Corin Hardy’s debut walks a tricky line. Putting fairy-tale folklore into a creature feature – one that takes its subject matter seriously – is risky (unless you’re Guillermo del Toro, obviously), and it is very impressive that Hardy succeeds in creating a creepy blend of Studio Ghibli and body horror.
Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle) and his wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) move with their baby to the Irish countryside, where Adam will evaluate whether the trees in the local forest are fit for deforestation.
The locals aren’t happy about the fact that their countryside has been sold off, but their warnings and threats are more than a little cryptic.
The Hitchens family soon realise that the old superstitions about the forest and the creatures that live there are true, and that something has been awoken.
Hardy’s confidence and skill is apparent from early on, as he introduces us to the likeable, relatable Hitchens family and gets our skin crawling quickly. The forest location is used very effectively, as is the old creaky house with its iron bars on the windows and Martijn Van Broekhuizen’s cinematography always leaves a little darkness, where something could be moving.
It’s great to see the consistently underrated Mawle (Sense8) in a lead role, and he makes the most of it, delivering a sensitive performance that never falls into the expected stereotypes. Novakovic has the less interesting journey, but her performance is just as strong.
When it comes to the creatures, Hardy doesn’t keep us waiting. The monster design is excellent, and it genuinely does feel like something we haven’t seen for a long time, calling on fairy-tale legends and the aforementioned Ghibli touches (Princess Mononoke is an obvious influence).
There are flaws, however; it’s a little too straightforward, and the final few minutes don’t quite pack the tension that they need to.
Despite this, it’s a very accomplished horror feature that doesn’t sacrifice characters for cheap scares, and celebrates its excellent effects work with beautiful cinematography and a love and respect for its creatures.