My notes on The Hole (2009)Though the title has already been nabbed by Nick Hamm’s 2001 feature, if not Kaneto Shindo’s classic Onibaba (1964), The Hole is a rare original horror script – from Mark L. Smith, known for Vacancy and its direct-to-DVD sequel – in a forest of remakes. Nevertheless, it has an ‘80s redux vibe as Goosebumps-style mixed-up junior protagonists confront supernatural terrors which literally grow out of their own guilts, fears and family trauma. A throwaway line about ‘a gateway to Hell’ shows that the film is aware of its most obvious precedent, Tibor Takacz’s The Gate (1987), which similarly begins with the discovery of a sealed, bottomless pit in the basement. However, its story development is more like Bernard Rose’s Paperhouse (1988), which similarly pays off in a climactic confrontation with an ogre-like incarnation of the protagonist’s angry father in a distorted landscape filtered through the perceptions of a terrified child.
Joe Dante has often been drawn to stories of the irrational breaking out in small towns or the suburbs, with young or childlike protagonists probing the dark corners of their homes. Most blatantly, his Twilight Zone episode ‘The Shadow Man’, a monster-under-the-bed story, is evoked several times as the camera probes (in 3D) the forgotten realms which lurk beneath a teenager’s bed and a tiny final hook reveals that the grown-up Susan recalls her childhood fears in a manner which might reactivate the sealed-off hole. From the black comic The ‘burbs (1989), Bruce Dern returns as another crazy neighbour, surrounded by popping light bulbs in a disused glove factory. Dante’s movie buff world is so well-established that it’s a pleasure to check off the landmarks, including a wordless cameo from recurrent star walk-on Dick Miller, a television clip from Gorgo (1961) and the teen heroine’s significant night-reading (Dante’s Inferno). But there has always been more than simple fun in even Dante’s most trivia-studded movies. Here, horror boils down to a terrible childhood which even suburban heaven – moving next door to a nice girl who looks adorable in a bikini – can’t erase.
Chris Massoglia, fresh from the cartoonish teen monster angst of Cirque du Freak, is wholly credible as the lead – Dane is understandably wary and difficult, yet not so much of a self-involved mope that it’s impossible to care about him. Known for his toothy monsters, represented here by a grinning jester puppet sure to get on the nerves of real-life sufferers from the condition labeled by the script at ‘Bozo-phobia’, Dante is perhaps underappreciated for his rapport with young performers (among others, he drew fine early performances from Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Kirsten Dunst) and The Hole benefits from the nice interplay between the antagonistic brothers and the girl next door, as they segue from normal kid feuds and flirtations to a methodical probing of the need-it-even-be-said highly metaphorical hole in the cellar.
Dante has worked in 3D before (the theme park attraction Haunted Lighthouse) and may be uniquely qualified by temperament to use the process for all its gimmick appeal (a ball-tossing bit which evokes a key moment from House of Wax and a rickety rollercoaster that echoes Gorilla at Large) and make narrative capital of its disorienting strangeness. Even the odd attenuation of space which comes with tridvid lensing is appropriate when delving into the supernatural space of the Hole: especially as the teenage Dane is surrounded by overscale furniture and misshapen props (his father’s big belt is especially disturbing) which reduce him to the size of a toddler. It offers well-timed creep-out shocks (an eye which stares from a TV just when everyone – including the audience – is distracted by other business) but stays away from gore and even much in the way of monster effects, quietly confident that a well-told, character-based ghost story can play in the third dimension with as much impact as, say, the slashing of My Bloody Valentine 3D or the splatter of The Final Destination.