Two years ago, some Irish citizens went ballistic over a proposal by their government to reduce the national debt by selling off some of the island nation's national forests to corporations.
The plan was abandoned, but not before inspiring writer-director Corin Hardy to come up with the premise for his feature debut, The Hallow, a wonderfully entertaining horror yarn about a forest that rises up to defend itself from human encroachment.
An eco-thriller heavily inspired by ancient Irish fables and pre-Christian religious imagery, The Hallow belongs to a tradition of offbeat horror out of Britain and Ireland that includes the 1973 classic The Wicker Man, from Robin Hardy (no relation to Corin); Nicolas Roeg's bizarre ode to motherhood, Puffball: The Devil's Eyeball (2007); and William Friedkin's fertile forest freak-out fantasy, The Guardian (1990).
Joseph Mawle (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) stars as Adam Hitchens, an arborist who is sent deep into the Irish countryside to evaluate the health of a tract of forestland that's up for sale. The townsfolk are openly hostile to the scientist and his wife, Clare (Bojana Novakovic), who is obsessed with providing the best possible home for their newborn son.
The couple endure regular visits by Colm Donnelly (Michael McElhatton), a farmer whose land borders theirs. Suspicious of outsiders, perpetually angry, and deeply superstitious, Colm warns the couple to move out or risk angering the Hallow. What, pray tell, are the Hallow? They're woodland faeries, says Colm, creatures who protect the forest, its spirit, and its will to live.
Hardy's film doesn't waste time with niceties. Before the first 30 minutes are up, Adam, Clare - and the audience - are knee-deep in horror. The film uses a wonderful catalog of effects to portray the forest's attack on the hapless couple. The creatures, for one, are beautifully designed; each has a unique look and personality. They ooze a black liquid that invades their victims' bodies, changing them from within.
It's difficult to talk about the film without giving away spoilers. But look for a significant mood change in the last act: Amid all the horror and the black ooze, there emerges a deeply touching story about the power of love.
Directed by Corin Hardy. With Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton. Distributed by IFC Midnight.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, profanity, gore, disturbing imagery).
Playing at: PFS Roxy.