Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 29, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2009)

18. The Hole

At the end of the last decade, there was a brief resurgent in interest in 3D films. James Cameron and a bunch of other producers thought 3D was going to change the way we watch movies. Instead, it cause theaters to charge more to watch a blurrier version of movies. During this rush of interest in three-dimensional film, Dante was able to get his first feature in seven years funded. As frequently happens with independent films, “The Hole” had trouble getting released. By the time “The Hole” was released, the 3D fad was over. This left the movie few release avenues to take advantage of. That “The Hole” would not be widely seen is disappointing, as reviewers agreed it was Dante's best film in quite a while.

Teenager Dane Thompson, his little brother Lucas, and their mom have just moved to the small, midwestern suburb of Bensenville. Dane is annoyed by leaving his old friends behind and the lack of things to do around town. Aside from the pretty girl next door, named Julie, he's bored. When arguing with Lucas, Dane accidentally uncover a strange trap door in the basement. Undoing the locks, the trio of kids discover it's a seemingly bottomless pit. Afterwards, strange things begin to happen around the house. Lucas is stalked by a creepy clown doll. Julie keeps seeing a mysterious little ghost girl. Dane soon realizes that, by opening the hole, they have unleashed a dark force into their home.

“The Hole” is an unapologetic example of “throwback horror.” The movie wears its influences on its sleeve. The premise plays a bit like a kid-friendly version of Kathe Koja's “The Cipher.” One scene in particular, where Dane sinks an entire spool of fishing wire into the hole without hitting bottom, was definitely inspired by the Mel's Hole urban legend. There's a spooky clown doll, an element obviously taken from “Poltergeist,” while the idea of kid stumbling upon a portal to hell under their house recalls “The Gate.” (And, Dante being Dante, he makes sure to include some classic horror references, such as a brief appearance from Gorgo and a sign featuring the words “Hands of Orlac.”) None of this is a complaint, as the film's mixture of kid-friendly adventure and spooky but not defanged thrills is a breath of fresh air in a film landscape that rarely caters to the audience of horror-loving young ones.

Inevitably, any movie paying homage to kid-friendly horror will recall Dante's own eighties classic. “The Hole” is awash in Dante's classic themes. Much like “Gremlins” or “Explorers,” the film's idyllic small town setting is soon beset by something darker. As the Hole calls upon the fears of the home's inhabitants, it ends up drudging up the dark side of small town life. Like an abusive parent or a tragic accidental death that nobody talks about. “Gremlins,” in particular, was an obvious influence. Especially in the scene where a boy is attacked by a cackling, diminutive horror. The scenes of an older brother bantering and arguing with his little brother also reminds me of “Matinee.” It's refreshing to see the director's interests are still so strong after so many years.

“The Hole” is definitely a kids' movie, even if it has more in common with “The Monster Squad” than “Monster House.” Like a lot of kiddy horror flicks, the film has a moral. The Hole causes the family's worst fears to manifest. Naturally, the best solution to conquering these phantoms is to stand up to them. Yet the approach makes this typical kid-friendly message come off a little deeper than usual. Dane's fear is his abusive dad, who used to yank him from the closest he'd hide in and whip him with a belt. Dane's especially haunted by an incident where their dad left Lucas bruised, something the younger boy can't even remember. Julie, meanwhile, is traumatized by seeing her childhood best friend die. These deeply traumatizing events resurfaces in their lives, like bad memories that never go away. The horrific experience has them overcoming this emotional trauma, making “The Hole” a deceptively deep film about living with PTSD.

Unlike so many kids films that feel insincere and insincere, “The Hole” nails the dueling feelings of sibling rivalry and love. Dane and Lucas annoy the shit out of each other. The edgy teenager wants to hide in his room and doodles in his notebook. The little brother wants someone to pay attention to him, to play basketball or games with him. So the two get on each other's nerves, acting out and frequently roughhousing. Yet they also genuinely love each other, seen in the sweet scenes where Dane allows Lucas to sleep on his bedroom floor. The familial relations in general are handled really well. Dane's mom adorably calls her son “Smudge,” clearly showing him affection even if her job doesn't have her at home as often as she'd like to be. It's cute stuff and well handled.

