I remember years ago as a child, my father, a friend of his and his son and me were exploring a field out the back of this friend’s new house when we came upon a derelict building, not a house, more a three story tower. Of course at that time there were no keep out/dangerous structure notices, this was before such things were necessary and everyone worked on common sense. The structure was solid stone, there were no stairs but there was a way up to the second floor. Due to my age I was not allowed to go climbing (see? Common sense), however, my father and his friend decided it was safe enough to climb up and have a look around, while I and the son played about on the ground floor continually asking questions about what was up there and could we come up. When the parents came down they told us there was nothing up there but an old painting with what looked like blood on it, but it could have been paint, I was utterly fascinated by this and for years I recounted this story to friends, with each successive telling becoming more and more elaborate. After a number of years, and I’m not sure how this came up, but my father and I were recounting the events of that particular day when I reminded him of his discovery, he then admitted to me that he had made the whole thing up and that there was no painting, it was just a derelict building. I wasn’t heartbroken or disappointed, it was just one of those things, and when I thought about it, of course the story was nonsense. Got me to thinking though, about how real that story felt to me – about how my imagination ran riot with the idea of it all and how such a simple premise inspired so much fear. For fear is deeply ingrained. Without it we would succumb to any sort of grizzly fate – it’s what keeps us going – fight or flight, adrenaline keeps you alive.
So what is there to fear about a ‘hole’ in the basement of a typical suburban all American household? Well, in the hands of Joe Dante, who has garnered a career working on the ‘family horror’ genre, something eerie, something spooky and something most definitely horrific – at least until you figure out what’s going on, but more on that later. I’d like to discuss the ‘family horror’ genre first, a peculiar sub-genre that attempts to juxtapose family orientated films with that of outright horror. A quick scan through such films reveals that Dante has made this forte, Gremlins and its sequel speak for themselves as does the TV series Eerie, Indiana, but so too does Small Soldiers, The ‘burbs and, to a lesser extent, Innerspace. For the most part he skilfully blends family/comedy and horror into a potent mix, but for the past ten or so years he has been generally out of favour with only a few lacklustre TV credits to his name. However, with The Hole he has a triumphant return to form, balancing everything he knows to give the full on scares within the comedic nature of a family setting and it is one that critics and audiences alike were not expecting.
Mum Susan, eldest son Dane and youngest son Lukas Thompson are busy moving into their new house; Dane is typically angsty with his mother and surroundings due to ‘yet another move’ while Lukas is full of beans about the prospect of a new life. Dante spends the opening scenes of the film introducing us to the characters in light hearted, though poignant moments and whilst they do define the characters they are also somewhat clichéd; a criticism I will be leveling at this picture a lot unfortunately. Dane is moody and upset about moving again (this, when you understand his character fully towards the end of the film, doesn’t actually make much sense) and Susan sits in his room consoling and cajoling him into being more helpful and friendlier, especially towards his brother. Yes we’ve seen this before, but there is enough emotion here to bring the characters to life. The following day, when the boxes are being brought off the moving van, Lukas and Dane define their characters; Lukas is young, enthusiastic and hero-worships his elder brother – while Dane, though undeniably the protective elder sibling, he is also exasperated by the constant attention seeking nature of Lukas, and, being a teenager, is equally aware of the fairer sex, including his new next door neighbour Julie, who, by a stroke of convenience is also rather attracted to him.
These opening few minutes are very light-hearted and contain the soft comedic edge associated with family comedies whether it is slapstick or wit. It is also a very short time to introduce the characters, Teri Polo, as Susan, in particular has barely any screen time to convey her love and concern for her children while trying to establish herself as a working mother, trying to move on from an abusive ex-husband; in fact she has barely any screen time at all and it is a testament to her skill that we actually care about her character and the plight that she finds herself in with regard her personal life. But, by shoehorning the ‘adult’ characters to one side the film focuses on the younger cast and their fumbling interaction further cementing the ‘family’ motif. Chris Massoglia as Dane has that youthful charm needed to take the lead role; balancing bravado, scepticism, fear and flirtation in equal measure he still manages to come across as the one to watch – even the final revelation, which many, I’m sure, will see a mile off, is played with enough believability and his final line is suitably cold. Nathan Gamble doesn’t annoy as the youngest member of the cast, but is perhaps the weakest of the links needed to hold the incredibility together; he is at his best as the spirited brother, but manages to hold the suspense well enough upon being menaced – his big scene failed to engage me, but that was not his doing (more on that later). And finally Haley Bennett as the next door neighbour Julie and the last part of the triangle engages really well with Massoglia, they share an effortless charm that spills out of the screen. She fares just as well Gamble and when all three are together, holding the fort, as it were, their camaraderie and affection shine through. Once menaced she is very effective, but upon her reveal she, again, doesn’t quite manage to convey the resolution needed to hold the scene together, which is a shame as everything else is fine.
