Young carpetbaggers trespass on ancient traditions in this thoughtfully crafted regional horror film. Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare (Bojana Novakovic) have just moved from London into a house in the Irish woods, where Adam, a “tree doctor,” is set to survey the forest as it passes from public to private hands. They arrive with an infant, Finn, and a dog, and the family is immediately met with an ominous caution and a battery of threats. A creepy neighbor, Colm (Michael McElhatton), warns them to avoid the forest, inhabited by the titular, vengeful fairies. Silent locals gape at them with open disdain. The woods, shot in a mossy green suffused with fog and surrounded by an inky darkness, harbor life just as they seem to promise doom.
Adam, a handsome scientist and DIY fixer-upper, ignores the foreboding. The Hollow never really digs into its suggested themes of gentrification, domestic turmoil, or backwoods folklore, but much of its effectiveness stems from a kitchen-sink approach to genre clichés. In one scene, Adam trudges through the woods and comes across a rotting deer carcass lacquered with black goo. In the next, he hides from his wife while examining the “parasitic fungi” under a microscope: its cells grow stingers, murder other cells, and grow stronger. Shortly after, things go bump in the night in Finn’s nursery, leaving remnants of the malevolent gunk. Adam assumes these threats are disconnected, and the film plays his cluelessness straight.
Adam’s lack of curiosity or humor mirrors the film’s own. The Hallow offers mild hints of a troubled marriage (sex is aborted when a pot of pasta comes to a boil) and a long tradition of undead fairies, but it’s all frustratingly underdeveloped. When Colm drops off a tome about the fairies, clad in gothic type and boasting a creepy raised cover, it’s opened just long enough to transform poor Finn from a prop into a plot device. A shallow mythology and a lack of psychology renders the subsequent body horror utterly superficial.
Fortunately, director Colin Hardy has a knack for the superficial. The Hallow loves to poke around in darkness, whether it’s an eerie attic or those simultaneously expansive and isolating woods. Tacky strung lights and flashlights are all that illuminate his exterior shots, and the interiors aren’t much brighter. Even before a mysterious power outage, Adam and Clare’s house is shrouded in black, and Hardy seizes on every opportunity to have spindly creatures and surprise intruders poke out of it. His eager pacing, while a huge detriment to the narrative, builds tension with ruthless efficiency, peaking halfway through when its shadowy, heavily clawed, zombie-like monsters and its metastasizing goop attack Adam’s car on a dirt road.
What’s the relationship between these fairies and their attendant sludge? What’s the history between the taciturn townspeople and their haunted forest, or between Adam and Clare, who are set at odds with one another with little rationale attached to their division? The Hallow doesn’t strive to make much sense, and its ode to effective, low-budget creature effects in the vein of Stan Winston and Ray Harryhausen is earnest but unnecessarily deadpan. Hardy exhibits genuine talent as he sifts through the greatest hits of horror tropes, killing off dogs and revealing intruders behind hung sheets, but his film feels less like a contained narrative than a surprisingly potent demo reel.