Emerging over a year after the COVID pandemic began, and written before the crisis started, ‘HALL’ depicts the nightmare of one woman’s hotel stay as she fights to protect her daughter from a sudden deadly virus. Director Francesco Giannini taps into the horror of the coronavirus, but is it too little too late?
HALL has shown up late to the party. a horror film that capitalises on the terror of a devastating unknown illness wreaking havoc on the fabric of normal everyday life. At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, audiences were ready to indulge our morbid fascination with “pandemic-horror” films. Movies like Netflix’s #Alive soared to success and older films such as Contagion and Flu enjoyed renewed popularity. But as COVID fatigue sets in and the pubs, clubs, and gyms start opening back up again, the virus is no longer a hot topic in the horror genre. Cases might be soaring, but people are tired of panicking, and horror returns to more standard fare like demons (e.g James Wan’s new Malignant) and reboots of tried and tested classics (The new Candyman, for instance, or Spiral: Saw).
So it’s hard to get excited when Val (Carolina Bartczak) finds herself trying to escape an abusive relationship in the midst of a deadly outbreak of something that’s in between a zombification and a good old-fashioned rapid-acting deadly virus. Separated from her young daughter Kelly (Bailey Thain) in the labyrinthine hotel, she must outwit Kelly’s violent father (Mark Gibson) to reunite with her and escape the infested corridors. Staying on the same floor is Naomi (Yumiko Shaku), a pregnant Japanese woman whose business trip gives her a precious opportunity to escape her own aggressive and domineering husband.
HALL promises to be a wild zombie ride, but the film materialises as a slow burner that never actually burns. Despite a promising concept, the pacing is all wrong, and the film never properly builds up any momentum. The restricted location feels too overtly like the product of a tight budget rather than the intended claustrophobic nightmare, and despite the swollen expository sequences that eat well into the already slim runtime, the poor writing means we never build an emotional connection to the protagonists or fully understand the nature of the risk. The film leaves us feeling more puzzled than frightened. We are treated to one juicy scene of physical horror, after which all the decent action takes place off-screen, with one particularly infuriating sequence absolutely worthy of the shoe I threw at the TV.
The feeble attempts at a promising unifying theme of abuse and female self-determination are half-hearted and fall by the wayside early on, leaving the film with no core message or driving force. The screenplay feels undeveloped and is full of blatant and ham-fisted narrative exposition that manages to simultaneously patronise the audience and also tell us nothing at all about the virus. The performances are generally good, but suffer under dull and uninspired writing. The film sorely lacks a soundtrack—horror cannot live on drone sounds alone—and the sound design is otherwise faulty, with excerpts of dialogue getting lost among the ubiquitous drones. The special effects are excellent, and the cinematography is decent, but the colour’s feel flat, and the mise-en-scène pales in comparison to the trending vibrant aesthetic landscape of a new generation of arty A24 horrors like Midsommar or In Fabric.
These technical flaws could be overlooked if it weren’t for the plot. After a ponderous and padded first half, the film suddenly becomes borderline ridiculous, replete with cartoonish bad guys in turtlenecks brandishing glowing test-tubes and spitting out hokey clichés to the flu victims in vaguely evil (i.e., non-American) accents. This shift in tone effectively shatters the film’s earlier posturing as restrained and arty and reframes it as simply boring. Ultimately, HALL manages to entirely bypass the mass hysteria and public paranoia that makes other outbreak horrors so captivating, and also misses a precious opportunity to address cycles of abuse and domestic violence. Abstract without meaning to be, dull when it should be suspenseful, HALL is one note, and leaves us cold and confused instead of rooting for our heroines to vanquish the joint rampant epidemics of domestic violence and the deadly virus.
Covid might still be frightening in the real world, but with audiences suffering pandemic panic burn-out, HALL doesn’t do nearly enough to engage our attention and compete with less realistic—and therefore more entertaining—horrors. We’d all rather get our spooks by saying “Candyman” in the mirror than facing the everyday banal horror of a disease outbreak. Grab a lateral flow test and sit this one out.
Words by Eli Dolliver
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