Director: Corin Hardy
Cast: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 11/6/15 (limited); 11/20/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 19, 2015
In The Hallow, the real threats of the natural world seem supernatural, and the fantastical fears of superstition become real. Here, a mind-controlling fungus and the existence of fairies, banshees, and changelings are just believable enough, partly because one caused the other. Which one is the cause, and which is the result? Does it really matter? Superstitions are based on some kind of reality or, at least, a perspective of the world that seems real. The film puts forth and runs with the idea that, if one piece of folklore is true, then all of it must be.
It's a horror film, of course, but the terrifying flora and fauna found within this neck of the woods aren't just threats in their own right. They sow seeds of doubt within the main characters, either through insidious biological means or nasty schemes involving a baby and a Trojan horse of a monster. What's frightening isn't what is out there in the forest but what could be here among or within them. The film understands that a spouse who has no control over what he or she might do is infinitely more frightening than some monster hiding in the woods. In the monsters' defense, though, they are also pretty scary.
The screenplay by director Corin Hardy and Felipe Marino wastes almost no time before we're introduced to something awful. Adam (Joseph Mawle), an arborist (The locals call him "the tree doctor"), and his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) have recently moved into a house in the middle of a public forest that the Irish government will soon put up for sale to private companies. The locals are outraged, and they don't take too kindly to the new arrivals, either.
As the film begins, Adam and his infant son are wandering the woods when he comes across an abandoned cabin. In it is a dead deer, which has some oozing, black tendrils growing from its skull. Adam takes a sample of the guck and, in studying it at home, discovers that it is a rare form of parasitic fungus that has been known to infect and take control of the brains of ants. One ant spreads it through the whole colony until there's only the fungus left. Meanwhile, some of the slime begins seeping through the roof of the baby's room, dripping directly on the crib (The use of the baby as a prop of sorts to build suspense does grow a little tiresome later in the film).
There are some troubles that night. A window and lamp in the nursery are broken. Could it be a nearby farmer (Michael McElhatton), who wants to have a serious talk with Adam and seems quite angry that the scientist has been avoiding him? Could it be a drunk bird, as an unimpressed police officer suggests? Surely it couldn't be some fairy-tale creatures that everyone in town seems to believe exist. There are old tales of the Hallow, a group of mythical creatures that were driven from their woodland home by humans and haven't quite forgiven the expulsion. Adam thinks that's patently ridiculous, even though he just witnessed a cell from the inky muck grow a needle and stab another cell in its vicinity.
Hardy is smart and proficient in how much he reveals. At first, we only catch glimpses of some strange form in the woods, after a snapping twig draws Adam's attention with his flash-equipped camera. The forest itself is like some mystical otherworld that turns into a nightmare as the mist unfurls and the sounds of screeches, scratches, and slashes become more common. The director keeps the beasts from us in truly frightening sequences, such as one in which Adam finds himself locked in the trunk of his car as his baby cries just on the other side of the seat, with the scratching on and tearing of metal reverberating through the enclosed space.
A lot of credit is due to Hardy, too, for the way that the eventual presence and visibility of the monsters doesn't hinder from the scares. Usually, the thought of a thing is more terrifying than the sight of it, but Hardy uses the nature of these beasts, which is similar to that of the parasitic fungus, to create sequences as tense as the ones when the specifics of the creatures were still unknown.
Of particular effectiveness is a pair of shots involving close-ups of an eye—once looking through a keyhole and later trying to shut out the sight of a slowly approaching, pointed tendril. Instead of just offering sudden and expected scares, Hardy is far more interested in drawing out as much tension as possible from these scenarios, and he's devilishly effective at doing so.
Even when the director indulges in the frights of the jump-out-and-scare variety, they come after deliberate planning. Take a series of shots during a scene in which Adam tries to remove fungal growth from the engine of the family car (It's a little amusing how the plant can control living things and inanimate objects). Clare switches her glances from her frantic husband to the rear window, where she can spot a silhouette in the trees behind her. With each turn of her head, the number of shadows grows and their distance to the car shrinks. The payoff, in which it's revealed just how many of these things there are and how close they are to the car, would be cheap, save for the fact that the buildup is so resourcefully staged.
The Hallow is a consistent and efficient exercise in tension and scare tactics. It's nothing more, obviously, but that's more than enough here.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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