TAD review: The Hallow be thy name

The Hallow came into Toronto After Dark with a lot of hype following its Sundance premiere. “Best horror movie since The Babadook” and “scariest movie of the year” was the buzz in the queue to get in at last night’s TAD screening at the Scotiabank Theatre. By the time the end credits rolled I can certainly understand the hyperbole being slung in its direction. This is a richly atmospheric and downright creepy monster movie that gave me goosebumps a couple of times. It won’t do anything to help Ireland’s tourism industry, but horror fans will find plenty to love.

Co-written and directed by Corin Hardy, who apparently is on tap to reboot The Crow, The Hallow is a cabin-in-the-woods creepfest that evokes everything from The Evil Dead and Pan’s Labyrinth to The Fly and The Descent without ever feeling like its ripping off its betters. And make no mistake—those films are far superior, but this one is pretty good.

If there’s one element that gave me pause prior to seeing The Hallow it’s the rather tired premise. Another haunted house in the woods? Really? Wouldn’t normal, rational, intelligent people take one look at that rundown old millhouse in the middle of County Nowhere and say, “Uh uh, no fucking way. I’m outta here”? But here’s the thing: the story is so layered with Celtic mythology and weirdness involving “faeries, banshees and baby-stealers,” that it wasn’t until late into the proceedings that I actually did ask myself, “Why the hell are they staying in this place?!” Which was right around the time the characters themselves asked the same question. It helps with the suspension of disbelief when the characters making these decisions are caring, respectful and mature adults and not drunk, horny teenagers on spring break.

In this case, we’re talking about botanist Adam (Joseph Mawle), his wife Claire (Bojana Novakovic) and their infant son and dog, who move from London to an endangered Irish forest so he can prod and poke about the trees—despite the warnings of superstitious locals. Naturally, all that poking and prodding unleashes…something.

At first, the horror is grounded in science, icky science, but science nonetheless, as Adam discovers a dead deer oozing ophiocordyceps unilateralis (thanks Wikipedia!), the so-called “zombie fungus” that infects the brains of ants and takes control like a body snatcher, or something like that. But when a surly neighbour drops off an ancient book of Irish folklore and warns them about the things that go bump in the night, the movie takes a turn into the realm of dark fantasy.

Hardy does a skilful job of building suspense and ratcheting up the tension through the first half of the film, and he drops the hammer on us the moment Adam finds himself trapped in the trunk of his car while his son is crying in the backseat and unseen entities attack.

The Hallow isn’t perfect, however. Its barely there middle act is middling at best. The connection between the zombie fungus and the creatures that eventually crawl from the forest is unclear, as is exactly what the creatures are—or were; something about the people who used to live on that land until they were driven into the woods (by the English?) long ago. There’s a moment when Adam refuses to believe he’s powerless to protect his family and his ego is crushed as a result, which is the all too common in horror movies, what with the make ego being such a fragile thing (and an easy target for screenwriters). The underlying environmental theme is undercooked: Mankind is messing with nature and nature isn’t nice; it does whatever it needs to in order to survive and Mother Nature as a kind nurturer is a fairy tale. Except whatever those creatures are isn’t natural. Or maybe they are. An end credit shot involving a logging company clear-cutting the forest doesn’t make any of this any clearer. And the finale doesn’t quite stick the landing; it lacks the emotional gut-punch it’s going for. But up until then…

The Hallow screening was preceded by the short film O Negative, written, directed and co-starring Steven McCarthy. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involves a guy, a girl and the lengths he goes to to keep her alive. Filmed on location during a Northern Ontario winter, this is a beautifully framed, terrifically scored, near-wordless little gem that left me a little bit chilly (but in a good way). I look forward to seeing what McCarthy does next.