The Hollow is a 1975 documentary about the inbred hillbilly residents of an area of New York State in Saratoga County known informally as “Allentown” for reasons that soon become abundantly clear. It begins with the following text:
Early in the 19th Century two families, the Allens and Kathans, settled in the Southern Adirondack Mountains of New York State. By 1960’s their descendants had isolated themselves in a remote hollow high in the mountains. Below lay the great Sacandaga Valley. Its rich lands rapidly filled with farms, factories and mills.
By the end of the century, the Allens and the Kathans had intermarried: all the residents in the Hollow were related. Because of their isolation, misunderstandings developed between them and the outside world.
The economic disasters of the 1930s shut down the factories and mills. In 1932 the Sacandaga River was dammed, flooding the fertile valley below the Hollow. Forced from their homes, the valley residents sought employment elsewhere, but the Allens and Kathans chose to remain up in the mountains.
The Hollow has no narration, the filmmakers (George Nierenberg and Gary Wand) simply trained their cameras on various Allens and Kathans and let them talk about their lives. There’s no narrative as such, either, but the publication of a newspaper article about the hamlet causes much consternation among the residents of Allentown, who become distrustful, even paranoiac about the world outside of their close knit enclave of approximately 200 intermarried, blood relatives.
The Hollow is like an anthropological study of a miniscule slice of America that time has completely forgotten, and the residents of Allentown, seem to like it that way. Incredibly, it was’t until the mid-1980s, nearly a decade after this film was shot, that indoor plumbing came to Allentown, which is apparently roughly 1200 ft. long by 400 ft. wide and covered on three sides by dense forest, and it is said, a fence. Anecdotal evidence points to many Allentowners having red hair.
In the wake of the documentary and the exposure of their grim living conditions, social workers began making tentative inroads with the Allentowners, but the attention was initially rebuffed by distrustful residents.
From a 1993 New York Times article about Allentown:
Clifford Logan of the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council said his agency had weatherized 150 homes in the Allentown area since then. “Once you do something nice for somebody you’re accepted,” he said, adding that he believes residents of the Hollow are slowly becoming more comfortable with outsiders. “They’ve been a town with a gate, and they’re opening up.” No Welfare, Thank You
But Emily Smith, deputy commissioner for the County Social Services Department, said the number of public assistance cases in the entire Hollow was “probably not more than a couple of handfuls” and has not grown in 15 years.
“They still tend to be a very close-knit group and they take care of each other,” she said. “Their ways don’t change much. They’re happy and that’s their way of life. To you and me, our standards are much higher but they don’t have those high standards and they’re not striving to have them.”
James Bowen, the Saratoga County Sheriff, said his services are rarely requested. “We don’t get a lot of calls from Allentown,” he said. “They sort of police themselves.”
While a local fire department provides service for the area, he said, “If one of the Allens has a fire, one of the Allens next door will help put it out.”
I found this film entirely engrossing. From the remarkable opening shots of the legless old coot discussing how he’d been… er fruitful and multiplied, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I don’t want to give the impression in any way that The Hollow is a hicksploitation movie—it’s not. There is no editorializing from the filmmakers whatsoever, the viewer has no idea what they might be thinking, which is one of the reasons The Hollow is such a strong film.