By Scott Dorward
The Hallow (Ireland, 2015)
“Hallow be thy name
And blessed be thy claim
If you who trespass put down roots
Then Hallow be your name.”
As regular listeners to The Good Friends of Jackson Elias will know, I am obsessed with both folk horror and body horror. It is rare to see the two combined, however. This scary fairy tale from Ireland does exactly this, and to great effect.
An English couple, Adam and Claire, along with their infant son Finn, move into a remote cottage in Ireland, on the edge of some ancient woodland. Adam is a conservationist, who has come to study the woods. His special interest in mycology proves useful when he discovers an unknown strain of fungus infesting the corpse of a deer in the ruins of a nearby abandoned farm.
The locals seem none too happy about the couple’s presence, which Adam attributes to them objecting to his conservation work. Colm Donnelly, a local farmer, keeps trying to talk to them, but the couple dodge him out of fear. They do learn, however, that the farmer’s young daughter wandered off into the woods one day and never returned. Foreshadowing!
The cottage Claire and Adam have rented is infected with the same gooey black fungus Adam found in the woods. As the fungus spreads, the couple’s problems grow. At the same time, they start to have increasingly alarming encounters with something that lives in the woods. How does all this relate to local fairy folklore? Why are the entities so interested in Finn? And what is the role that the fungus plays in all this? Everything is revealed as events spiral into bloody violence and existential horror.
Watching The Hallow was a weird experience for me. As I’ve mentioned, I love both body horror and folk horror. These two strands dominate my RPG writing. I am especially obsessed with British and Irish fairy folklore and I’ve tried to find ways of reinventing it in a number of things I’ve written. The Hallow feels like an almost perfect mash-up of two scenarios I wrote for different game systems. I won’t mention which ones here to avoid spoilers, but hit me up on social media if you’d like more details.
British and Irish fairy folklore have always been rooted in horror. While the Victorians tried to make it all a bit more child-friendly, introducing pretty little flower fairies that flit around like magical butterflies, the old fairies never went away. These are creatures that will torment or enslave you, or just plain suck the marrow from your bones. They follow strange laws that they are only too willing to impose on unwary humans. It’s nice to see films like The Hallow that go back to these nightmare versions of fairies. If you find yourself wanting to learn more about these old myths, I recommend the work of the English folklorist Katharine Briggs.
Be warned that this is not a film for the weak-stomached. Characters are wounded, mutilated and infected in often graphic scenes. Viewers squeamish about eye injuries may find themselves flinching away from a number of scenes. One, in particular, appears heavily inspired by the notorious eye-piercing scene from Fulci’s Zombie Flesh-Eaters.
The latter half of The Hallow is packed with monsters and what monsters they are. Thanks to a mixture of practical effects and CGI, the creatures look convincing and utterly repellent. While the fairies in The Hallow only come out at night, we still see plenty of them, and it’s a delight that they are presented so well.
In the notes I made while watching The Hallow, I scribbled down “Straw Dogs with fairies”. Now, as I read the Wikipedia article on the film, I see that it was pitched as “Straw Dogs meets Pan’s Labyrinth“. I’d say that the filmmakers succeeded.
The Hallow hit all the right notes for me. It set its stakes quickly then built and released tension masterfully. I was surprised at how quickly it went for the jugular, ending the first act with the kinds of scenes I’d expect to see in the third of most films. It also skirts the line between darkness and complete nihilism nicely. There is some hope in the end, although survival comes at a heavy price. Also, do stick around through the credits for a nice little sting in the tail.
The story is not without its problems, however. Almost all the descent into horror stems from Adam and Claire’s refusal to talk to the locals and, in turn, on the locals’ needlessly confrontational attempts to warn our protagonists. Slamming a huge book of local folklore down on someone’s kitchen table and then storming off is a poor way to warn them of mortal dangers. This is hardly a problem unique to The Hallow, but it is particularly grating here. It still would have been possible to draw the protagonists into the whole horrible mire without such lazy tricks, and doing so might have made for a stronger story.
There is also some inconsistency in the threat faced by our protagonists. When their house is under siege, there is no shortage of monsters attacking. Similarly, these creatures are happy to loiter in the background and look menacing when the couple are outdoors. When it comes to attacking, however, the creatures follow the same rules as assailants in bad kung-fu films and only attack one at a time. It’s a small thing, but it came to bug me as the film went on.
Also, the supporting cast are criminally underused. Sure, this isn’t their story, but when you cast character actors like Michael McElhatton and Michael Smiley, you want to give them more than one or two lines.
These are minor quibbles, however. The Hallow is still an excellent, tense and sometimes frightening horror film. Its premise, while rooted in folklore and some common horror staples, still feels fresh. The acting, cinematography and special effects are all top-tier. While it may never be remembered as a classic of the genre, The Hallow is definitely one of the better horror films around.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!