Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Hallow

The Hallows (2015)
Dir. Corin Hardy
Written by Corin Hardy, Felipe Marino
Starring Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic

When a cosmopolitan young family moves into the Irish countryside, they find the locals a wee bit standoffish. It starts to look a little STRAW DOGSish at first, but gradually we come to realize that cantankerous neighbors are the least of their problems. Turns out the ancient Irish forest is home to some mythic creatures who don’t take kindly to strangers entering their territory, and have every intention of taking the couple’s baby by way of restitution. Mom and Dad find this an unacceptable arrangement, and a grueling battle ensues.

THE HALLOWS takes a little long to get going, but once our supernatural antagonists turn up, it blooms into a terrific little creature feature, simultaneously legitimately scary and a hell of a lot of fun. The creatures are mainly practical effects, and they have a really unique design by British animatronics master John Nolan (HELLBOY II, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE) which gives them a look halfway between corpses and slime mold. Apparently there’s a smattering of CGI in there too, mostly subtle enhancements of the practical stuff, but the effect is tactile in a way not a lot of movie monsters can claim these days. Shooting actual creatures on an actual set makes it possible to do much more with lighting and composition than would be possible just shooting an empty room and leaving the rest to the nerds. Like most indie horror efforts these days, THE HALLOWS is shot with an eye towards gritty realism, but the confidence lent by the on-set monsters also seems to have freed director Corin Hardy to indulge in some subtly surreal lighting and handsome, iconic framings. It sounds weird, but it makes perfect sense for a movie which successfully blends a thoroughly mundane real world with the encroaching influence of fantastical, dark fairy tales.

Structurally, THE HALLOWS isn’t reinventing the wheel or anything; it’s mostly home-invasion, monster edition, with a smattering of THE THING providing some primo body horror and paranoia about how much the crafty forest sprites can mess with your mind. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but with its cool-looking monsters and subtle focus on crafting an engrossing mythology out of Irish folktales, it immediately stands out from the pack. These details give it a richer character, which then pays off in spades as the movie executes the hell out of the standard horror notes. SEAGALOGY author Vern has a terrific theory that horror movies are like blues songs.* The point isn’t to play something no one has ever heard before, the point is to play the same structure but imbue it with your own personality and style. HALLOWS is a perfect example of that: a pretty standard framework, played with superb technical chops, plenty of passion, and a bounty of terrific details which makes the form feel as vital and personal as it’s ever been. It makes the inevitable feel unpredictable and lively, which is about the highest compliment I’d feel comfortable offering to a first-time filmmaker.

Once the monsters show up, there’s very little downtime, and the movie bounds from setpiece to setpiece with an assured enthusiasm. It does run into some problems beforehand, though; considering the simplicity of the premise here, a bit too much time at the start of the film gets spent establishing the family and their ultimately kind of unimportant problems fitting into the community. The script and acting are uniformly strong, so it’s not like these scenes are badly done or anything, but there’s probably no reason to look in on their life so long before the chaos starts. Kudos to Joseph Mawle (RED RIDING: 1980, Game of Thrones), and Bojana Novakovic (EDGE OF DARKNESS, DRAG ME TO HELL) who are the only two actors on-screen in 90% of the movie and nail both their quiet, intimate downtime and their crazy horror histrionics, but wheel-spinning with strong acting is still wheel-spinning. Fortunately that’s all forgiven by the excellently-paced and relentless battle of wills which ensues, and the movie sticks the landing with aplomb. Besides, when the end teases an insanely dark twist but eventually backs off, I found myself actually relieved that at least our protagonists got some measure of victory. So I guess maybe all that time we spent beforehand wasn't such a waste after all. You could still probably stand to strip ten minutes from the first quarter of the film, but who can complain when the back end is so rife with greatness? Plus, even one of the more unnecessary scenes has a Michael Smiley cameo, which by definition turns it back into an extremely necessary scene.

Bottom line, this is the tense, stylish creature feature that THALE probably should have been. It’s a memorable horror premise augmented by great effect work, strong filmmaking, and exactly enough ambition to make it stand out, but not so much that it overreaches and can’t deliver. Stay through the credits for an elegant and elegiac implication of horror to come... followed immediately by a shameless jump scare. Which more or less perfectly sums up the movie’s aspirations. It’s a classy affair overall, but its not ashamed at all of its pulpy pedigree. It may not quite hit the sublime highs it would need to go down as a genre classic, but it’s a tremendously promising debut for director Hardy and as accomplished and successful a monster movie as I hope to see this year. Fortuitously, I got a chance to check it out before it hit theaters during the AFI's Spooky Film Festival this year, and by happenstance by the time I got around to reviewing it it's actually getting its theatrical release. If monster movies are your thing, get thee to a showing, and enjoy a rare moment where I'm writing about a current film you could actually conceivably see.

*From the "Hacthet" review: "I believe that slasher movies are a classic American artform not equal to but similar to the blues. There are simple, familiar tunes that you follow, and you put your own spin on it, but you don’t have to get too fancy, you still want it to be recognizable."


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Nature has a dark side
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, loosely inspired by Irish folklore
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: This is hardly the first horror film for any of the cast, but I don't think they're quite iconic yet. Michael Smiley is certainly beloved, and has been in his share of horror movies, but I don't think he's really especially iconic in the genre.
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • MONSTER: Yep
  • POSSESSION: Yes, and rather inventively.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: Not exactly, though based on folk belief.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: None, although there is a live baby.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Yes, and I'll leave it at that
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, small-budget indie.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: In America, you cut down forest. In Ireland, forest cuts down you!
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Yeah, there's a hallow in there, why not. Originally titled even more generically as THE WOODS, a pretty unmemorable name which the 2006 Lucky McKee movie had already denied to M. Night Shamylan's THE VILLAGE. Thankfully, this one turned out better than that one.

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