Director Joe Dante describes The Hole as a throwback to the 80s, and it’s hard to miss the comparisons. It certainly occupies the quieter end of the horror movie street, meant for junior high schoolers and their ilk more than us grizzled gore hounds. But it still produces a few freaky scares – evil clowns will do that – and presents likable and well-developed heroes instead of just leaving us with lazy stereotypes. Its lack of star power kept it out of the game for quite some time, but now that it’s finally here, it proves a sight better than its direct-to-video credentials suggest.
Dante – no stranger to big budget productions – scores with a smaller one because he sticks to the basics. He begins with an intriguing-yet-simple mystery, then gives us an appealing band of characters to explore it. Dane (Chris Massoglia) and his little brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) move into a small town with their single mom (Teri Polo) for reasons that aren’t initially clear. The older boy – resolute in his surly teendom – soon develops a thing for his cute next-door-neighbor Julie (Haley Bennett). The Hole uses the early scenes to help us get to know them. As it turns out, they’re all pretty cool, with the kind of interactions that actual kids have instead of stagey too-cute stuff that most movies fall back on.
At the same time, Dante introduces us to the problem du jour: a trap door in the basement, chained shut with multiple locks and screaming “do NOT look in here” with every fiber of its being. Naturally, the kids take a peak, which as you may suspect, turns out to be a bit of a mistake. (See “evil clowns,” above.)
No one should be surprised by what unfolds once the doorway swings open. Dante avoids the worse of the clichés by focusing the terrors inward rather than giving in to the “kill the demons” scenario he seemed destined to succumb to. The threat rises slowly amid the normal interactions between the three protagonists, giving us time to savor the tension as well as immersing ourselves in their ordinary lives and fears.
The Hole binds it all together exceptionally well, even when the ghosts of the past come knocking it less-than-subtle ways. The scares are prominent, but not traumatic: suitable for the R.L. Stine crowd, with just enough creepiness to keep the rest of us engaged. The Hole was also shot in 3-D – shot properly rather than being upgraded – and while I wouldn’t pay extra for the privilege, Dante knows how to deploy the medium’s “in your face” gimmickry to good effect. Other visual effects range from the passing to the dreadful, but canny presentation prevents it from grating on our nerves too often.
Most importantly, the film retains the director’s signature style, reminding us that auteurs can flourish in an environment where cookie-cutter formula is still the order of the day. The Hole won’t ever rank among his best works – it’s not quite subversive enough to really grab us – but it still marks a welcome return for a director relegated to the sidelines for longer than he deserved. The Twilight saga seems to have become a “baby’s first horror movie” staple, helping tweeners acclimate to the genre before getting hit with the heavy stuff. I might delicately suggest The Hole as a better option: delivered by somebody who knows real horror movies well enough to deploy their elements with care.