★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A Brooding and beautiful, if fairly straightforward modern Irish horror folktale.
Directed by Corin Hardy
So, I’ve now seen three Irish Horror films in the past four months… and I’m sensing some trends. Ireland is hauntingly beautiful, and creepy! (See also my reviews for Grabbers and A Dark Song). And The Hallow certainly qualifies for both. We are introduced to The Hallow by following naturalist Adam (Joseph Mawle) with his infant son, Finn, and his trusty dog Iggy while inspecting the forest for infected trees as part of a pre-timber harvest inventory. So… we’re in the woods, with a baby. And a dog. Did somebody say vulnerable? I thought so. This is a forest that Baba Yaga would be perfectly at home with, and the film banks on that. The forest is misty and covered in moss and vines, a dark faerie landscape, and here the fey folk are sickly and cadaverous goblin-like creatures. And wouldn’t you know it? They’ve got a thing for baby stealing.
But, that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Adam, in this foray into the woods stumbles across a dead deer, propped in the corner of an abandoned ruin of a house. It appears to have died of an infection. So, he does what any sensible scientist, with an infant baby strapped to his back, would do. He gathers a sample of this black oozy fungal infection from the dead deer. Science! I do appreciate that he whispers to Finn “Don’t tell mom!” The mom, in this case, is Clare (Bojana Novakovic), who is busy pulling off the iron bars from the house in the woods (Yep, the proverbial cabin in the woods!) that they are staying in while Adam runs his studies. Why iron bars? Well, the movie will get to that, and it probably was better off leaving those bars in place. While she is busy doing domestic demolition, she is visited upon by a neighboring farmer, Colm (Michael McElhatton… recognizable as Roos Bolton from Game of Thrones) who is none too pleased that Adam and Clare are living here, wandering around the woods.
Adam soon afterward returns home and discovers that the oozy residue from the deer is some sort of a fungal parasite. And as he reveals his discovery to Clare, they are startled, when something comes crashing through a window in Finn’s crib room. They suspect it was Colm, and call the local Garda (police), and they get gently warned that the people ’round here are a superstitious lot and that Colm believes his beloved daughter was taken by the Hallow, the aforementioned fey folk of these woods. The officer also suggests that it wasn’t vandalism, but perhaps a stray bird. It is the woods you know, and these sort of things just happen.
But, of course, it’s not a bird. Adam drives to the nearby village to get the window repaired, and on his way back, the car goes out of control, as all the power systems go haywire, and he careens around the road, and, when he goes to take a look at the engine, finds that it has a strange, rooty mass growing on it. He then goes to the trunk to get some tools, and is attacked by an unseen foe, and is knocked out. Meanwhile, Clare gets another visit from Colm, who drops a big ol’ tome of fairy tales on her table. The book looks to be written in olde Gaelic, and has dark images of children in the woods, and babies in peril. Nice. awakens in the trunk, hearing Finn crying in the unsupervised car. Adam manages to break free gets free, and scrambles home, figuring that again, it was Colm who attacked him. When he tries to contact the Garda again, the power goes out, the family flees upstairs, and they hear someone (something) making a mess of the kitchen, and suggesting that perhaps they had better just leave the house.
From this point onward, the story ramps up into the Hallow besieging the couple trying to capture Finn, and Adam and Clare desperately trying to get out of the woods to safety. The car, however, is still a mess, and our protagonists are forced to deal with the Hallow on their home turf. The story makes a fairly direct and straight line to the finish, with the knowledge that these Hallow are also the cause of the blight in the woods, and that they are capable of spreading this transformative infection, and that they are very clever. Maybe a bit too plot conveniently clever, but there are some great horror set pieces built into the second and third act. If you have a thing about eye damage, this movie will make you very uneasy.
The plot is fairly familiar, and the major beats follow in well-worn horror trope paths. You get your split the heroes move. You have the dog vanishing with a yelp trope. You get the car won’t start trope. You get the “Are you OK? You’re acting rather odd.” trope. You get some switcheroo trickeration going on. But these familiar beats are all executed pretty well. The actors are compelling, if predictable, and again, the film looks great. Oddly, the Hallow themselves, are most ominous when only seen as blurry objects. Apart from a fantastic scene in the attic (see picture above) The actual critters, though expertly made-up, remind me heavily of Peter Jackson’s goblins, if they were left in a trash dumpster for a month too long. The threat to baby Finn is real, and palpable, and that gets some good scares going.
You do fear for this family. They didn’t do anything wrong, and they are being subjected to some pretty rough treatment. I will say that the film could have used a bit more clarity relative to the behavior and the fundamental powers of the hallow. Are they motivated primarily by the baby, or are they motivated about the destruction of their habitat? There’s some real mixing of ideas that don’t quite line up here. I would have preferred a solely supernatural take on this rather than half-explaining this fungal disease as somehow linked to the fey folk. The monsters aren’t particularly well explained. I do think the Lord’s Prayer reconstruction to be a bit cringe-worthy as well.
I also applaud the movie for a fantastic ending. It serves up a difficult choice for the characters at the conclusion, and it has you guessing whether they made the right call or not, right up to the closing credits, and I found the final beats quite satisfying. First act… great. Second act… muddled. Third act great! IFC Midnight again has made a great postcard ad for the countries of the films they develop, and the sets and sights are transportive. This is certainly a good film to catch on a rainy evening. And if you have a young child, this might just keep you up all night.