From its outset, Corin Hardy’s atmospheric horror flick The Hallow is steeped in Irish lore. It opens with a cryptic quote from The Book of Invasions (c 1150): “Hallow be their name / And blest be their claim / If you who trespass put down roots / Then Hallow be your name.” Post-screening research reveals the ancient book of poems and prose supposedly recounted the history of Ireland from the beginning of the world to the Middle Ages. Now regarded as a collection of tales that mixes early Christianity with Pagan mythology, The Book of Invasions perfectly foreshadows the unwelcome adventure one family will undertake.
Adam and Clare Hitchens (Joseph Mawle and Bojana Novakovic) have moved with their infant son Finn from London to an old house in a remote Irish forest. Adam, a scientist and conservationist, has been sent to survey the once-public land for future development. Of course, the Hitchenses aren’t welcomed into their new community with open arms. Their closest neighbor, Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton), tries repeatedly to meet with Adam and Clare—to warn them about tampering with the trees—but they rebuff him as the superstitious village kook.
As Adam wanders deeper into the forest to explore the territory, baby Finn strapped to his back, he finds a decaying deer’s head entwined with roots and covered in black slime. Ever the scientist, he takes a sample home to test. Turns out it’s a parasitic “zombie fungus,” which later also happens to leak from the family’s ceiling onto Finn’s crib.
First-time feature director Hardy unleashes almost every trick in the horror genre playbook—from a stalled car on a deserted road to the house’s generator failure and the appearance of Irish mythological creatures, banshees and changelings. But rather than falling into cliché, Hardy’s quickening pace, coupled with truly creepy cinematography by Martijn van Broekhuizen and gruesome makeup, creates a surprisingly taut thriller. Both Hardy’s and van Broekhuizen’s extensive portfolios in music videos have trained them to keep the story succinct and visually appealing (and we can’t wait for them to team up again for the upcoming Crow remake).
Adam arms himself with fire and iron as he learns from Colm’s ancient book and a local police officer (Michael Smiley) to keep his family alive. After a slow-burner of a start, the film charges into high action during its last act, and the added adrenaline rush of Finn’s kidnapping. Both Mawle and Novakovic ground their performances in reality, the city skeptics unwittingly turned into true believers of Celtic secrets. The actors help the audience suspend their disbelief even when everything goes bat crazy.
While “hallow” traditionally refers to things that are sacred or holy, Hardy—taking his cue from the Book of Invasions’ quote—turns the definition on its head. The creatures may be defending their ancient forests, but the hallow (as they’re collectively called) is anything but saintly. At first, Hardy shows these monsters that go bump in the night in quick glimpses, ratcheting up the tension, only to fully reveal the demons in the film’s latter half.
At its heart The Hallow is a fable about ancient creatures updated for the modern era. Hardy, who co-wrote the script with Felipe Marino, however, fails to take advantage of story threads that are deftly planted at the beginning of the film. The loss of Irish public forests and lands to developers is but briefly mentioned, as is Adam’s role as a “conservationist” for a private company; greater insight into both of these plot points could have added depth to the script. Also not fully examined is the ancient book of secrets that Colm drops off for his neighbors; quickly flipping through its pages of illustrations doesn’t provide enough context. The origin story of the hallow would have been an interesting angle for Hardy to attack, but the film’s semi-open ending makes us wonder if that storyline is meant for a sequel.
Director: Corin Hardy
Writers: Corin Hardy and Felipe Marino
Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley
Release Date: Select theaters and VOD on November 6, 2015
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.