Folkloric horror is perhaps the most fascinating and rich sub-category of film’s best-trodden and most mutable genre. Every culture on Earth has their own legends, fables, superstitions and things that go bump in the night ingrained, and film has mined that for decades as inspiration for everything from THE WICKER MAN to JU-ON and KRAMPUS. Ireland boasts perhaps my favourite examples of cultural folklore that I’ve previously mostly encountered through animation, and through HELLBOY, and it is this that writer-director Corin Hardy expertly and ingeniously appropriates for THE HALLOW, a horror with a distinctive atmosphere and effective scares.
Following a move to the Irish countryside for work and a new life, a couple (Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovic) soon find themselves beset on all sides by The Hallow – the forest’s original denizens will not stop until the invaders are no more. Adam and Claire must fight for their lives and the life of their young baby, who these not-so-nice fairy folk seem to have taken a liking to, all the while one parent is not quite acting themselves…
You can tell that Hardy has a background in set design. Everything you see from makeup to animatronics and set dressing is as real as possible, designed specifically to stand up to close scrutiny. His production design team can be very proud of making such a small film look so much more expensive. The only times the cracks show is where the perfectly serviceable practical effects are enhanced with CGI, but these shots are thankfully few and far between.
The creatures who torment our heroes, the titular Hallow, are a chilling creation. Elemental, relentless and disturbingly trapped between what is recognisable in nature and something that looks and feels very wrong. As always, clever use of shadowy environments and performers in suits leave a much bigger impression than more showy special effects ever could. Joseph Mawle throws himself fully into his role as Adam, and his slow but sure corruption by the parasitic arm of the Hallow, is impressively realised with stages of makeup and a steadily more manic and unpredictable performance. It is this jeopardy, that we don’t know for around half the film’s runtime whether Adam is really Adam, that gives Bojana Novakovic’s tender, instinctual performance as Claire its heart and its real impact.
It’s the human emotion that carries this, as all good films. It’s an economical scary story, but the scares are more implied for the film’s first half. Much like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, we care about this family and want them to settle and to survive, and it is this concern more than any amount of disturbing imagery that frightens us the most. The disturbing imagery does come thick and fast too when the plot gets moving (there’s some baby…things that are just horrible), the effects stand up and there’s refreshingly few jump scares thrown at us. It’s a creeping, nagging dread we’re subject to more than short, sharp shocks.
Hardy has also brought a story complete with an important and timeless moral. The primary aim of the film may be to scare the bejesus out of us, but if we could also look after the environment and stop interfering with nature as well, then that would be grand. Irish folklore is all about balance and about responsibility to our planet. Anyone who lacks respect for nature better beware its protectors who have been part of it for far longer than you have.
What would horror movies do without characters using flash cameras to see their way through the dark? The Hallow does occasionally lean on cliché and some genre tropes – arrogant city couple ignoring local warnings; isolated location far from any help – have been seen countless times before. But with a bold message, rooting this story definitively in a tangible place rich in lore and the real, lived-in design of its visuals and sound makes The Hallow stand out from many of its creepy contemporaries. SSP