Helping sell this emotional connection is a likable young cast. Chris Massoglia would star in “The Vampire's Assistant” after this, which seemed to prime him for teen movie stardom. While Massoglia has the heartthrob good looks, he's not so handsome that it's distracting. Moreover, he's also a pretty good actor. Ready with a cocksure smile but able to convey deeper emotion, he's a solid lead to build the film upon. Nathan Gamble is never annoying as Lucas. In fact, he's charming, maintaining that childish energy without overdoing it. Haley Bennett has the right balance of beauty, smart alack wit, and deeper pathos as girl-next-door Julie. You really enjoy watching these three play off each other and have adventures.

The cast is fairly close knit, focusing on these central characters. However, there are a few prime supporting parts here. Teri Polo comes off as so genuinely sweet as Susan, the boys' mom. She shows a real warmth towards both of them while also having more personality than the part probably required. Bruce Dern, making his third appearance in a Dante film, has a nice role as Creepy Carl, the previous owner of the accursed house. Dern clearly has a good time getting to ham it up as the seemingly crazy old man, even if the part doesn't amount to much more than exposition. Though the film is disappointingly low on Dante's regular players – No Robert Picardo or Belinda Belaski – but he does sneak a silent Dick Miller in as a pizza delivery guy.

Something really admirable about “The Hole” is that it's a horror movie totally suitable for the twelve-and-under crowd, with no gore or explicit content, without being completely fangless. Dante's direction is nicely atmospheric, as he makes the shadowy corners of the suburban home really pop. A nice subtle effect has the illusions cast by the hole moving in jerky, unnatural fashions. This gives them a very eerie appearance, especially when they're shown crawling in and out of the pit. The encounters with the spooky ghost girl probably should've been campy and lame, as it's the kind of scare a hundred other movies have done before. Yet Dante engineers it well, building suspense, making good use of shadows, and not limping off with a weak jump scare.

By the far the best of “The Hole's” spooky scenes are those devoted to the clown doll. Evil clowns may be an overdone horror cliche but this is a clever take on it. The jester doll has a habit of appearing suddenly in locations where it's not wanted, a nice touch. This builds towards Lucas and the small demon having a stand-off. There's a little CGI in this scene but the doll is mostly animated using stop motion, giving it an especially unearthly and eerie sense of movement. The way it cackles and taunt its intended victim reminds me of “Gremlins” in the best way, Dante clearly enjoying a chance to revisit his favorite style of monster. (The little kind.) It's another really well shot scene too, in a dark blue basement flooded with darkness.

However, “The Hole” can only resist the ease and scope of CGI for so long. In its last third, the heroes inevitably descend down into the Hole. They arrive in a shadowy netherworld that has a kind of cool expressionistic look to it. Soon though, the film starts to pile on the deliberately artificial environment to a point that it becomes distracting. By the end, when Dane is floating through a foggy shadow-world full of drifting platforms, the movie had lost sight of itself a little bit. The movie goes big at the end when it should've gone even smaller than before, really circling in on the trauma at the center of the story.

For a movie designed to be watched in 3-D, “The Hole” is thankfully low on the kind of eye-gouging you expect from this particular gimmick. Yeah, there's a few sweeping camera shots, leading us down into the Hole or through some piping. That floating scene at the end is especially guilty of this. Yet, otherwise, “The Hole” seems to work just as well when watched flat as when experienced in three dimensions. Dante uses the technology well, rarely drawing undue attention to it.

As I said, “The Hole” ended up sitting on the shelf for a three years, eventually getting a small release after the public's interest in this new 3-D had already peaked. Combined with a generic title – at least two other films share it – and it seems the film was generally overlooked. Yet I would encourage Dante fans to definitely check it out. It has the spirit and hum of his eighties classic while providing a similar sense of fun. Those who have watched it generally agree that “The Hole” is a return to form after quite a while in the wilderness for the filmmaker. [Grade: B+]

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