Since contemporary found footage transitioned into a full-blown medium – like colour film, 3D and the talkies – that brief period when there was basically just The Blair Witch Project and a lot of films that were trying to be The Blair Witch Project seems a very long way away indeed.
Michael Axelgaard and Matthew Holt’s Hollow, then, is strangely refreshing as much as it’s a total narrative anachronism, treading keenly in the footprints of Eduardo Sanchez‘s 1999 gamechanger as a group of friends hit the countryside and find themselves in the orbit of a local curse that stretches back hundreds of years to a monk that either raped and murdered the object of his affections and was strung up alongside her from a hollow tree, or, in the PG-13 version, both hanged themselves rather than be parted. Inevitable strange happenings unravel the group dynamic, giving everyone an opportunity to lose their shit turn the camera on themselves for that all important breathless reaction shot as they get picked off one-by-one, snatched up in the proverbial claws of some ancient evil.
The overlapping story is fairly contrived and lumpen throughout – the local vicar is evasive about local weirdness to point of being aggressive, and a creepy yokel provides oodles of exposition like any number of toothless neo-peasants throughout horror history. Similarly, the characters introduce themselves through the same irritating fuzzy felt set up as the Chernobyl Diaries or Cloverfield by simply turning the camera on and going “I’m a dickhead, these are my dickhead friends and look at all the fun we’re going to have.” In short, Hollow starts off with every indication of being every bit the faded third generation photocopy of something good as last year’s excretable The Devil Inside.
The core four cast members, lead by Misfits Series 4 regular Matt Stokoe, craft something fairly involving out of this generic material through bullish acting determination – steamrolling down all resistance in the viewer as drama layers drama like an episode of Hollyoaks projected over an episode of Brookside on the side of a ghost train. The naturalistic dialogue and the intensity of their disintegrating relationships all the more visceral as we effectively watch them unfold through the POV of whoever is holding the camera at that one time.
Away from the guff about haunted trees our dramabomb begins to tick when Scott (Stokoe)’s coked-up loutish tendencies drive a wedge between him and his stuffy fiancé Emma (Hollyoaks Later‘s Emily Plumtree). Tom flirts with summer dress-wearing blonde stereotype Lynne (Jessica Ellerby) and torments the quieter, more sensitive James (Whitechapel‘s Sam Stockman). Still carrying a torch for Emma, his teenage crush, and increasingly obsessive in his desire to prove Tom an arse on film and win her back, James becomes ensnared in the malign influence of the hollow tree in the films title – disappearing into dark spaces in a nearby ruined abbey and getting transfixed by the play of sunlight through its arches or the drop from a cliff edge. The horror to come foreshadowed by these dissonant flashes of images and sound from the camera like snapshots from his shattered psyche.
With all the forbidding rural mythology, strange omens, dead wildlife, and people weeping into the camera lens, its hard to escape the influence of The Blair Witch Project. But if Hollow has forfeited its imagination and ingenuity by standing far too close to the format’s progenitor, the lip-chewing intensity of the ensemble and the stark impact of the finale by contrast represent the best you can get from peering over another’s shoulder.