Having once again reluctantly moved house with their mother Susan (Teri Polo), teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia) and younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) relieve their boredom by unlatching the numerous and very large locks on a trap door they uncover in their new basement. Along with next-door neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett), Dane and Lucas become increasingly curious about the strange and seemingly bottomless hole they uncover. Where does it go? What is in it?
Like Pandora’s Box, the hole that Dane and Lucas discover contains all the evils of the world. More specifically, the hole contains something that appears in a different form to whomever it torments based on their most primal fears. As Joe Dante films go (Gremlins, Innerspace), The Hole is a relatively straightforward genre piece without any of his distinctively overt political and social critique. Instead, Dante uses the scenario to deliver a kid-friendly ghost story that ultimately derives its scares not from the supernatural, but from the fears and anxieties associated with a particular type of broken family.
While Dante has been frequently compared to Steven Spielberg, and indeed made some of his most successful films in various collaborations with him, in The Hole Dante arguably takes Spielberg’s familiar divorced-family kid protagonists into far darker territory. The Hole gradually introduces its domestic violence theme to deliver an extra layer of potency that is not often found in a film of this nature. The result is a fun and frequently scary genre film grounded by a pleasingly empowering message about inner strength.
It is a shame that in Australia The Hole has gone to DVD without a full theatrical release as it contains a similar appeal to JJ Abrams’s Super 8. Both films evoke the type of smart yet crowd-pleasing American cinema that was made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and aimed at a young adult audience. The major difference is that while Super 8 was a calculated exercise in nostalgically recreating the mood and style of such films, in The Hole Dante is simply doing what he has always been doing. The Hole has a contemporary setting and nothing in it suggests any deliberate attempt to be retro; it simply contains the same spirit that Dante infused in his earlier films.
A lot of the ‘jump out of your seat’ moments in The Hole are false scares, where something startling suddenly happens, but is quickly revealed to have been harmless. In a lot of current horror films this is a tedious technique that is too frequently reliant on loud sound effects to literally startle the audience, and also too blatantly signposted. The false scare moments in The Hole are much better delivered as they are consistently unexpected and genuinely scary. Dante also knows that stuff lurking off screen is more terrifying than anything onscreen. He’s also very aware that the most terrifying things are those that are familiar to us, but presented in an unfamiliar way.
While the presence of a homicidal clown puppet and a creepy little girl are all familiar horror creations, Dante still makes them work. The Hole really comes into its own towards the end when we visit a macabre otherworld, which visually strongly evokes the afterlife waiting room scenes from Beetlejuice and reveals Dante’s full creative powers. Insidious concluded in a similar way, but The Hole displays far more flair and narrative tension making it a fun kids horror film that may be a minor work for Dante, but still very satisfying.