Fear Strikes Out
by Michael Koresky

The Hole
Joe Dante, U.S., Big Air Studios

Premiered over a year ago at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and now getting a showcase at the 2010 New York Film Festival, Joe Dante’s The Hole is becoming a real tale from the crypt. And it’s cobwebby in more ways than one. A clunky, rattling toy chest of tired horror tropes, The Hole will nevertheless win over the Gremlins and Matinee mastermind’s devoted fans (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Rosenbaum!), and maybe a few brave tots in the bargain. The disconcertingly uncomplicated plot goes something like this: Three relatively obnoxious, extraordinarily white kids—tow-haired and whiny little Lucas (Mason Gamble) and his older brother, Dane (Chris Massoglia, who with his perfectly mussed Efron hair and gym-toned body, hardly looks like the troubled loner he’s meant to be), and Julie (Haley Bennett), the literal girl next door and Hayden Panettiere lookalike who’s always wearing cleavage-hugging tops when she’s not teasingly sunbathing in the backyard—find a steel-locked trap door in the basement of Lucas and Dane’s new house. The boys have just moved in and are having trouble adjusting to this new suburban dullsville; amidst summertime torpor, the three get curious about that forbidden passageway and investigate, while the boys’ mom is out working late shifts at the hospital (do single movie moms have any other job?). Underneath there’s a pit that is quite clearly a portal to another dimension, if one takes into consideration its apparent bottomlessness and proclivity to make the kids’ greatest fears come to life. It takes a while for the kids to figure this out, even after bloody-eyed, monotone-voiced little girls (well, hello, Ring!) and wicked, devil-faced clown puppets (hey, Poltergeist, long time no see!) begin to haunt, and, in some cases, attack them.

As a fairly archetypal kids’ story of overcoming fears, The Hole has built-in thematic heft, for sure, but there’s no new twist here; often it feels like Dante’s just going through the motions, with little visual wit to compensate. Even as a jack-in-the-box thriller, it doesn’t seem particularly effective or elegantly constructed. The scenes between Gamble and the evil clown doll lack the spatial coherence and tension of nearly every other film incarnation of this common childhood fear (Child’s Play included); Julie’s confrontations with the ethereal little ghost girl (who’s, natch, a manifestation of her guilt over having let her friend fall from a roller coaster during childhood—flashes of Flatliners) are pale J-horror knockoffs; and Dane’s thread, concerning his need to overcome the memory of his abusive convict father, who here assumes the guise of a frightening, distorted giant with an immense whipping belt, is pure Oedipal schlock—even if the black-and-white German expressionism–inspired art direction that accompanies their final showdown does finally push the film into the realm of the appealingly surreal.

The appealingly harebrained quality of the best of Dante’s horror work—consider the genuinely gruesome kitchen scenes in Gremlins, which made cruel Looney Tunes mayhem frighteningly flesh and blood; the menacing, grotesque perversion of the rabbit-in-the-hat trick in his surreal segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie; the extravagant satirical bliss of Gremlins 2: The New Batch; the cheeky play on 1950s monster-movie nostalgia in Matinee—is almost completely missing here. While the film’s conceit is a promising one—of an unfathomable terror gripping the kinds of teenage characters Hollywood normally presents as well-adjusted—Dante and screenwriter Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) fall back on some seriously moldy ideas, dully dramatized, and the kids are ultimately as anonymous as the depressingly impersonal suburb they inhabit. Mostly, The Hole comes across like an extended episode of Amazing Stories, and in its flat even lighting and setting it’s reminiscent of Dante’s 1987 installment of that highly uneven Spielberg series, The Greible, a Harry and the Hendersons–type paean to comic book imagination starring Hayley Mills as a harried mom dealing with a destructive but benign creature in her living room that amounted to little more than a special effects showcase.

Which reminds me, I haven’t yet mentioned that The Hole is shot in 3D. A nice marketing ploy, perhaps, to get families in to see a non-franchise movie with no stars (when it finally gets released, that is), but the muddy three-dimensional effects in The Hole come across as purely gimmicky, whereas the similarly themed and plotted Coraline (also about a kid who moves to a new town only discover a portal to another world in her forbidding new house) used the technique to lustrous, expressive effect. So here we get such Friday the 13th 3-D¬–level inanities as baseballs being lobbed at the camera and handfuls of nails being tossed down the hole, directly at us slack-jawed observers (open wide!). Like the recycled plot and images throughout, they’re illustrations of the film’s basic lack of imagination, and furthermore enhance the sense that Dante is just randomly throwing stuff at the screen.