As far as directorial debuts go, Corin Hardy’s The Hallow delivers a spectacular punch to the system. It proves to be a feast of tension and gory thrills. By picking out some of his favourite horror genre influences, Hardy doesn’t just repeat them to formula to assemble a mere collage of what he is a fan of, but uses them like a toy box to play around with, assembling his own scenario to mix them up into. It’s been running the world horror film festival circuit for a few months now, and opens with a limited release in North America on November 6.
British conservationist Adam Hitchens, who has recently moved out to the Irish countryside with his wife and baby son to chop down a lot of trees in a prophesied sacred forest, ignores warnings from locals to stay away from the trees, leading to his family being terrorized in their own home by demonic creatures when darkness falls.
The plot is unremarkable and doesn’t attempt to break much new ground. But it’s not the story that’s important – it’s Hardy’s homage to previous horrors which is most respectable, blending well known elements of the genre to turn it into something more unique. The film marks a belter of a debut for a first time director, which defies the trend of shaky cameras, cheap jump scares and special effects to bring an unrelenting fist clench of escapism.
References to David Cronenberg’s The Fly, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and countless others are evident, with Hardy using their ideas of physical and psychological transformations – mainly the use of body horror – and adapting them into his own story. Normally what happens with low budget horror flicks is hammy acting, cheap visual effects and genre-specialised narrative clichés. None of this is present here.
After about half an hour when we’re introduced to the cold and desolate forest and crumbling mansion where our protagonists reside, the intensity begins, and never stops. Once the monsters start to arrive, Hardy gives us treat after treat. There’s physicality to the production, and the director doesn’t want to shy away from showing us exactly what’s going on.
When production realises that because of its budget the special effects may not be up to scratch, there is a tendency to shy away from them. Not this film: instead, some serious work has been devoted to show them off, and they deliver the visual goods. There’s a scene when Adam’s wife is desperately holding down a trap door with a beast trying to come through, and the pinnacle of visceral panache comes when the beast attempts to reach her eye. It’s unflinching, intense, and squeamish, just the way a good horror should be.
The scene placements are smooth, with the first slow act flowing naturally into a riotous second half that doesn’t let up. The demons look remarkably impressive for a first feature, when Adam enters a barn and encounters some of them under the glow of a burning axe, and it looks beautifully horrifying. The score and sound editing is chillingly immersive, fitting the scenery and atmosphere perfectly. The film doesn’t escape some expected jump scares, but when the production surrounding those feels so rich and the build-up is presented with such dread, they still execute with a jerking brilliance.
The performances from the two lead actors are extremely impressive. Joseph Mawle from Game of Thrones begins quite reclusive and internal, but as things get progressively worse for him, he unleashes explosions of emotion and scares towards the viewer and his wife. Bojana Novaković, a more veteran actor, works well alongside Mawle; she may be the damsel in distress, but is a far more capable and interesting damsel than many generic female roles in horror. She’s very far from the damsel in distress that we so often see – she holds her own and takes responsibility, rather than just screaming and running or getting horrifically mutilated by some knife wielder.
Corin Hardy has exceeded many expectations with his first job as director – the storytelling is straightforward but is told with heart, the atmosphere is lavish, and the brutality of a committed production comes across spectacularly. It is brilliant, rich, involving, and most importantly, terrifying.