(SPOILERS) There was a six-year gap Joe Dante’s previous feature and The Hole (it was also six years between Matinee and Small Soldiers, five between that and Looney Tunes: Back in Action), although the intervening period had seen one of his most acclaimed efforts landing on the small screen, the Masters of Horror episode Homecoming. While both ostensibly saw the director return to the horror genre where he made his name, they would also tread lightly on a feature that had been his stock in-trade: comedy. That isn't to say The Hole doesn't have laughs, but it’s much straighter than anything the Dante had assembled for the big screen since… Well, The Howling probably.
And, while there is much to enjoy in The Hole (perhaps not so much next door neighbour Haley Bennett’s continued Sid James-esque innuendos with regard to looking at her neighbours’ hole, such that it’s entirely appropriate when a talking Cartman toy is later lowered into it), there is a nagging feeling that it's absent the key ingredient that makes a great Joe Dante film a great Joe Dante film. It’s much more traditional in form than The Howling, both in its quality of humour and narrative.
As a piece of filmmaking, though, this is as surefooted and confident as the director has ever been, and the work of new collaborators such as composer Javier Navarrete and cinematographer Theo van de Sande seamlessly complement his past form. It’s a shame then, that its biggest innovation passed virtually unnoticed. Unreleased in the US at a time, when post-converted 3D was at its zenith (stand up, or rather hang heads in shame Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland), The Hole was unable to billet itself a proper cinematic tenure, and died an undeserved death. Since it won the 3D award at the Venice Film Festival, this counts as a particular scandal, with Dante’s approach to the canvas being one of extension rather than in-your-face tactics (the opening pull back from a car exhaust pipe recalls the macro opening to Innerspace).
There isn't all that much you’d say stood out in Mark L Smith’s screenplay (recently of The Revenant, and formerly of Vacancy), which charts a familiar line in creepy goings-on in the basement and confrontation with one’s worst fears. There are bits of everything from The Gate to A Nightmare on Elm Street to Flatliners and Ringu here, albeit within a very PG-13/12 certificate safety zone, and Dante creates a potent atmosphere, particularly during the first two-thirds, before the exact nature of the encounters becomes clear and the force loses its gusto.
An early shock moment is perhaps the best, as Teri Polo’s mum comes home to find the kids watching the playback of a video they made by plunging a camera into the bottomless pit. They turn as one to greet her, while she is oblivious that the distorted eye staring out from the screen represents anything ominous.
The logistics of the endless dark are nicely sketched out, from the creepiness of being home alone with a clown doll (of course) or a Ring-like girl (actually played by a boy, Quinn Lord) shuffling inexorably forward in a dimly lit ladies’ room. A scene in the open air, as the trio frolic in Julie’s (Bennett) swimming pool, is filled with menace; unseen hands pull Lucas (Nathan Gamble) below, and Dane (Chris Massoglia) glimpses an immense figure above through the water. Then there’s the sketch book, pages pieced together as giant frieze, recalling The X-Files episode Conduit. While these are all played for chills, Dante’s playfulness gets the better of him with the clown attack; it begins throwing out one-liners, as if transformed into a demented amalgam of Spike and Chip Hazard.
Unlike Final Destination, this force doesn't just keep on coming. Once fears are conquered, the threat ceases. Dane’s, that of his father, forms the climactic set piece, as he dives into the hole to rescue his brother. There, he enters an intermittently effective, semi-virtual dreamscape (the over-sized furniture is definitely a plus). While the picture lends itself to the menace returning (mom’s afraid of the monster under her bed), the brevity of the picture suits the slight composition and idea.
Dante wastes no time getting the hole open, swiftly and economically establishing the new home of the family and their next door neighbour Julie (Bennett). As usual, he casts his picture, and especially his young faces, very naturally. Dante’s facility for eliciting strong performances from his youthful casts is much undervalued, and this joins the ranks of Gremlins, Explorers, Eerie, Indiana and Matinee as another home-run. There’s never any question that this family unit, with its shorthand and intimacy and teasing, is a real one, and likewise Dante has an easy affinity for the teenage condition, its neuroses and obsessions. Also, as with other films in his oeuvre, the kids occupy a markedly separate world to the oblivious adults (even the oversized kids in The ‘Burbs do).
Creepy Carl: Nobody built the hole. The hole has been there since the world’s first scream. And now it’s going to come for us. The darkness is going to come for all of us.
While the Dante repertory company take a backseat (Dick Miller’s pizza guy doesn't even get to speak), space is reserved for the formidable Bruce Dern, reuniting with his ‘Burbs director two decades on, as the afflicted former resident of the house (the one who secured the locks), now – in a vision recalling the pink office taking up an otherwise deserted floor in Innerspace – hiding out in his rundown glove factory. It is, naturally, called The Glove of Orlac. We find him surrounded by every form of amped up light bulb, sketching furiously (Dane also doodles, and we can see this tendency to the toonish in Dante’s heroes as far back as Billy Peltzer). We don't learn what becomes of him, but a little Bruce goes a long way.
What might rather sadly be a sign of the times, or a filmmaker perhaps past his best, is that The Hole feels a little lacking for a Dante film. While he adapts to the material with the flair of one of Creepy Carl’s finely fashioned gloves, one has been spoiled to expect inimitable subtext, in-jokes permeating every scene, wry commentary on social and political mores, and an overriding knowingness. The Hole, like Homecoming, can be taken at face value, and while it’s an accomplished, entertaining effort, it says something about the force of Dante’s personality that we have come to expect more from him.