It doesn’t, however, take very long before the film turns ever so slightly sinister; with the discovery of a locked and bolted hatch in their basement, Dane and Lukas, being excited and intrigued, decide to open it and discover what appears to be a bottomless hole – objects dropped down never make a sound and even light itself is swallowed up. With the Hole’s discovery Dante turns the horror screw a quarter turn tightening up the tension; it's not much but it’s enough to unsettle and this is the best section of the film – we don’t know what the Hole is, or where the film is going with it, and Dante should be congratulated in evoking so much drama from such a simple premise. With the addition of Julie to the group dynamic, the three drop a tethered camcorder down the Hole to see what they can; the resultant footage, though not seen by themselves, is again wonderfully creepy. From here on in the film plays out in typical horror fashion, relying on building tension, darkly lit scenes and jump scares – Julie being menaced in the toilets by a suitably shrouded little girl is creepy in the extreme and easily matches the best the genre has to offer, particularly that of the Asian market from which this film draws much of its inspiration.
But, as good as that sounds, this is also the biggest problem, as far as I am concerned, the film borrows far too many clichés from other films to be taken too seriously; the aforementioned scene with the child in the toilet brings to mind Dark Water or The Grudge, Lukas has a fear of clowns (yes clowns again) and is menaced by a truly revolting clown puppet – and whilst the scene is very effective in the first instance with creating the right mood, once the reveal is made it just looks kind of rubbish (Lukas’ climatic scene with the puppet simply cannot be taken seriously as horror and I guess (I mean I hope) that was the point. As these tensions rise we are introduced to ‘creepy Carl’ played simply wonderfully by veteran actor Bruce Dern, who puts in a terrific turn as the elderly man once responsible for keeping the Hole shut, and whose enigmatic ramblings shed light on to what is going on.
And now we hit the biggest problem with the film as a whole, once you work out what is going on, how the Hole operates and what it is doing, just about all the fear that has been successfully built up evaporates – this is not unusual in this type of set up, but here Dante tries valiantly to keep the tension high by removing, under sinister circumstances, one of the characters thus giving the illusion of danger. Unfortunately, for me, this made no sense. If you can forgive the spoilers, the basic idea of fearing fear itself and then confronting that fear, is sound, but if your fear is darkness – how can that eliminate you? And also, how come Carl is shown absolute melevolence by the Hole compared to our other protagonists? I like the idea that the Hole’s origins are left completely open, but I think it does need some kind of explanation for its motivations; if it’s going to ‘eat’ people it would be nice to understand why. Then there is the lack of explanation as to why the hatch cannot be re-latched – yes the kids try to block it up, and the original locks go missing, but are there no hardware shops nearby, would a simple bolt not hold a latch together? Am I missing the point?
Then we come to the final confrontation between Dane and his fear. Now I applaud Dante’s decision to go into the Hole and I simply adore the impressionist/expressionist landscape therein – reminders of German expressionism from the early silent era were not lost on me – but the whole thing was tinged with the nagging doubt that I’d seen it all before; even down to Dane’s admission and struggle – it dawned on me later that night – Drop Dead Fred. Watch the two scenes to see what I mean; they may be very different genres, but they have exactly the same climax down to the set design and premise. Now that is frightening!
Now I’m fully aware that that what started off as a very praiseworthy review has very rapidly become somewhat less so – and taking this review as an analogy for the film whole you can pretty much sum up my feelings for it. I love the idea and the build up, but it rather too quickly falls apart towards the end – it is possible that if you haven’t delved into the Asian horror genre as deeply as I you will find the film quite refreshing; certainly Dante’s presentation is such; but even with that admission there are still those terrible clichés to overcome, each one is a nail hammering home the shear obviousness of it all. So whilst I applaud Dante’s return to form and indeed I don’t hate the end result, I can’t quite get over the fact that there is nothing new on offer except the Hole itself.
So. Do you now dare to look into the Hole?
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