Review: 'The Hallow' [Fantasia Festival 2015]

Successful horror films have a common trait. No matter the antagonistic presence or force, no matter the setting or the characters or the particular soundtrack accompanying the creepy onscreen goings-on, a successful horror film understands how to increase tension. They do this not through a relentless onslaught of nightmarish images, but during the calm moments between. It’s in the moments when a character is fumbling for a light switch in the dark, or they’re just about to swing closed the mirrored door of their medicine cabinet, that an audience member sucks in their breath and clenches the arms of their seat just a little tighter. Anticipation is well over half the fun.

That’s why, for all Corin Hardy’s The Hallow does right, it’s never quite able to stick the landing and actually frighten. It just doesn’t know how to ratchet the tension.

The film takes us to the Irish countryside, where Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle) is conducting a survey in advance of massive forestry operations. He and his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) are warned repeatedly against staying and trespassing in the forest. They’re told there are dangerous things out there, fairy creatures that will do them – and their baby – harm, in order to keep the forest safe.

From here, we’re thrown headlong into the run-and-hide game of monster movie survival, and therein lies the problem with this film. Yes, the setting is creepy, the monsters are frightening enough, and there’s more disgusting ooze than you can shake a stick at. But it all happens much too soon. There’s no chance to become genuinely frightened, because there’s hardly any build.

It’s unfortunate, because there are some genuinely good things going on in this movie, some well-done beats that take advantage of the general chaos and make sure nobody – characters and audience alike – quite knows exactly what is going on. This might elevate a scarier film to something interesting, but in this case is just a reminder of how ‘almost’ this movie is.

Another for the list of crimes committed by this film, given how prominently he features in the promotional material, is how underused Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones’ Roose Bolton) is in this film. A couple of lines here, a threatening warning there, and he’s done. Whatever the reason for his limited screen time (it’s entirely likely that the part just doesn’t have that many lines), his mainstream status, brought on thanks to his turn on Game of Thrones, makes him a major distraction. It seems like he should be more important, and so we’re left waiting for him to return, and puzzled when he doesn’t.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this film is that, as problematic as it is, there’s nothing so egregious that it becomes something to hate watch. It’s not particularly quotable or laughable. It doesn’t make any sort of case for being a “so bad it’s good” film. No, this is a film that has good ideas, has a nice, scary look to it, and does want to do what good horror should. It’s just not strong enough to pull it off.