For a film that plays squarely in the realm of young adult horror, Joe Dante's The Hole (2009) goes to some very dark places. I mean, this is a movie for people who grew up reading Goosebumps and watched movies like Poltergeist or Arachnophobia or Gremlins (natch) on long autumn Saturdays back when Reagan was president. Had this been made back then, this likely would have had the imprimatur of Amblin and Steven Spielberg. It might even have been directed by Dante himself. But this film is different from the films Dante made in those halcyon days: more introspective, more in touch with psychological horror than with the antic possibilities of cinema. It's more of a horror movie than any of Dante's features since The Howling. That's a long stretch of time.
The story in The Hole finds single-mom Susan Thomas moving into a new house with her two sons, Dane and Lucas. The new house has a basement and in that basement is a trap door that has been padlocked shut. Bereft of things to do with themselves before the start of the school year, Dane and Lucas open the door only to find a bottomless pit. The pit is the proverbial abyss, and as the saying goes, the abyss gazes also into you. Soon, Dane, Lucas, and Julie, the girl next door, find themselves being tormented by their worst fears. For Lucas, this manifests itself as a sinister clown doll that mysteriously appears and disappears around the house. For Julie, it's the memory of a childhood accident and the death of her best friend. For Dane, it's the legacy of his abusive father. They tromp out to the edge of town to find answers from the house's previous owner, "Creepy" Carl, who has squatted in an old factory and lit the place with hundreds of lamps. He knows what's in the hole, and he tells them that it's seen them, and that it's coming for them. There's nothing for it, it seems, but for the kids to face up to their worst fears and get past them. That's not such an easy thing when those fears are real and utterly malign...
This was made on a budget in Canada and occasionally it shows. The scope of this film is narrower than in any of Dante's older films, which were sometimes downright apocalyptic. There's a shortage of recognizable faces in the film, too, though Teri Polo is familiar enough from her long TV career, while "Crazy" Carl is played by Bruce Dern. The three kids are played by Chris Massoglia, Nathan Gamble, and Haley Bennett, and they're all good. Dante has always had a knack with adolescent actors. The Hole was made in 3-D and you can occasionally catch Dante having fun with it, using old-school "thrusting things at the audience" compositions. What he hasn't done is indulge in a texture of cinematic allusions. Oh, Gorgo shows up on TV once, and the factory where Crazy Carl lives is named "Gloves of Orlac," and the evil clown seems like a direct reference to Poltergeist, but compared to his older films, this one is positively reticent.
Otherwise, The Hole follows a familiar pattern for Dante's films: he's a firm believer in showing the vacuity of middle America by letting the dragons into Eden and letting them wreck the place. In the past, he's skewered Christmas and corporatism and the early 1960s and conformity and authority. He's always believed in movies as a safety valve while growing up a misfit, but you don't get much of that here. I wonder if the long period between this film and his last has soured him on the healing power of movies. In any event, his eye for family dynamics is keen and it plays out here with a beautifully observed relationship between Dane and Lucas. Dante takes his time setting things up, and we've spent a third of the movie getting to know them by the time the film starts to turn the screws.
Dante used to be thought of as one of the young turks of 1970s horror filmmaking, but whatever sensibility that encompasses, the director is nothing if not adaptable. The horror beats during the film's long middle act occasionally play like Spielbergian variants of J-horror tropes, particularly the ghost girl who torments Julie. All of that gets blown apart in the film's finale, which sucks Dane and Lucas into the hole and thus, into Dane's private hell. This section of the film is pure Dante: an amalgam of Looney Tunes and The Twilight Zone (recalling the weird geometries of Dante's version of "It's a Good Life" from the 1982 film) but overlaid with deeper psychological resonance. This is the nightmare world of an abused child, complete with futile hiding places and an ogrish avatar of a brutal parent. This is territory that most makers of family-oriented thrillers would never go near, but Dante has always been the id hiding behind such films.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 4
First Time Viewings: 4
Around the web:
Jose at The Grim Reader is a friend of the blog, so even though he's not doing the challenge proper, he did write about one of your humble bloginatrix's very favorite horror movies this week in Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon. Check it out.