As a demo reel for its production design, 'The Hallow' is a stunner. As anything else? Not so much.
The Hallow IFC Midnight
Director: Corin Hardy
Screenplay: Felipe Marino and Corin Hardy
Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton and Michael Smiley
Not rated / 1 hour, 37 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
The Hallow is an unexpected yet somehow crushing disappointment. Unexpected because I knew so little about it, or its makers, before seeing it. Disappointing because it features such extraordinary production design, and such potentially fruitful mythology, that it feels like a missed opportunity of some significance. This isn't just another mediocre film, but a mediocre film with greatness in it.
What begins as a nervy, countryside drama, with hints of horror lurking about, eventually evolves into full-on dark fantasy, with an entire world of dangerous creatures and treacherous woods unfurling before us. It's a world driven by nightmare fuel, built with gorgeously realized sets and practical special effects and makeup. The production design (by Mags Linnane, with art director David Ahern) and the visual effects (supervised by Stephen Coren and, for the creature work, John Nolan) frankly get most of the credit for what The Hallow accomplishes - which is sort of a lot, considering how thinly sketched and wretchedly spliced together the film is as a whole.
There's really nothing else quite like it - and it's primarily the merits of those visual elements that set it apart. This kind of dark, fairy-tale fantasy is common in written fiction but strangely rare in cinema. Perhaps it's a lack of cost-effectiveness - movies like this often emphasize the detailed world itself, and the dreamlike qualities of the stories that can exist within it, over action, but as far as big-screen fantasy goes, action is what sells. Or what gets sold, anyway. (And when you try to mash the two into an unholy big-budget alliance, you get something like Snow White and the Huntsman.) So, if nothing else, give the filmmakers here credit for at least getting that much right, and in a big way.
Now if only they could have gotten a decent script and stopped butchering every other scene to pieces.
This is a movie whose script, by Felipe Marino and director Corin Hardy, feels like it needed about three more rewrites before being filmable. That, or the kind of presence behind the camera who could turn a light script into something greater through sustained mood, tension and dread. Instead, Hardy is messy and slapdash with his atmospherics, pacing and action; in moments, it feels like he's building toward something, but rarely for entire scenes.
The film's basic construction is theoretically perfect, in that it allows our suspicions (and those of the characters) to build slowly and ambiguously, teasing horrors to come but saving them for much later in the film. Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic) are new to the area and are, so far, largely avoided and palpably disliked by the townsfolk. This is largely because of Adam's efforts as a conservationist studying the local woods; local superstitions are steeped heavily in Irish myth, and the couple have gotten repeated warnings that they should leave the forest well enough alone.
Adam and Clare also have, of course, a baby in tow. And when you're a movie couple with a baby in a remote place, that child will inevitably be in danger. It should come as no surprise that the legends of which the townspeople are so certain and so frightened involve baby-snatching.
That all lays the groundwork nicely. But with such woefully thin characterizations and virtually no narrative until about halfway through, Hardy burdens himself with the responsibility of building up the story largely on his own. But he fails to get much traction, suspense- or character-wise, until late in the film when the beauty and intrigue of the fantastical set design nearly save The Hallow from itself ... though by that point Hardy has nearly lost all sense of timing or narrative.
But let's back up, because I don't want to reveal too much about that gorgeous and sloppy final half-hour, with all its eye-popping details and story detours. The bulk of the film takes place in two general locations - one cramped, one expansive. An old, broken-down house; and the broad, foreboding forest that surrounds it. What's revealing is how much more confident the filmmaking feels when Hardy is outdoors; the shots of Adam exploring the woods (he's investigating a strange black fungus that he's been finding on the local trees and plant life) have a calm ominousness to them. But once we're indoors back at the house (the film's primary location), it seems Hardy doesn't know how to navigate the tighter quarters. Rather than creating a claustrophobic space, he gives us a series of rather banal set-ups and static shots, often chopped together without rhythm. This problem is exacerbated once the dangers of the outside world begin to descend on the house, as Hardy proves himself to be an absolutely dreadful director of action.
And yet I keep on thinking back on the absolutely astonishing display of artistry in the production design, and all of the strange and scary and creepy and twisted things it brings to life in ways the script and direction cannot. I kinda wish someone would just take the raw footage of The Hallow and re-edit it into a short film that transforms it into the wondrous, surreal, fantastical dreamscape it seems, at its best moments, it was destined to be all along.