Hall (2020)

If Hall were a music genre it would be sludge metal, the kind of heavy, fuzzed-out slo-mo sound with droning guitars that distils heavy metal to the base essence. The kind of music made by The Melvins. Each crunchy guitar riff reverberates and time slows to a drag. It’s like being inside the music, hypnotic even. But not to everyone’s taste.

Hall is going to frustrate a lot of viewers. You could write the entire plot of Hall on the back of a postage stamp, and arguably it’s an exercise of style over substance. But, except for a spectacularly bad post-credit epilogue, I found it fascinating and strangely beautiful.

Mark Gibson as Brandon

Here’s the plot, and this isn’t spoiling much: a family – mother Val (Carolina Bartczak), father Branden (Mark Gibson) and young daughter Kelly (Bailey Thain) – are staying in a hotel to escape a flu pandemic in Canada. The mother makes a brief connection with a pregnant Japanese woman Naomi (Yumiko Shaku) who’s staying in a room on the same floor. A man (Julian Richings) unleashes the deadly virus on the hotel floor as some sort of terrorist attack and almost everyone in the vicinity rapidly succumbs, some turn violent but most end up writhing on the ground, breath rasping and skin a mess of pustules and blood clots. Daughter goes missing. Mother seeks daughter to try to escape.

That’s it. That’s all there is.

Carolina Bartczak as Val

What makes Hall interesting – or maddening, depending on your perspective – is its confidence in taking material that might normally make up a brief first act and stretching it out to a full 80 minutes. An intertitle suggests the entire sequence of events have a four-hour duration, but mostly it feels in real time.

Even the preamble slows our heartbeat to this movie’s pace. Before the virus take hold we hear long conversations – a chat in the hallway, a phone call with a mother back home. Where in a conventional film we might only hear fragments, here these incidents are shown at length, although there’s still intercutting to break it up.

Thankfully, we’re spared shots replayed in slow-motion – an overused stylistic cliche in many films – although the camera often moves slowly and there’s plenty of repetition with many scenes of dying victims groaning in pain in the hallway. People get scared and there are moments of urgency, but rarely in a panicked breathless way. The pervading continuous threat seems very difficult to escape from.

For most of the movie’s locations are limited to the family’s hotel room, hallway and staircase, with a brief excursion to the plantrooms in the basement, all windowless or curtained. It gradually feels very claustrophobic, which again underlines a sense that the situation is inescapable.

Carolina Bartczak as Val, trapped in her hotel room bathroom

Although it’s not foregrounded, a theme of male violence against women emerges. Naomi’s pregnancy is implied to be the result of rape – she has moved to Canada to escape the ‘bad man’ and not to have to look over her shoulder all the time. Branden has a short temper and snaps at Val in a manner that suggests domestic abuse or some sort of controlling nature. In the hallway, the virus makes men – but not women – lash out violently. And it’s a man who unleashes the violence in the first place.

Pandemic becomes a metaphor for patriarchy: a constant inescapable threat, as distinct from a brief singular eruption of danger. The slow pace and claustrophobia support this.

Mark Gibson as Brandon

The film looks wonderful. The camera work is inventive, with some interesting compositions and great use of negative space. Colour is used strikingly. Now I admit I’m a sucker for the kind of bold, unnatural lighting seen in films by giallo directors Mario Bava or Dario Argento, but I really enjoyed the use of strong primary colours to light the sets. The main hallway and the hotel room were a sickly yellow, the bathroom a clinical white, and the stairs and corridors a blend of primary reds, greens and blues. I don’t think there was a particular meaning ascribed to the colours, but the lighting gave the film a visual beauty and an unsettling and heightened quality.

Bailey Thain as Kelly
Julian Richings as Julian
Bailey Thain as Kelly

I can’t really comment on the sound design, as the Arrow FrightFest stream was faulty; the surround sound mix patched to the left channel in a way that made the dialogue difficult to make out against the music and foley. The soundtrack when subtle was effective but became cliched during more bombastic moments.

First time director Francesco Giannini is clearly inspired by David Cronenberg – of course many Canadian horror directors bask in his wake (the Soska Sisters’ Rabid is a recent, less successful example). The film recalls Shivers – another film about a virulent outbreak in a confined building, although in that case the disease was a metaphor for sexual liberation instead of sexual control (it might be a happy coincidence that there’s a brief appearance from Vlasta Vrana who also had a small role in Shivers). It also has resonance with The Brood although again as an opposite; in that film the horror is a metaphor for matriarchical control, often interpreted as Cronenberg’s artistic response to his recent divorce.

Carolina Bartczak as Val

The actors are good, particularly Bartczak as Val who maintains a sense of continual dread in place of a panicky urgency. And Bailey Thain is effective as the young girl; often mute yet inwardly terrified she is reminisicent of the girl in Hooper and Spielberg’s Poltergeist.

The sense of slow claustrophobic dread is so well maintained, it feels shocking, almost bewildering, when we finally escape the hotel hallway – a feeling familiar to anyone who emerges into the streets after two weeks of self-isolation in these Covid times. And effective, perhaps, as a metaphor for escape from a controlling, patriarchal relationship.

Shot before the pandemic, I’m not sure whether the timing of this film will work in its favour or not. The more conventional and starry Contagion benefited from the situation, but perhaps people will be reluctant to engage with a film about a virus that is a little too close to real life. The extremely slow pace and thin plot will certainly frustrate many who choose to watch it; it certainly elicited a lot of negative opinions at FrightFest.

But viewers prepared to accept the film on its own terms will find much to appreciate.

Bailey Thain as Kelly

P.S. There’s an extended post-credit coda. Usually these things are easily missed, but perversely I’d recommend you stop watching before the credits end. The appended sequence, a very badly acted ‘news broadcast’ adds nothing and significantly cheapens the mood and essence of the film you’ve watched. It’s a breathtaking act of self-sabotage. Hopefully this misjudged sequence will be excised when Hall gets a wider release but consider yourself warned!

Hall got its world premiere at Arrow FrightFest on 30th August 2020.

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Carolina Bartczak as Val

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