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Fantasia 2015: ‘The Hallow’ is hollow horror

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The Hallow
Written by Corin Hardy and Olga Barreneche
Directed by Corin Hardy
UK, 2015

Irish legends are rich with horrifying monsters, painful realities and a genuine sense of despair. Perhaps rooted in the Irish struggle, many of the lessons from their myths evoke inequality and injustice – it does not matter who you are, what you believe or what you do, you are not above nature’s law. What is nature’s law? It is a perverse combination of God’s will and an amoral natural world. Set in the mostly undisturbed forests of Ireland, The Hallow is about a conservationist (Joseph Mawle) and his young family. Despite many warnings from the locals, he persists in investigating the forests, eventually inspiring its wrath.

Monsters are real: they exist all around us, creatures and lifeforms we cannot see that can kill us, make us sick and maybe even change our behaviour. This is the key to The Hallow’s horror, that nature itself is already imbued with a power to destroy us, and if we aren’t careful it will fight back. The careful set-up of the film evokes a family man and a scientist who wants to learn more about the natural world but who soon loses himself and his family to the woods he is trying to study. The film starts off with so much promise, some great characterization and a creeping dread. A dead deer, a body decayed by a black fungus, is our first hint that something might be amiss. As we travel deeper into the story, though, the narrative starts shooting off in about a dozen directions and loses focus.

The initial mood, some horrifying monster designs and a great well of mostly unexplored Irishness can do little to save this one. While the film is undeniably well madeand well intentioned, it is by no means bad, it fails to live up to its initial promise. As the hallow begins to invade the family’s medieval home, everything quickly falls apart. A sense of geography and logic is discarded, and a real sense of what is happening is lost as a result.

Scenes with little purpose begin to appear. We sometimes forget that in most great films, individual scenes work as short films as much as they serve the greater story. Having a character disregard established mythology and do little more than wave around a burning scythe halts momentum of a story that should be moving forward, not stagnating.

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The narrative problems are only amplified by the failure of the film’s subtext. What is director Corin Hardy trying to say with The Hallow? Pulling threads from such varying sources as the study of fungi, post-recession Europe, gender politics, and a few more for good measure, the film’s message is never clear. Is this a classical story about the dangers of assuming the role of God through scientific knowledge? Or the opposite, a reminder about how little we know about the natural world that we are so systematically destroying? Likely, it’s something else entirely.

The Hallow has a lot of strengths, and shows a lot of promise, but ultimately fails. It’s unfortunate that a rare film to evoke the strangeness of Irish legends just doesn’t work. This might be a case of too many voices and ideas pulling the film in other directions, because the ingredients that are well executed are innovative and exciting. The filmmakers are certainly worth looking out for in the future, as I have no doubt they are capable of creating something truly great.

— Justine Smith

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