PARK CITY – One of the things that a filmmaker can do in a film that will win me over in a big way is building actual physical monsters for a monster movie. I am a fan of what computers can do, of course, but there's still nothing better than a movie monster that is beautifully designed and that can actually be shot on-set as part of the scene.
Corin Hardy obviously understands that. His movie “The Hallow,” which just had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival's Midnights in Park City program, and it feels like something that could easily be sold to a big mainstream audience. Even so, it also feels like something that was a labor of love for Hardy, who has a long list of things he's worked on over the years. He said this particular project has been cooking for eight full years now, and it certainly feels like something that was hand-crafted. Set on a small Irish island with a dense forest, “The Hallow” is very crafty in the way it sets up the horror elements it plays with, and like “The Shining,” it is a film that could be entirely explained without the supernatural except for one… small… thing…
Adam (Joseph Mawle) and his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) have just recently moved to the island because Adam works for a government agency, and he's been assigned to investigate a tree rot that threatens the entire forest if it goes unchecked. They have a newborn baby boy, Finn, and in the film's opening scenes, it's just Adam walking around the forest and examining things with Finn strapped comfortably into a carrier on his back. Automatically, this cranks up the tension of every scene because you've got that baby, vulnerable and exposed, right there on his back. Adam finds a deer corpse that is basically grown into a wall. He takes samples of this strange parasitic plant that he finds on the deer's body and brings it back to their home to examine.
Meanwhile, Clare is doing her best to make the house they're renting into somewhere they want to live. It's an old place, heavy iron bars on every window, and it's about as private as they could ever want. Unfortunately, she also has to contend with their closest neighbor, Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton), who keeps trying to make it clear that they aren't welcome and that Adam should stop his work. He seems like someone who just hates outsiders in general, but after an incident occurs and Adam has to call in the local cop, played by Michael Smiley, they learn that there's something deeper and stranger going on.
So what's going on? What are the monsters? The fun part is, you can either go with the scientific explanation, which has to do with that creepy fungus that can take over the brains of ants, or you can go with a folklore-driven explanation, in which the Hallow is the broad name given to all of the magical creatures who make their homes in the woods, like faeries and will o'the wisps and changelings. You could even argue that the two things are the same, with one explaining the other. But Hardy doesn't want to make things that cut and dry. He just wants to give you options to consider and then, as soon as he's done with the set-up, bring the monsters out to play.
Using a combination of practical on-set make-up effects and animatronics and careful CG removal of puppeteers, Hardy creates a whole menagerie of crazy, and the majority of the film takes place over the course of one long night when the Hallow decide that they're not going to let Adam push any further into their forest. As impressive as the monsters are, it's equally technically stunning to see how Hardy handles having a baby onscreen for the entire running time, often in grave peril. Mr. Eastwood, you should take some notes.
It's really hard to make a film like this all come together properly, and Hardy demonstrates real skill with both visual imagination and directing actors. Mawle is very good as this father who finds himself in what feels like an impossible situation, determined to protect his family even as he struggles in the aftermath of an early attack to retain his own humanity. There is a visceral charge to the make-up work in the film, and as we get more and more looks at the creatures of the Hallow, it holds up to whatever kind of scrutiny Hardy puts to it. Novakovic is also very good in the film, her own maternal instincts driving every choice.
“The Hallow” is good old-fashioned monster movie fun, and it builds from scene to scene with a nimble ease. I doubt anyone will claim that this is a reinvention of a genre, but as with “Attack the Block” before it, this movie makes clear that we're dealing with a director who has a deep affection for genre material and enough style to wrestle his own personal vision up onto the screen. Hardy's already been hired to direct the remake of “The Crow,” and based on his work here, fans of that property should be dancing in the streets.
“The Hallow” is apparently still searching for a distributor. Someone needs to get their shit together and buy it so monster fans can get a hit of the good stuff as soon as possible.