October Horrorshow: The Hallow

The woods can be a scary place for some people. The strange noises, the closeness, the environment being the antithesis of cities or suburbia — being in the woods can be weird. Maybe that’s what makes the woods a great setting for horror films. That, or the woods is just a convenient setting when budget dictates plot and cast have to be small. Either way, the forest primeval is an oft-used setting in the horror genre, in both good and bad films.

The Hallow, from writer/director Corin Hardy and screenwriter Felipe Marino, doesn’t just take place in the woods. At least, the woods as I know them. This film takes place in a forest in Ireland. It’s lush, with bright green moss covering just about everything. It’s such a beautiful locale that I feel kind of cheated by the forests back in my home state of Ohio. Even in deepest summer things could look a little brown.

In The Hallow, Joseph Mawle plays Adam Hitchens, an arborist who viewers first see walking through the forest, marking trees that appear to be infected with a fungus. (Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize Mawle for the cup of coffee he had in the first season of Game of Thrones.) He’s got his dog by his side and his infant son strapped to his back. I don’t know how far away from civilization Adam was, but this being a horror flick, I was concerned for the safety of his son.

As well I should have been. Adam isn’t just visiting the forest on a day trip. He and his wife, Claire (Bojana Novakovic), have abandoned life in the big city and have moved into a rustic house in the middle of the forest. The first we see of Claire, she’s removing iron bars from the windows on the house, and a viewer can’t help but wonder if that’s a bad idea.

There’s a little plot set up here and there, but not much. Just about all exposition comes from Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton), a local who lives on the edge of the forest. He is mistrusting of the Hitchens family, regarding them as intruders. To him, the forest is a dangerous place, best left alone. He tries to warn Claire of the trouble they are courting by merely being in the forest, but his bedside manner is just awful, and more than being dismissed out of hand, Adam and Claire see Colm as a threat.

Too bad for them, because Colm isn’t wrong about what lurks in the woods.

Irish folklore tells of the island being occupied by fairy people or other mythological creatures that were pushed into the shadows by the arrival of man. Of course that’s just mythology…but what if it were real? What if there really were creatures of legend who stalk the night and try to snatch babes from their cribs? After that brief, yet effective set up mentioned above, we get to find out.

When all the introductory stuff has been gotten out of the way, and the creatures show up, the film’s pace picks up and the tension tightens.

The creatures, the Hallow of the title, are woodland monsters who seem to want nothing more than to kill Adam and Claire, and take their baby. Once they make their presences known, forcing Adam and Claire to flee for their lives, I thought I knew what to expect from this film. I also thought the film was nearing climax, as this was the point where most filmmakers run out of ideas and all that remains is to wrap things up. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see there was the better part of an hour remaining. This film feels like it flies by, but it’s just stuffed with goings on once the atmosphere gets frantic.

Hardy showed deft storytelling skills in this film. The bulk consists of Mawle and Novakovic sharing screen time. The creatures, until around the end, make only the briefest of appearances, Hardy using the darkness of the forest and the house at night to effect. We viewers know what’s on the other side of the door, and the dread anticipation this creates is worth more than a pile of visible monsters.

Hardy and cinematographer Martijn Van Broekhuizen have crafted a quality look and feel to the film that big budget blockbusters often fail to achieve. The house at night, while Adam and Claire depend upon it as their fortress, carries its own unsettling atmosphere. Meanwhile, when characters are forced to venture outside, their vulnerability becomes palpable. This closed-in forest becomes a vast blackness when robbed of the light, turning the environment into a powerful compliment to the threat of the monsters. Rote photography could not have achieved this effect.

As for Mawle and Novakovic, they have an easy naturalism about their performances. Most horror films would be lucky to have such competent performances.

This isn’t some cheap cabin in the woods quickie horror flick, where a gaggle of teens and twenty-somethings are set upon. This feels real. The house, the forest, Adam and Claire — Hardy makes it seem as if we are sharing this horrific moment with the Hitchens. The Hallow are out there, and they want in.