APRIL 4, 2016
When I was putting the HMAD book together, I was kind of sad to discover that I saw only a handful of Irish horror films throughout those six years. I mean, obviously some countries were better represented than others (Britain, Italy, and various Asian countries obviously simply MAKE more horror movies than, say, Uzbekistan), but it seems I could have found more than a dozen entries from my home country (well, primary - I'm a mutt when it comes to nationalities). So I was delighted when The Hallow began and the eleven thousand production companies and director name (Corin Hardy) tipped me off that this was one of those rare entries, with the added bonus of the movie being really damn good as well.
It's also an entry in another rare sub-genre: eco-horror. Our hero works for a logging company, marking the trees that need to be cut down (presumably so they can be used for paper needed to print indulgent books about horror movies), and thus brings all of the bad things upon himself when a group of wood-dwelling creatures strike back at him for invading their land. It's not a movie you'd expect to see this sort of gray area - usually when a man is forced to defend himself, his wife, and a little baby against scary creatures, we're kind of on his side 100%. Here, it's a little different; obviously we don't want him or his family to die, but it's not hard to see where the creatures are coming from. Plus, they're all warned off by the other people in the town, including their neighbor whose own daughter was lost to the things in the woods, so when the inevitable happens it's hard to feel TOO bad for them.
But Hardy takes an interesting approach to this sort of material, presenting it as a sort of hybrid of home invasion movie and body horror, as the father (played by Joseph Mawle, who plays Benjen Stark on Game of Thrones) is hit with some strange muddy goo and starts to turn into one of the creatures, wrestling with his sanity as he switches between the one protecting his family and the one putting them in the most immediate harm. His wife is played by Bojana Novakovic (Devil), and she gets the tough job of not knowing whether to fight off her husband to protect her child, or keep him around to help defend her against the creatures - again, it's a movie that doesn't make it easy for you in the audience to say "This person is doing exactly the right thing here", and Hardy keeps that sort of uneasiness going right down to the last scene. I won't spoil the specifics, but Mawle makes a decision that he is *sure* he is right about - but then he (and we, all along) starts to wonder if it was just his new monstrous side getting the better of his judgment. With most modern horror movies you can probably provide a pretty accurate plot rundown within the first 10 minutes, so it's great to see one that keeps you unsure until its closing moments.
Of course, I can skip all that sort of stuff and just convince you to watch it on the strength of its dedication to practical creature work. There is a wonderful hesitance to using CGI in the film, primarily used for some embellishments and one shot designed to look like stop-motion (I guess he was vetoed on actually doing it that way so he just had the CGI wizards make it LOOK like it was done by hand, sort of like The Lego Movie). And unlike a lot of recent "Yay they used practical!" movies, it actually looks really fucking good! Sometimes the team is admirably devoted to practical work and end up with a creature(s) that look silly (Hypothermia comes to mind), but that's not the case here - they look like The Descent monsters cosplaying at a Pan's Labyrinth convention. Hardy uses them sparingly as well; I mentioned home invasion movies earlier, and there's a not-overly successful attempt to suggest their neighbor (another Thrones veteran, Michael "Roose Bolton" McElhatton) is trying to scare them off, so in order for that to work Hardy can't just let the cat out of the bag too soon. I'd say it's about 45 minutes in that we get our first real look at them, but even from that point he keeps them from being overexposed.
I used that word for a reason - they are creatures that are not too fond of the light, so they stick to the shadows and darkness, to the extent that you're likely to not even notice them in a few shots. I highly recommend checking out Hardy's commentary as he is quick to point out the shots that their presence is a little more subtle, and I was kind of blown away at how many times I missed seeing them*, walking away liking the movie even more. As with CGI, I'm just so used to being treated like an idiot (with loud musical stings and the like) for every scare that it's actually kind of sad that part of what I like about a movie is that they don't think I'm an idiot and will take the time to do things a little more effectively, not concerned with jolting you away from looking at your cell phone. And it's not like Hardy is doing himself a disservice by hiding his creatures - there are still plenty of moments you obviously won't miss, and I like that he has an appreciation for a few well-placed crowd-pleasing moments (Mawle takes one's head off with a quick blow - I woulda loved to have seen that with a crowd at one of the film's many festival appearances).
His commentary is only one of several bonus features on the disc; a lot of these Scream Factory/IFC teamups come up pretty short in that department, but in addition to his must-listen track there's a 50 minute making of that covers the entire production. Hardy dominates the talking head portions, to the extent that I actually forgot he had others with him (the editor, a couple of the actors, etc.), but otherwise it's a well-rounded look at what was a very thought-out and well-made film. Hardy's dedication to the creatures and their mythology is further explored in the other pieces, including a trio of much shorter making-of features that recycle some of the same soundbites while focusing on a different area (the story, the FX, the design). If you don't have time for the full doc, these three will give you a pretty decent Cliff's Notes on the production. In-depth looks at the creature designs and some of the material generated to flesh out the monsters (there's an old book with woodcuts and such that plays a role in the film) are also offered, definitely worth the few minutes it takes for them to play out. Some of his storyboards and the trailer are also included, so all in you're talking about over three hours' worth of material.
The film won the Empire Award for Best Horror, an achievement previously bestowed on the likes of Let The Right One In, The Babadook, The Conjuring, and, yes, The Descent - it's a pretty consistently well-earned award (the WEAKEST movie to win it in the past 10 years is probably The Last Exorcism - and I liked that a lot). I usually don't give a rat's ass about this sort of thing, but this is the sort of movie that can easily slip under the radar here, especially since IFC Midnight's track record is spotty and Scream Factory always has a zillion other releases every month. I can't imagine a scenario where this wouldn't be in my top 10 for the year (if I made one, which I'd only do if forced at gunpoint), and I'm glad Hardy won't be wasting his time with a useless goddamn Crow remake (he's the latest filmmaker to be attached and then drop out). Let's hope he follows this up with something else that's familiar yet original - and most importantly pretty great.
What say you?
*This may have been intensified by my recent discovery that someone took the time to submit a particular appearance of the gator in Alligator as "trivia" - it's a shot of Robert Forster and Perry Lang looking at a map, and there's no way in hell anyone could miss "Ramon" behind them. There's subtlety, and then there's "you're literally blind if you didn't see that".