Unfortunately-Titled 'Blair Witch' Knockoff Is, Indeed, 'Hollow'

Directed by: Michael Axelgaard; Runtime: 91 minutes
Grade: D

"Found footage" has, for all intents and purposes, become its own genre following the release of The Blair Witch Project roughly fifteen years ago, but none of its entries so obstinately duplicate the one that started it all than Hollow, a British horror-thriller from director Michael Axelgaard. After all, it's not as if the idea of an assortment of friends investigating eerie rural folklore isn't believable, nor is the assumption that they'd come under odds when stranded in the middle of the woods and fleeing from a mysterious force driven by said folklore. This indie, however, embodies everything that knocks the wind out of the genre, a range of criticisms voiced over superior movies of its ilk: shallow and frustrating characters, nonplussed tension, jarring camera movement, and pacing that borders on tedium as the characters navigate through knotted trees and stony ruins.

Matthew Holt's script closely adheres to its precursors: a group of early-twenties friends embark on a vacation to the English countryside, to a small town where folk legends tells of an evil spirit that compels young lovers to commit suicide. The place of their demise is designated by a mammoth, imposing tree with a wide trunk and gnarled branches, beautiful yet unsettling at the same time in its surroundings near a monastery. Drawn out of their vacation routine of booze and socializing, the group -- a do-gooder, Emma (Emily Plumtree); her more rambunctious fiance, Scott (Matt Stokoe); Emma's best friend and not-quite romantic interest, James (Sam Stockman); and a livelier party girl, Lynne (Jessica Ellerby), who has an eye for Scott -- delve more into the stories after stumbling onto information about the lore in their vacation spot. Naturally, what they unearth as they approach the tree and its foreboding surroundings aren't exactly welcoming.

The groundwork for found-footage horror lies in the integrity of the people captured in those discovered recordings, something that the title of this film unfortunately reveals about its characters. Holt's writing renders stiff, unlikable stereotypes that possess deeper emotional connections which get lost in muddled interactions; Emma and James' vague romantic history infuriates more than it intrigues, while Lynne's stereotypical promiscuity and Scott's "athletic" bluster remain nothing short of predictable. It doesn't help that their inane activities revolve more around booze and drugs, where white powder is confirmed to be a hell of a drug and wandering out in the darkness while snorting the stuff probably isn't a great idea. Put bluntly, no emotional connection builds with these people as they venture closer to paranormal danger, their camera nothing but a vacation recorder and a flashlight.

Without that investment in the "searchers", the haunting folklore must shoulder the brunt of the intrigue itself, and there's far less suspenseful exploration of the countryside's yarns in Hollow than needed to sustain interest. The root of the issue lies in the motivation, or lack thereof, behind figuring out what's going on with the tree, the monastery, and the suicides: Emma has a bit of incentive for exploring the legend, but everyone else couldn't be less concerned as they screw around the ruins and get mildly freaked out at fluttering birds and disappearing roadkill. In other second-generation found footage / vérité movies -- [REC], Trollhunter, The Last Exorcism -- there's an inviting, dire magnetism behind discovering what's going on that permeates to those investigating, whereas this concerns itself with limp relationship melodrama that disappointingly lugs the story to its conclusion. Considering the hedonism and scattered sinful connotations that could've made for something more sinister, it's a shame.

As a result, Hollow becomes a tepid stretch of jostled camera footage and yelling, chronicling the tedious psychosis that ensues when these characters finally start caring about the ancient curse when their lives are threatened. Michael Axelgaard's base intentions are indeed admirable -- there's a mildly edg sequence involving a blacked-out, locked-up SUV that tries to rival the tent sequence in Blair Witch -- but the meandering ninety-minute path it traverses saps most of the tension from its endeavors, ending in a wheezing, drawn-out rehash of the genre's tropes that, quite frankly, is foreseeable almost from the start. It's a shame, too: the mammoth tree, the weatherworn ruins, and the curse's flirtations with religious subtext could've dangled out something more unsettling for the audience to absorb. Instead, it's all just as void of scares and substance as the trunk of the tree.

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