'The Hallow': Sundance Review

The Hallow
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Unlikely to start a tourism boom for Irish woodland retreats

Corin Hardy, who is attached to direct Relativity's 'The Crow' reboot, whets genre fans' appetites with this gruesome monster movie.

Poking around in the woods unleashes a whole mess of seriously bad juju in The Hallow, director Corin Hardy's viscerally scary fantasy horror tale about a young English family that foolishly ignores the Irish locals' warnings about malevolent nature. An end-credits dedication to Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith and Stan Winston is hardly necessary to recognize Hardy's veneration for handcrafted creature effects, and while his imaginative first feature shows more control in the nail-biting setup than the busy extended mayhem of its final act, fanboys will find plenty to feast on.

Some may say there's arguably too much. The Hallow tethers its first ick moment to science, when tree doctor Adam (Joseph Mawle) discovers a goopy dollop of ophiocordyceps unilateralis on a deer carcass. That so-called "zombie fungus" infects the brains of ants and then explodes out of their heads, continuing to grow on their exoskeletons. Nasty stuff.

Then there's the folkloric faerie mythology element, though Adam and his wife Claire (Bojana Novakovic) shrug it off as backwoods superstition when neighboring farmer Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton) tries to tell them that entering the forest puts their baby at risk. Cue primal family terror.

But that's just for starters. The screenplay by Hardy and Felipe Marino stirs in a siege scenario, with a possessed house oozing black sludge, predatory monsters eager to extend their brood, and a dose of David Cronenberg body horror, tipping its hat to Jeff Goldblum's transformation in The Fly. Homages fly left and right, from The Evil Dead to Alien to The Shining. In other words, this is a hefty cargo of plot ingredients and genre tropes for one film to handle, but it keeps the disparate elements cohesive.

Expectations are high for Hardy's debut, given that the director is already attached to The Crow reboot. He proves himself both a gifted visual stylist and an assured storyteller with a wicked grasp of sustained dread.

What's most gratifying is that The Hallow continues the trend of recent superior horror like The ConjuringThe Babadook and It Follows, by placing the emphasis on practical effects and using the digital paintbox only for subtle enhancement. While the human cast is small, the film marshals a creepy assortment of animatronic and puppet creatures overseen by John Nolan. Hardy also scores points by steering clear of the usual archetypal teens in peril, instead dropping an intelligent adult couple into the demons' lair. That makes it all the more exciting when their cool skepticism is shattered and a petrified Claire finally states the obvious: "The hallow is real!"  

The couple and their infant son Finn are brought to the rural area when Adam is sent to survey the forest for a development company. They move into a large old millhouse, where Claire immediately makes a mistake by removing the ugly iron bars from the windows. They were there for a reason. A disturbance in the nursery unsettles them, but a local cop (Michael Smiley) shrugs it off as a panicked bird that took a wrong turn. "Mr. Hitchens, this isn't London," he dryly informs Adam. "Things here do go bump in the night." However, unlike Donnelly, the cop is not a believer in the local legends about banshees, baby-stealers, changelings and other ancient woodland abominations.

Hardy handles the buildup superbly, aided by insidious sound design and James Gosling's classic horror-inspired score. Unsettling seeds are planted from the very first images, in which cinematographer Martijn Van Broekhuizen gives the forest a lush fairytale quality with a shadowy touch of the sinister, signaling that this is no tranquil Eden.

A couple of gratuitous early jump scares aside, the pieces are assembled with a measured hand and a persuasive semblance of realism that pulls you in. That gives the first major onslaught of terror a thrilling jolt when car trouble leads to Adam getting stuck in the trunk while Finn wails inside the vehicle and a menacing blur wreaks havoc with the paintwork. The less-is-more principle, in terms of withholding a full view of the monsters, gets abandoned a little too soon. But it's hard to argue with the effectiveness of a white-knuckle attic scene that puts Claire in the Sigourney Weaver hot seat. 

The accelerating action becomes something of a horror orgy as the woods cough up a frightening array of creatures, and threats to the family come from all sides, including within. But audiences are unlikely to mind the overload given that the stakes remain high and the tension never flags in a film that delivers almost non-stop scares through most of its second half.

Not all of the script's ideas are fully developed, notably the conflict of making Adam a conservationist who has sold out by taking work that will lead to deforestation. The environmental subtext gets lost along the way; the wrath emanating from the hallow seems mostly just an issue of trespassing on sacred ground until an end-credits scene that may be a winking tease for a sequel.

The film under-utilizes McElhatton and Smiley, both of whom make vivid impressions in their brief screen time, with characters that could easily have withstood additional appearances. But keeping the focus tight on Adam and Claire (not to mention baby Finn), alone in a malignant wilderness, turns up the volume on the parenthood nightmare, and both Mawle and Novakovic are aces.

As first films go, this one is visually energized, dynamically paced and discerning in its cine-literate references. It's also a kickass calling card for Hardy as he moves on to bigger projects.

Production companies: Occupant Entertainment, Fantastic Films
Cast: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley
Director: Corin Hardy
Screenwriters: Corin Hardy, Felipe Marino
Producers: Joe Neurauter, Felipe Marino
Executive producers: Tim Smith, Paul Brett, Michael Mailis, Will Clarke, Kate Sharp
Director of photography: Martijn Van Broekhuizen
Production designer: Mags Linnane
Costume designer: Lara Campbell
Music: James Gosling
Editor: Nick Emerson
Animatronics & makeup effects supervisor: John Nolan
Visual effects supervisor: Stephen Coren
Casting: Dixie Chassay
Sales: ICM/WME/Altitude Film Sales

No rating, 97 minutes.