Things didn't go Joe Dante's way when it came to releasing his most recent feature film, The Hole. Made 3 years ago, it's only now getting a limited release and making its way onto DVD and Blu-Ray (you can read more on the whys and wherefores here and here). It's a pity, really, as it's quite a good movie - easily Dante's best since Matinee, from all the way back in 1993. The Hole is a family movie - you might even call it a kids movie, actually - but don't let that put you off...it's still pretty dang scary. Not as gory as The Howling or Piranha, nor as nostalgic and knockabout as Gremlins, but plenty spooky all the same.
Single mom Susan (Terri Polo), teenaged son Dane (Chris Massoglia) and younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) have just moved from New York City to the quiet burg of Bensonville. Dane is not happy about leaving his old home and friends behind, and doesn't care to spend much time with Lucas, but he perks up a bit when he catches sight of Julie (Haley Bennett), the cute, perky blonde girl next door.
One day, Dane and Lucas are horsing around down in the cellar when they come across a locked door in the basement floor. The boys accidentally find the keys to the locks and open the door to reveal a deep, dark, seemingly bottomless hole. Julie soon joins them and together they do a series of tests to find out what's down there. They drop a paint bucket down but don't hear it land. They lower a South Park Cartman doll, and something suddenly tears it away. They lower a video camera on a fishing line and on playback see a vague white shape which they can't quite make out. Then Susan comes home and they all head off to bed...without locking the door to the hole back up.
Before you know it, strange and creepy things start to happen. Lucas, who has a profound fear of clowns, walks into his bedroom to see an ugly little clown doll staring back at him. Thinking Dane left it there to scare him, he puts in in Dane's room and heads down to the basement to check on the hole. Then he begins to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet, murmuring laughter, and the jingle of a bells - just like the bells on top of the clown doll's cap.
Julie also starts to see things. Out at a burger joint while showing Dane around town, she makes a quick trip to the restroom only to hear sounds like a little girl crying in one of the toilet stalls. Bending down to peer under the stall, she sees the legs of a little girl, one leg shoeless and twisted askew. A jet of blood suddenly spurts onto the stall floor, and the lights go out. Julie fumbles to the door, but it won't open. She hears a creaking sound as the stall door opens, and turns to see the little girl, her face in shadow, shuffling towards her...
Dane vehemently denies being scared of anything, but of course he's lying. Julie tries to find out just why it is that Dane's mom keeps moving them from place to place, but Dane hedges and seems reluctant to speak about it...but the truth will soon come back to haunt him.
Wanting to find out more about the mysterious hole, the trio consult Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), the old man who used to live in the boys' house. He now resides in an abandoned factory, surrounded by the light of hundreds of bulbs. Carl freaks out when he hears that they've opened the hole and unleashed the darkness within. "It's going to kill you. It's going to kill us all!"
As mom Susan heads out of town to a nursing conference for the weekend, it's left to Dane, Lucas and Julie to deal with the terrors unleashed from the dark recesses of the hole. Before the night is out, each will have to confront their own worst fears, if they hope to make it through till the next morning...
The Hole stands out from the recent horror movie pack in a number of ways. The main characters might be kids, but they're likeable and believable, not the usual cartoony, obnoxious types we usually see in movies. Dante's direction is smooth and confident, and resists the need for unnecessary quick-cut edits and lots of pyrotechnics. The film unfolds at a good, measured pace, and once the scares start, they keep on coming at a relentless rate. But they're subtle, old school scares; Dante's more interested in creating an atmosphere of slowly escalating dread and tension. The film also isn't afraid to deal with some complex issues for what is ostensibly a family film: themes of child abuse, fractured families, sibling rivalry and responsibility, guilt, running away from problems and confronting phobias.
The script (by Mark L. Smith) gets the job done in a crisp, workmanlike fashion. The three lead kids are all good performers. Terri Polo is sympathetic as the boys' worried mom. Bruce Dern barely registers as Creepy Carl, his role is so brief. And, yes, Dante even finds a small part for his perennial good luck charm, Dick Miller. The special effects are nicely done, especially the realization of the bizarro dream world visited at the climax. Everything about the film feels well-judged and made with care.
While The Hole undoubtedly raises its fair share of hackles, you do get a sense of it pulling back right at the brink of too much terror. Part of me wishes Dante would have gone there, over that edge, but it's clear he was aiming at a younger audience and so is keeping things more controlled. There's still enough spooky stuff here to send younger and more impressionable viewers cowering under their blankets.
The Hole was originally filmed in 3D, and it's clear from watching the 2D version that Dante and company set up a wide variety of cool effects shots, both subtle and deliberate, that would increase the "wow" factor exponentially if viewed in its proper format. The film's unfortunate lack of exposure has kept it from becoming even a modest hit, which is too bad, as it's a good piece of work and Dante deserves better treatment. Now that it's finally made its way to DVD, it at least has a chance to be seen by a wider audience.
Give it a chance. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
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