna that he comes across.
It is on one such excursion with Finn strapped to his chest and the family dog beside them that Adam discovers a curious black fungus growing deep in the woods. However, it soon becomes clear that the family have more pressing matters, not least the local hostility towards them, especially from their closest neighbour, Colm Donnelly (McElhatton). A simple farmer whose daughter disappeared in mysterious circumstances, Donnelly is quick to offer the pair strong warnings about disturbing whatever it is that lurks in the dark heart of the forest.
Adam is rather dismissive of the simple locals while the lonely Clare keeps herself busy by removing the clunky iron bars from the windows of their new (but very old) mill house home. But when an unexpected and frightening event late one night leaves the couple shaken, Adam finds himself on a collision course with an insidious threat.
Are Donnelly and the locals doing their best to drive out the young family? Or is there something ancient and deadly lurking within the woods, waiting to strike?
THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): As you might expect from the supremely talented Hardy, The Hallow looks incredible. Bringing the bleak but beautiful dark Irish landscape to life with exquisitely framed and shot camerawork, the film effortlessly transports the viewer into the world that it conjures. The deep greens of the woodland contrast with the cold grey skies, heightening the sense of isolation for the characters. They are shot in a way that makes them seem both beautiful and dangerous. It's certainly easy to see why the film was originally going to be titled The Woods.
What's more, Hardy and his cinematographer Martijn Van Broekhuizen make superb use of light and shade, especially during the climactic scenes and the numerous thrilling setpieces along the way. I cannot stress this enough, The Hallow is a real feast for the eyes.
Those aforementioned set-pieces are arguably the strongest parts of the film. The story (written by Hardy and Olga Barreneche) is rather slow moving, leading the viewer by the hand down several interesting and entirely viable cul-de-sacs before finally revealing the truth behind the film's various bumps in the night. As such the more thrilling scenes scattered throughout serve to keep the audience engaged, all while affording us some hints at what the true threat is.
From the scene in which Adam finds himself locked in his own car boot while unseen assailants terrify young Finn, to that where the whole family cower behind Adam's shotgun while a group of diabolical home-invaders ransack the mill house, these are excellently executed exercises in tension. As well as having a real talent for eye-catching visuals, Hardy can certainly wring a scene for every single drop of drama, plus there are a number of nice visual references to some classic horror movies that have gone before, showing that the director is a real fan and student of the genre. The 'scary' scenes more than manage to hit the spot and Hardy proves to be a skilled horror storyteller.
However, as impressive as the frights and the general look of the film are, the finest visual element is one that I don't really want to spoil here (even though plenty of other reviewers and even the poster are doing precisely that). Suffice it to say that the production design of a certain element introduced and shown in full late on in the film is absolutely fantastic. I do wish I could rave about The Hallows more here, but it's worth witnessing this superb work for yourself.
Of course a movie needs to do so much more than merely look pretty to truly captivate an audience. It's also necessary to give us some characters that can hold our interest and this is an area in which The Hallow's topnotch cast certainly helps the cause.
Mawle is extremely realistic in his portrayal of an idealist whose ongoing work can lead him to think that he is above the simple local folk and their customs. He's a well-educated Londoner and he sees the various references to Irish folklore and superstitions as silly attempts to get him to abandon his post. He isn't neglectful towards his family — in fact a couple of key scenes show that he is extremely protective of them — but his failure to assign a suitable level of importance to the grim warnings that come his way is a tragic character flaw. Mawle's character arc is compelling and events transpire that give him ample opportunity to show multiple facets to his character. It's very good work indeed.
Novakovic's Clare is the more sympathetic of the two leads. She's a new mother who has given up her friends and family to follow her husband's career. She is quicker to accept that there's something wrong in their seemingly idyllic home and she does a great job of portraying the fear that her character is feeling. Her character has a less pronounced arc than that of Adam, but she's still able to show some decent range throughout the film.
Elsewhere McElhatton impresses with his somewhat limited screentime as does the always excellent Smiley in what amounts to an interesting (if brief) cameo which delivers plenty of eerie foreshadowing. McElhatton is given a bit more to do, his down-to-earth, simple and deeply sad Donnelly serving as a nice foil to Mawle's more cultured, arguably pretentious and carefree character.
One thing that I loved about the surprisingly straightforward storyline was the fact that it was prepared to not only take its time with its mysteries but to also steer clear of explaining each and every detail, granting it a little more mystique and encouraging the viewer to pay attention to get all of its intricacies. By refusing to give us a standard Hollywood exposition dump, Hardy and his crew utterly succeed in evoking the feel of the grim Gaelic fairy tales at its heart — and frightening us silly along the way.
THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): As I stated before, The Hallow is a film that is prepared to take its time. Unfortunately, at times it may just be a little too slow for the less patient among you. This is not helped by the repetitive and cyclical nature of a large part of the film whereby the young family are terrorised by night by an unseen assailant, but hide without incident, and then the following day Adam travels into the local village where numerous unkempt locals glare at him knowingly.
This would perhaps be less of a problem if the characters to whom these encounters were happening gave us a little more to invest in, but all the leads are quite thinly sketched archetypes.
Clare is the isolated and lost new mother, Adam the doomed and superior sceptic, with very little more discernible personality.
Horror has long thrived on using character tropes (in fact the doomed sceptical scholar is at the centre of some of the genre's finest literary works), but for us to truly sympathise with their plight our leads need to be at least a little bit likeable. Unfortunately the couple come across as a little too smug, a pair of Guardian-reading, middle-class, thirty-something, M&S/Gap shopping would-be hipsters. I understand that their assumed superiority is a large part of the moral behind the tale: for all their airs and graces, in the end it is they, not the supposedly less-educated locals, who are unprepared for the truth of The Hallows, but they veer dangerously close to irritating. Thankfully Hardy directs their plight in such a way that we do have to sympathise with them towards the end of the film, but it is certainly a little touch and go for a while.
Finally, on a more personal note, while I found the vast majority of the effects work absolutely fantastic, the rather daft and decidedly ropy CG depicting the black fungus as viewed through a microscope was disappointing. In a film filled with visual flair, this is the one image that stands out as an absolute clunker.
THE VERDICT: The Hallow is not a perfect film, but for a debut feature it is astonishing. It looks beautiful, boasts some amazing effects work and overcomes a couple of plot shortfalls by effortlessly drifting from sub-genre to sub-genre as it tells its tale, keeping the audience guessing even as they jump out of their seats at the numerous superbly executed scare sequences.
A gorgeous but terrifying work, The Hallow proves that Corin Hardy is a name to watch out for in the years ahead.
The Hallow will be released in UK cinemas this Friday, 13th November.
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