With the pumpkins now rotting on the pavement, here’s a new horror that just missed the boat. Spooky forests home to dark secrets, flinty locals warning newcomers that they shouldn’t have come here with their fancy city ways, the whole works. If this makes The Hallow sound formulaic, that’s because a lot of horror is, if you ask me. But these films live or die by whether they have any ideas to transcend their established framework, and there’s a bagful here.
There are some specific fears being played upon here, like home invasion, the dark, and threatened masculinity. We’re with Clare and Adam (Bojana Novakovic and Game Of Thrones’ Joseph Mawle), new arrivals in a rural Irish community, and we’re not quite sure if we like them or not. He’s a conservationist, here to inspect the forest and sentence a few sickly trees to death (“That’ll have to go,” he says, spraying an ‘X’ on one): his is a dispassionate fascination with nature, not a love for it. They’re city folk; Londoners, new to the country.
Writer-director Corin Hardy is careful not to overcharacterise this: there’s conflict in their not understanding the ways of the woods, and Adam is a little dismissive of the warning local Garda Michael Smiley gives them about the dangers the forest holds, but there’s not so much in it that they’re laughing at the simple folk. Local Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton) is insistent they leave the forest alone and hounds the couple, turning up in their house uninvited. He’s brilliantly menacing but the story about how his daughter disappeared in the woods is slightly underdone, and doesn’t tie us into what eventually transpires. I would’ve liked some guff about how a devil-worshipping cult killed themselves in the woods in the 16th century or something; I’m a sucker for that.
Horror tends to dole out punishment for a few transgressions: promiscuity, careless overconfidence, but in particular a disbelief in the supernatural, and that’s Adam’s crime: a lack of faith in the folklore of the forest, alongside his failing to revere nature and maybe even an allegiance to modernity.
The light touch in characterisation I mentioned is important at this point, because it’s about to get nutty. As the creatures of the forest begin to lay siege to the couple’s house and threaten their baby, Adam gets it in the neck and various other parts of his person, giving us some excellent, skin-crawling body horror, complete with seeping wounds, horrible black ooze, and some unwanted protrusions under the skin.
This, and the eventual, well-timed appearance of the creatures themselves, underscores a real commitment to practical effects and the unease they can evoke as against CG. There’s a place for both, of course, but Hardy, a big fan of Ray Harryhausen’s monsters, seems to have thought carefully about the sort of film he wanted to make, and decided on a preference for the tactile in-keeping with the idea of a forest’s creeping tendrils, damp, moss and bark. It’s a good decision. There is a menace this achieves, despite the odd forgivably rare flash where you can see the joins a little too clearly, that a computer probably could not. Not on this budget anyway.
Aside some slightly rushed pacing at the start and a few lapses – Clare has significantly less to do than Adam, which is a disappointment after recent horrors like Andrés Muschietti’s Mama in which the woman is granted much more agency than just obeying instructions to take the baby upstairs and lock the door – this is a likeably creepy mash-up of a few different horror subgenres which should leave you scratching every itch you get for a while.
Ideas are in short supply in too many horror films, but here they grow on trees.
The Hallow is in UK cinemas from November 13th.