I love to be scared. Unfortunately my decades long love affair with horror books and movies has hardened my skin, making real scares hard to come by. It is one of the reasons I love watching horror films with a crowd. I won’t react to the terror on screen, but being in a large crowd of people who are spooked reminds me of the fun of real fear. The opening night of this year’s Toronto After Dark introduced me to a film that actually scared me: THE HALLOW.
Irish fairytales are not prominent in horror films, but THE HALLOW made me question why they are so rare. Just as the Brother’s Grimm’s stories have dark roots, classic Irish tales feature creatures far worse than many of our modern monsters. Banshees and fairies live in the forest, steal babies, and kill innocent people who trespass where they should not. This makes the Hitchens family’s move from London to the Irish forest, with their baby Finn in town, an unfortunate turn of events. Father Adam (Joseph Mawle) has recently taken a job tagging trees for destruction and categorizing fungus in the forest and mother Clare (Bojana Novakovic) is happy to be living a slower life away from the city.
Given the nature of Adam’s work, the locals are not thrilled to have the family in town. Notably their closest neighbor Colm (Michael McElhatton) tries his best to intimidate both Adam and Clare to leave. He shows up unannounced, uninvited, and oversteps neighborly boundaries. When windows in their house are smashed and there is rustling in the trees next to their house Adam, understandably, assumes that Colm is to blame. But Adam does not have the full story here. The fungus he found nearby, which resembles the real-life creepy fungus that turns ants into programmable zombies, may be playing a part in the unexplainable events too. Or it could be the forest folk, fairies and banshees, which Colm has been trying to warn them about.
The film drops us right when all of these potential sources for terror are beginning to creep into the Hitchenses lives, but it then takes its time to get the action going. We are allowed to spend time with both Adam and Clare and form a genuine affection for them. Baby Finn is pretty darn cute too. This is essential to the horror that unfolds later in the film, because you actually care about the pain and suffering that this family endures. When the film takes a turn for the worse it starts to move, fast.
The second half of the film is so tense, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. Each new assault in the family is inventive, unpredictable, and violent. There are plenty of jump-scares, many of which are telegraphed by the film’s score, but they expected in a home-invasion type of film. The real scares come from the relentless assault of the forest creatures and their bloodlust.
As most of the film rests on both Bojana Novakovic and Joseph Mawle’s performances it is wonderful to see them both rise to the occasion. Clare is relatable and imperfect as the doting mother and wife. She acts smartly when she needs to, but is occasionally clouded by her emotions. Novakovic is able to balance these two modes and make them into a cohesive character. Mawle is excellent as the fun, adventurous dad, but falters a little when it comes to the intense apex of the film; he strays into a cartoonish performance. While understandable, given the outlandish circumstances arounds him, but it was one of the incredibly minor issues I had with the film.
I could see another critic not falling to THE HALLOW’s charm as hard as I did. The plot starts out a little messy, with so many possible reasons for the harassment at the house. Or the startling jumps could seem a bit cheap. Those criticisms would certainly be another valid reading of THE HALLOW, but I enjoyed the crap out of it. I also thoroughly enjoyed that for the first time in years, I was spooked during my walk home from the theater. THE HALLOW made me afraid of the dark again.