Setting aside the Leprechaun franchise (though why anyone would ever want to set aside treasures like Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood is beyond me), Irish folklore remains curiously untapped by the film industry, and it’s with that in mind that Corin Hardy took to it for his debut feature, The Hallow.
Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic) are a young couple recently moved from London to the Irish countryside, baby in tow. Adam’s there for work, which sees him making frequent trips into the nearby forest, to the obvious displeasure of superstitious neighbour Colm (Game of Thrones’ Michael McElhatton) and the rest of the locals.
The woods are the territory of the Hallow, you see — the fairies and banshees of traditional Irish folklore. They’re prone to making a nuisance of themselves with the odd bit of baby stealing, and don’t take kindly to people trespassing in the woods. As a local Garda (the all-too-briefly seen Michael Smiley) explains, “Things here go bump in the night.”
First-time director Hardy brings together the best of both body horror and the classic creature feature here, in a film that’s replete with grime and dripping with thick, black ooze. He wears his influences on his sleeve, right down to a final act decomposition sequence that’s straight out of The Evil Dead, but the unique lore offers The Hallow a clear chance to stand out from the crowd.
The titular villains are fleetingly glimpsed for the most part, and undeniably unsettling when they do appear, an altogether uncomfortable fusion of vegetation and flesh. Rendered with a mix of practical effects and CGI, they rarely give away the film’s slight budget. Excellent prosthetics work contributes to the film’s strong sense of visual style too, while DP Martijn van Broekhuizen’s use of light is both central to the plot and crucial to the film’s shifting tone.
The plot is lightweight and the set-up is minimal, but once it gets going the script offers a few surprises along the way. The lack of audience familiarity with the Irish folk monsters and their powers allows Hardy to maintain ambiguity and suspense that might be impossible with better-known creatures, and he’s cine-literate enough to play with conventions and expectations right up until the closing shot.
There’s an unfortunate, and frankly unnecessary, attempt to shoehorn some science in with the fairy tales, though thankfully this is summarily abandoned once the action really gets going. Plot contrivances also rely on character stupidity a few too many times to be comfortable, but rarely to the serious detriment of the film.
Mawle and Novakovic offer a likeable enough central pair, though neither does too much to distinguish themselves, and Clare in particular is given little characterisation beyond love for their child. McElhatton and Smiley both make welcome appearances in the smaller support roles, making the most of limited screen time to leave a strong impression.
Unlike recent indie favourites The Babadook and It Follows, The Hallow isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Beyond playing with some under-used folklore, Hardy isn’t doing much we haven’t seen before, but he is realising it in an effective, exhilarating way, paying tribute to the genre classics without falling into slavish devotion or painstaking recreation.
The result is a lean, tense modern horror, technical competence elevated by a few spectacular moments and a clear understanding and awareness of the horror tool kit. You’ll jump, you’ll squirm and you’ll want to see it again.
Words by Dominic Preston