Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival Review: ‘The Hallow’

In its opening stretches, “The Hallow” seems like the kind of tasteful indie horror that coasts by on atmosphere — here ably provided by the dark woods of Ireland — without ever really going anywhere. But once it kicks into gear, director Corin Hardy never lets up, gliding from one setpiece to the next with only the bare minimum of exposition and moody filler. If Hardy doesn’t exactly qualify as a genre master at this early stage of career, he does prove himself an able practitioner of the show-not-tell school of filmmaking.

And that’s a good thing because the more one tries to explain what happens in “The Hallow” the goofier it sounds. This is literally a movie about evil, forest-dwelling fairies, but Hardy is wise to use the word “fairy” only once and even then in an offhand way. Horror is all in the execution, anyway, and perhaps no concept is so goofy that it can’t produce chills if handled properly. Hell, William Friedkin even managed to make a killer tree frightening in “The Guardian.”

“The Hallow” opens, as these stories tend to, with a young, attractive married couple, Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic), with an infant son moving into a creepy house in the deep, dark woods. Their neighbors warn them this is a bad idea, that there is a mysterious evil lurking among the trees, but Adam’s job requires him to study these woods — so that they can be razed and the land can be developed, a detail which makes Adam rather unpopular with the locals. During one of his outings, Adam finds a deer carcass adhered to a wall with a mysterious black sludge. Adam brings home a sample of the sludge and discovers it is a parasitic fungus that can take over the body of its host. (This is apparently a real thing; the film’s credits list a “fungal research adviser.”)

This background is really just setting the stage for a sequence of nicely executed setpieces that borrow heavily from the past five decades of horror. Individual scenes are lifted from “Alien,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and “The Descent,” among others, but Hardy handles his borrowings well, working them into an effective little thriller. And there is one distinctive image for which Hardy deserves credit — Adam, trapped in the trunk of his car, burst through the backseat as if the car were giving birth to him.

Hardy shows good taste throughout, never overexplaining or underdirecting (perhaps the two biggest stumbling blocks in horror filmmaking). The look of the film is moody but not overly stylish. When in its final third the movie essentially becomes a creature feature, Hardy executes his monsters with creepy panache, primarily employing practical effects (including animatronics, prosthetics and puppetry), with judicious computer-generated assistance.

Without all that much bloodshed, “The Hallow” manages to keep you on edge, frequently suggesting it might go further than you expect (particularly in a scene involving an infant and a nail). With its extremely thin characters and loose plotting, Hardy comes off as more of a technician than a fully formed director, but he nonetheless proves his considerable chops when it comes to suspense, atmosphere, and creature effects. He’s definitely a director to watch.

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