Fairies are creepy. Maybe not fairies, but certainly faeries. The fantastic creatures of celtic lore have a decided dark side, and you’re wise to give them a wide berth. In his video introduction to the screening of The Hallow (2015) at Toronto After Dark, director Corin Hardy advised the audience to keep their iron tools and flashlights handy, to ward off the malign faerie folk. We giggled nervously, having left our wrought iron at home. What a mistake. “If you trespass on them, they will trespass on you,” the movie’s introduction says, and boy did we get trespassed on, by an eerie, unsettling creature feature as relentless as the demons in the woods.
Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle) is an arborist, a government tree surgeon who’s moved his young family from London for a job in rural Ireland. He roves the woods with his baby son on his back, marking diseased trees for culling. The locals don’t appreciate him or his government meddling, for fear his tampering with the ancient woods will affront the faeries. Adam and his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) are amused by the superstitions; she pulls down the iron bars protecting their cottage’s windows while the disapproving homesteader Colm Donnely (Game of Thrones‘ Michael McElhatton) looks on. With the house unwarded, malevolent attention is almost instantaneous, and strange things begin happening in their baby’s bedroom. Black glop oozes from the ceiling onto the child’s blankets. Windows are smashed. Adam’s certain it’s the narrow-minded neighbours. We know better, reaching for the flashlights we didn’t bring. Tension builds as the strange occurrences pile on, until Adam and Clare are in a fight for their lives under siege from the demonic baby-snatching faeries outside.
The Hallow is Corin Hardy’s first feature, and it’s ably assured, building tension steadily and giving time for the creepy mood to sink in. He’s also careful to ground his take on faeries with vaguely plausible science, playing with the idea of fungal possession. The fungus ophiocordyceps unilateralis, known for taking over the minds of ants and directing them to infest their nests, gets roped in for demonic duty. (Players of the zombie video game The Last of Us will recognize the idea.) It’s done subtly, and the effects really get under your skin. Hardy comes from a background working with special makeup effects, and his skill and familiarity shows. The black ooze and the ebony tendrils of vegetal sludge that gum up electrical works are equally gross and convincing, and the protuberant growths on the faeries themselves communicate the biological horror of bodies taken over by hostile parasites. The plot itself is a little underdeveloped, as the movie strives to strike a balance between its scientific and fantastic conceits. But as a descent into a night of isolated terror, The Hallow is a solid, journeyman work. The acting’s first-rate, even if the characters could use a little more flesh on their haunted bones. The film’s final moments are its best, as it reaches for the evocative power of a fairy tale. And who doesn’t love an unsettling semi-happy ending that leaves the door open for more infections to come?
The Hallow‘s probably one of the best films at Toronto After Dark 2015, having earned raves at Sundance earlier this year as well. Audience are treated to one more screening at midnight this Saturday, October 17th, so if you want to spend a little time with the Good People, get your butt down to the Scotiabank Theatre tonight. Just don’t forget the iron.