The Hallow (2015)
“This isn’t London. Things here go bump in the night”
Upping sticks (pun intended) from London, tree-surgeon (Joseph Mawle) relocates with his wife (Bojana Novakovic) and baby to a remote Irish mill house in order to carry out an assessment on the surrounding woods. Dismissing the warnings of the locals to stay away, he discovers a sinister fungus growing in the woodland, but he and his family are also about to discover there’s something else residing in the woods. Music video director Colin Hardy’s feature debut is a love-letter to his childhood special effects heroes Stan Winston, Dick Smith, Ray Harryhausen: and to monsters. It’s a minimalist, familiar, and underwritten set-up: married couple, baby (and pet dog) move to an isolated location surrounded by spooky wood. But creature-feature fanboy Hardy’s heart lies with the “faeries, banshees, baby-stealers” that the forest belongs to, and it’s obvious that’s where his creative focus lies.
Tree scraper Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle, think David Thewlis-lite), isn’t an especially sympathetic character. The script frequently requires him to demonstrate exasperating obstinacy and complacency for his family’s safety. He refuses to talk to local farmer Colm (Michael McElhatton), who is unnerving wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic), and dismisses his well-intentioned warnings until it’s too late. He brings a highly contagious parasitic fungus into the family home; takes his eyes off the road to reach for a fallen toy when driving with his infant in the car; convinces no one but himself that he can defend his family in Straw Dogs style from a supernatural home invasion; and is prepared to leave his child in a cupboard whilst the aforementioned fungus is spreading its viscous black spiky gloop throughout the house!
But enough of the humans, what about the monsters? Director Hardy constructs a gradually incremental reveal – pulling off a brilliant early sequence using mainly sound to convey the threat as dad is locked in the car boot with his child strapped into the car seat vulnerable to the encroaching menace clawing away at the vehicle. Their first appearances are teasingly glimpsed by Adam’s camera flash briefly illuminating the source of the rustling in the bushes. Deploying a combination of largely practical FX - prosthetics, performers and animatronics – and adding some light touch post-production CG enhancement, the end results on screen have a pleasingly old-school feel to them. Think a sort of cross between the Berserkers from Nightbreed and 'Groot' from Guardians of the Galaxy – but there are many films and creatures referenced. John Carpenter’s The Thing is clearly an inspiration – and whilst he’s not name-checked in the credits, given the prominent on-screen threat to eyes, I’d say Lucio Fulci must be in director Hardy’s DNA somewhere too. There’s also a terrific set-piece featuring wife Clare fighting to prevent a baby-stealing creature breaking through the loft trapdoor which conjures up a similar encounter with a one-armed hero named Ash and a fruit cellar...
The combining of olde worlde folklore with the science of a Cordyceps Parasitic Fungi aka ‘zombie fungus’ (which rather alarmingly is a real thing – I Googled it) is an interesting premise but it doesn’t gel together all that well. The same can be said for the body-horror element, which deflects the attention away from the creatures onto our tree-expert, who quite frankly isn’t remotely as interesting as what’s lurking in the woods. This shift away from the monsters threatens complete derailement – but luckily the focus gets back on track to bring things to a reasonably satisfying conclusion as sunlight bursts through the trees.
I would have liked a bit more back story concerning the mythology of the inhabitants featured in The Hallow (which was originally titled: The Woods). And all the characters, especially wife Clare, could have benefitted from some more depth than the minimalist sketches provided for them (she doesn’t like to leave draining the pasta for too long). But perhaps the absence of any detailed origins was all part of director Colin Hardy’s grand design to keep us wanting more? The way the seemingly innocuous tracking shot behind the end credits suddenly zooms in on a suggestion for the story’s expansion certainly sets up the possibility of a sequel. But Hardy himself may now have to pass on revisiting The Hallow as he’s currently flying high helming the reboot of The Crow. If so, then at least he’s nurtured a decent creature-feature which has helped him to lay down future roots to branch out into whichever genre path he chooses (and that’s more than enough tree puns for now).