The Hole (2009) – dir. Joe Dante

I was fortunate enough to write this review for That Jaime’s HorrorFest 2013. Many thanks to Jaime for allowing me to participate and share my appreciation for a film I truly love. Follow him on Twitter!

These days don’t seem to cater too well to the horror genre. While every now and then a fresh, exciting concept is crafted into a fine work of art (this year’s standout in the genre is The Conjuring), for the most part, works like these remain swimming in a sea of remakes and sequels that come at a dime a dozen these days. And let’s face it, even many of the more original ideas seldom come out as enjoyable as they may sound on paper. Although I admire the ambition of The ABC’s of Death compilation, nearly all of what it showcased ranged from “passable, but forgettable” to “fucking excruciating”. And this is just one of many, many examples. Now, horror cinema remains one of my most favorite kinds of films, and even the “okay” products provide at least some sort of merit. However, there’s no denying that the 21st century marks a bit of a low point in horror, both in the states and beyond.

But then, there are the gems. In 2009, Joe Dante finished production on the film that I will be discussing now: The Hole. Probably one of the coolest things about this flick is that it was created for the primary purpose of being shown in 3D. Production started in 2008, so this was definitely some time before Avatar was released and set the standard for 3D/Imax-released blockbusters, a trend which continues to the present day. Moreover, this is the first horror film that the director had released since 1990. Remember, this is the same Joe Dante who has given us Gremlins, The Howling, and the original Piranha, all bonafide classics among the genre. With this in mind, one would think that this film would create a major buzz among the cinematic communities and garner a wide release and wider reception.

Unfortunately, the opposite remains true. The Hole made its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009, before seemingly disappearing from everyone’s concern and collecting dust. Then, it was featured at the film festival in Cannes in 2010, only to stop and collect more dust. After a few more limited screenings here and there, the film was finally released on DVD and Blu-Ray in late 2012. So, despite a generally positive critical reception overall, it has somehow remained floating in obscurity since its premiere. In fact, I probably would have never heard of this flick if I hadn’t stumbled across it on Netflix Instant by chance, watching it only out of intrigue over the big name attached to it.

Now, what I’m getting at here is that this film is actually really, really good and should be watched by more people. My best guess about its lack of a confident release schedule is related to the nature of its content. Its qualities undoubtably place it within the realm of horror. However, its main protagonists’ ages range from ten to seventeen years of age, the likes of which mainstream audiences are probably used to seeing in more child-targeted movies. On the other hand, the content deems itself far too scary for the average kids’ film. So what’s a marketing team to do??

I could imagine a film of this nature falling flat on its face if placed in the hands of anyone less worthy. However, horror and cult movie guru Dante makes it work terrifically. It combines an occasionally-playful script with scenes of genuine terror to create a film that really goes for the good old-fashioned horror vibe. You won’t see any out-of-nowhere jump scares or grueling torture porn scenes here. Yet in many ways, this film is certainly deceptive as well. The bright vibrant lighting of the daytime scenes feel like something out of a Hallmark movie. Lines such as, “Where do you want me to put your Jonas Brothers CDs?” (now, an utterly dated reference) may be enough to turn some people off and prompt them to turn on a Frank Hennenlotter film. Finally, the “quiet suburban life with a dark underbelly” concept in film is one that seems to have been done to death – even by Dante himself, who successfully observed this theme in his wonderful The ‘Burbs. If one just gives this film a chance, however, it soon becomes evident that it could be quite the rewarding viewing experience.

At this point, I should probably give a brief synopsis of the actual content of the film itself. Seventeen-year-old Dane and his ten-year-old brother Lucas (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble, respectively) have moved all across the country with their single mother Susan (Teri Polo) for presumably their whole lives. They arrive to their newest residency in the small town of Bensenville, to the chagrin of Dane, who has left his friends behind in Brooklyn. The boys soon befriend their new neighbor, a teenage girl named Julie (Haley Bennett), and all seems to be working out just fine. Until one day, when the three come across a trap door in their new shed, revealing, when opened, the film’s titular hole. This hole seems to be bottomless and anything thrown inside seems to disappear. The kids attempt to use a camcorder on a rope to capture its contents, but their attempts result only in ambiguous shadows. Turning their backs from their TV screen, however, an eye appears in the recording that only we, the viewers, are aware of.

Soon enough, it becomes clear what the hole possesses, what it withdraws, and who our villain is – fear itself. We learn early on that Lucas has a phobia of clowns; nevertheless, some sort of Pandora’s box is opened with their discovery of the hole, and he becomes plagued by the physical embodiments of his fear that follow him around. This sort of exposition is simple enough, but eventually plays along as a vehicle observing the nature of fear itself. As more and more strange happenings occur to our protagonists, we become more aware of who they are and how certain fears constitute their day-to-day lives. While the film does star a small group of young actors – who all do a pretty good job with their roles – I think this film is targeted toward children the same way that ParaNorman is, for example. There is nothing about it that necessarily makes it “off-limits” for a young audience; in fact, the film makes a pretty conscious effort to deal with real, relevant issues and refuses to condescend to young viewers, which may actually work in its benefit. It might just be a little bit too scary; then again, I’m no parent and I can’t dictate those decisions. But who knows? Certain kids with twisted imaginations might go gaga for this stuff.

