The Hole (2009)

Joe Dante has spent most of his career making quietly subversive exploitation films.  Movies like Piranha, The Howling, The Burbs, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Small Soldiers, Matinee, and his segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, while meeting genre requirements, also gently poke fun at different aspects of American culture. From commercial overdevelopment of land to news-media manipulation to the industrial-military complex, these films managed to satirically hit their targets with a minimum of fuss and a light touch that kept the message from overwhelming the entertainment value.  That these are also his best films is not much of a surprise.  Not to take anything away from films like Explorers, Innerspace, or the unfairly maligned Looney Tunes: Back in Action, but there is a sense of anarchic fun missing when Dante turns his attention toward more family-based studio fare.  The feeling that the director is slipping something past the gatekeepers of mainstream entertainment is just not present in these films and makes them feel just a bit less fun.  Dante’s first feature film (not counting some wrap-around sequences he directed for the anthology oddity Trapped Ashes) since Looney Tunes lost a ton of money and nearly ended his career almost ten years ago, The Hole is a solid, family-friendly horror film that is unfortunately lacking in the subversive department and therefore, feels just a little threadbare.

The film starts out strongly with the old standby of a new family moving to a small town.  This time around the family is made up of single mother, Susan (Teri Polo), her sullen teenaged son, Dane (Chris Massoglia), and younger son, Lucas (Nathan Gamble).  Some perfunctory exposition is laid out that the family has to move often, but the reason is kept a mystery.  Of course, Susan is bound to make this move stick.

In the creepy basement of their rented house, Dane and Lucas find a door in the floor that is kept closed with several large locks.  A brief search of the basement turns up the keys and before they can even consider that maybe the door was locked for a good reason, the boys open it.  What they find is the titular opening that extends beneath the house to an unknown depth.  In a clever sequence, the boys, along with Julie (Haley Bennett), the girl-next-door and potential love interest for Dane, explore the hole by tying a video camera to a rope and lowering it into the unknown.  What they discover is that the hole is seemingly bottomless and may or may not contain…something.  What that something might be is purposely kept vague.

The first forty-five minutes of The Hole are quite good, filled with spooky sequences of disturbing occurrences and images haunting Dane, Lucas, and Julie that they determine have something to do with the hole.  These moments are punctuated by a bravura sequence featuring the former tenant of the house, a character aptly named Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern).  Frightened out of his wits, he has taken up residence in an abandoned factory where he surrounds himself with hundreds of light bulbs.  To say anymore about his scenes would be spoiling a terrific and truly frightening turn of events.

But after setting up an emotionally sincere dynamic between the three kids and ratcheting up the tension as they try to figure out what has followed them out of the hole, the film suddenly loses steam.  The script by Mark L. Smith suffers from lapses of internal logic and the whole film threatens to collapse on itself during an overblown subplot that goes past homage to practically swiping a famous scene from Poltergeist.

In the end, the film is salvaged by the honest and complicated relationship between Dane and Lucas.  As the reasons for the family’s constant moves and Dane’s particular haunting are revealed, The Hole displays a bigger heart and a more serious undertone than is expected as Dante and Smith pay off the questions they set up in the first act with a satisfying climax rooted as much in character as it is in a big action set piece.

The film was shot in 3D, but I saw the film in 2D.  Aside from some shots obviously framed to take advantage of the extra dimension, I do not feel I missed out on anything.  This is largely due to Dante’s graceful direction.  The tone of the film feels like a throwback to the family-friendly horror films of the ’80s and Dante shoots it in much the same manner.  Stylish without being flashy, the film is shot and edited in a way that emphasizes patience, allowing tension to build from the performances and subtle gestures.  It’s nice to see such an old-fashioned approach to genre filmmaking that avoids quick-cutting and herky-jerky camera movements to create a false sense of intensity.

It’s not a perfect film, but The Hole showcases Dante as an impeccable craftsman.  Unfortunately, it’s had a difficult time finding distribution.  Filmed in 2009, it’s just now receiving a limited theatrical run in the United States.  If it’s playing near you, it’s worth checking out as satisfying piece of entertainment and to support a great, old school director like Dante.

Note: Look for the great Dick Miller in a cameo as the pizza deliveryman.

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