It takes time for “The Hallow” to get rolling, but once it reaches a bang-up final act, genre fans could walk out clamoring for a sequel. The directorial debut of visual artist Corin Hardy is never less than arresting to the eye, but thin characters and a familiar story hold this Irish chiller back from entering the top tier of recent horror entries. Fortunately, the human characters ultimately don’t matter nearly as much as the diabolical beings they encounter. That’s enough to make the film’s haunted forest worth a visit for creature feature buffs worldwide.
Like so many genre entries before it, “The Hallow” opens with a married couple — Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic) — relocating to a remote area, in this case with their newborn baby, Finn, in tow. They’re almost immediately warned by foreboding neighbor Colm (Michael McElhatton) that their choice of abode makes them a target for nasty spirits who dwell in the woods, preying on children. But Adam’s job as conservationist requires study of those very woods, and he thinks nothing of going exploring with Finn strapped to his back and the family dog by their side.
His first major discovery: a rotting deer carcass stuck to a wall by a mysterious black goo. (The rundown house it occupies looks straight out of “True Detective’s” Carcosa.) Taking the goo home for further investigation, Adam discovers it hosts a “zombie fungus” that attaches to a host and takes control like a body snatcher (it’s an actual scientific thing, not a horror construct). Adam finds it fascinating, Clare thinks it’s ominous, but the rules of the genre are in full effect: No one will be leaving the house until it’s far too late.
Hardy and co-writer Felipe Marino ratchet up the tension in a series of increasingly clever setpieces, including a relatively early doozy in which Adam finds himself trapped in the trunk of his car while Finn wails in the backseat and unseen forces attack loudly and violently from the outside. Novakovic’s Clare has her own pair of action-heroine moments showcasing the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child, but the script would’ve been wise to bulk up her character given the twists in store for Adam as the story shifts into high gear. Without giving too much away, Adam’s fate involves a combination of elements from “The Shining” and “District 9,” his rapidly deteriorating mental state adding an extra layer of suspense to the external terrors the family faces.
The entire pic essentially becomes a feature-length excuse for promising director Hardy (already attached to a reboot of “The Crow” at Relativity) to indulge his love of movie monsters. It’s an opportunity he seizes with palpable fanboy glee as evidenced by the closing-credits dedication to genre luminaries Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith and Stan Winston. The production embraces a thrilling mix of practical effects, animatronics, puppetry and prosthetics along with subtle CG enhancements to create a vivid collection of nightmarish fiends (dubbed fairies, banshees and baby snatchers by the locals).
Aside from the monsters lurking within, “The Hallow” benefits from a full lineup of superlative craft contributions. They begin with Martijn Van Broekhuizen’s painterly camerawork, which plays with shadow and light in eerie, evocative ways and beautifully embellishes the script’s fairy-tale quality. Steve Fanagan’s visceral sound design works in tandem with Nick Emerson’s sharp editing, James Gosling’s spooky score and Mags Linnane’s captivating production design to ensure the atmospherics are spot-on from the very beginning all the way through a darkly comic finish.