As with many films intended for a 3D theatrical showing, there are definitely instances that feel so obviously gimmicky. In one shot, the camera is pointing upward from inside the hole while the kids throw a handful of nails from above. The way that these nails are captured are in a way that is definitely intending toward the “flying at your face” effect. Moments like these are a bit distracting for the 2D viewer, but such annoyances remain minimal. Personally, it’s a bit refreshing, even charming, for a film such as this to be conscious – and proud! – of its slightly contrived nature. It knows it’s no Lawrence of Arabia, and has as much fun with its cinematic devices as possible.

The scares in this film are pretty passable – particularly in that they don’t try too hard to scare. As I’ve mentioned before, the horror aspects in this film aren’t in trying to make the audience sleep-deprived that night. The terror is found in the way that fear is dealt with, mainly in ways that are familiar, and uncomfortably so. Coulrophobia – the fear of clowns – is a rather common one among individuals, perhaps attained at a young age from media representations or personal experience. Therefore, the stop-motion clown doll used to scare Julian may seem silly to some, crafty to some… and absolutely terrifying to others. It is with this level of grace that Dante presents scares in his film, rooting them in believability and in the painful confrontation with our deepest, darkest fears.

Once again, the performances in The Hole are passable enough to move the film forward without many (if any) distracting, eye-rollingly wooden acting. Nothing here is particularly career-defining, but then again, this film doesn’t really call for this sort of prowess. It’s simple enough as it is, and bits of occasional awkwardness only seek to heighten the realism factor in that, yes, we are watching awkward young people amidst puzzling circumstances. One really awesome thing this film does is it features Bruce Dern in probably the most interesting role of the entire film. He plays Creepy Pete, the former resident of Dane’s and Lucas’ new house, whom the kids visit when trying to search for answers regarding their strange circumstances. His performance is so wonderfully kooky, and he plays the creepy older gentleman so very well. It’s always a delight to watch him act, and this film remains no exception.

(Psst. There is also a cameo by the one and only Dick Miller, but it comes out of nowhere and only lasts a few seconds. So for the love of god, do NOT decide to check your smartphone during his cameo, because come on! It’s Dick Miller!)

I’m not so sure if I could call this one of my favorite horror films, though it certainly is one of my favorites of recent times and definitely aids in balancing out the not-so-high quality stuff that bombards the genre. I couldn’t ever stop being impressed by the fact that this film was shot it – not converted into – 3D about a year before that format became a “thing”. The film’s lack of uniform success fills me with an utmost sadness from time to time, especially knowing how much potential it could have fulfilled. This is a really great comeback for Dante – whose previous two films as a director were Small Soldiers and Looney Tunes: Back in Action – yet it still remains highly, perplexingly unrecognized. The U.S. distribution system is such a messy operation, and the eventual fate of The Hole is a proper example of this.

Nonetheless, I digress. Because when it all boils down, The Hole really, truly, completely succeeds as a staple of modern horror cinema. While many horrors opt for keeping an eerie, dark atmosphere over the entire duration of its narrative, this film mixes it up by integrating teen players who live and act very much like teenagers, complete with an appreciation for Top 40 music and an occasional dip in the pool. But then, a twisted angle is placed on these young people’s lives, as the gaping cavity in Dane’s shed threatens to tear their world apart, unless (and only if) they have what it takes to confront their biggest personal fears. And yet, this admittedly bizarre approach manages to work. The superficiality of suburban life and the unspeakable morbidity of each of our inner psyches clash heads in disturbing ways, ways that we couldn’t have ever seen coming.

So then, my hat goes off to you, Mr. Dante. Once again, you manage to pull off some of the finest family-friendly horror I have ever seen. I am so honored to be able to call you one of my very favorite filmmakers. As for you, horror lovers, I really don’t expect this to be one of the “great ones” for any of you. It does have its share of problems, inconsistencies, and can be rather campy (not in the good way). But what The Hole does bring to the table is a rich return to the old-fashioned horror sensibilities of yesteryear. It’s not Freddie Krueger as a physical character who is scary to us, but rather his character connotations: there are no guarantees that you’ll awake from your dreams, and while we are seldom consciously aware of this, its a risk that we take multiple times in our lives. This is the cold hand of uncertainty and unpredictability that refuses to leave, unless you will it to do so. And that is precisely what The Hole does so well. There aren’t many bells and whistles to it – besides a few aforementioned special effects – but I still believe it is well worth anyone’s time.

So go ahead. Don’t be afraid.

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One Response to The Hole (2009) – dir. Joe Dante

  1. Alex Kittle says:

    Sounds cool! I really need to see more Joe Dante films, since I’ve really liked what I’ve seen of his but still have many more to try out. I will add this to my list!

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