I did a little research on The Hole before going in. It seemed to feature child protagonists, so the chances of it being a hard horror movie seemed slim, but it was under the horror tab and to honest, I could go for a breather on Sunday. This movie is directed by Joe Dante, the man behind Gremlins and premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, so it had a little pedigree behind it. After giggling about the name for the better part of five minutes, I finally pressed play and delved into 2009's The Hole.
For the first time all week, I was spared from a cold open as the titles popped up right away. The camera seems to zoom backwards through various famous holes before introducing us to the tail pipe of a car and the kids we'll be following: Dane and his younger brother Lucas have just moved into a new home with their mother for the deliberately vague reasons typical to “New kid on the block” style stories. Lucas seems eager to explore the neighbourhood, but Dane would rather huddle up in his room, eating pizza while listening to music and texting one person at a time with his ancient-ass flip phone.
Oh, what a time 2009 was.
I immediately begin to dislike Dane, our supposed hero of the story. His surly attitude towards his little brother, his “this is totally my natural, manly speaking voice” tone and generally flat performance doesn't do much to endear me to him. His character seems to fall into the trap of trying to write and portray a moody teen. If you give him too little drama, he comes off as unusually mature and above any developmental crises he might confront in the story. If you make him a little TOO grouchy and emotional, like Dane is in this film, then he seems like an unpleasant, self-absorbed prick and the audience doesn't want to see good things happen to him. On top of that, I don't think this kid is a very good actor, which is a shame, because the guy playing his brother is refreshingly charismatic and cute. Lucas impressed me early on by how un-irritating his character is, often serving to be proactive and acting as the voice of comic relief or naive sensibility. He comes off as a pretty tough kid for his age, even unflinchingly walking a box down into the house's spooky as balls basement without much hesitance, at least until he's actually down there.
After getting a minor spook and faceplanting into a box, Lucas flees upstairs. He attempts to play with Dane, who uses this as an opportunity to come off as a total jerk in front of a nice-looking girl across the street, played by Budget Jennifer Lawrence, and Dane's propensity for sketching comes to light. It is showcased that night when he spies in on a pool party in The Girl Next Door's backyard, sketching her in a bikini. Dude! You're a pretty good artist! Use your powers for good! Again, if he was any nicer to the people around him, this scene might be a little charming in an odd way, painting Dane as a sheltered, artistic type. This just makes him look like a creepy antisocial weirdo.
The next day he's back to staring, and Lucas has finally had enough. He sprints over the backyard and introduces himself, leading Dane to decide that this child must die. Their roughhousing finally leads to downstairs and the discovery of a trapdoor. Finding a small ring of keys nearby, they pop the locks off and swing it open, revealing the eponymous Hole. They exchange a few Hole jokes, then like any sensible young boys would do with a newly discovered hole, the brothers proceed to toss stuff in it, trying to listen for it to hit bottom. When it appears to be bottomless, they lower a flashlight in, which is just kind of...eaten by something. The girl, finally named Julie, shows up and the Hole jokes continue as they continue to chuck stuff in there. Finally, they get the idea to drop a camera down into the void and reel it back up.
The footage is mostly blackness, while Julie explains that the hole most likely belongs to the previous owner of the house, a man named Creepy Carl. Eventually, the video of Carl's Hole reveals what looks like an odd, out of focus fleshy shape. They turn the tape off as their mom comes home, avoiding getting brained over the head by an “Abyss gazes back” metaphor when the image on the TV behind them morphs into a leering eye.
The following day, Dane and Julie chat each other up about the odd nights that they had while Lucas plays a game that I could make a joke about being a bland, copyright-safe generic sci-fi shooter, but actually just looks like No Man's Sky. He hears a noise upstairs and heads up to find-
CloWN. CREEPY CLOWN. I WAS NOT EXPECTING A CREEPY CLOWN DOLL. Screw the enigmatic, fear of the unknown bullshit! We've got clowns!
To be honest, this comes so completely out of left field it actually gave me a good shock, if only because I did not even remotely expect it. Lucas thinks that the clown is a prank by Dane and tries to ditch it in his room, but Slappy here starts to mess with him, doing the old “Move while you're not looking and throwing stuff around” soft shoe until Lucas finally manages to lock it in the basement. Julie and Dane's yes-no date gets interrupted by a freaky ghost girl in the ladies bathroom and this movie starts to get genuinely scary. Dane heads home, freaking out his brother with the horror-movie mainstay of sneaking up and grabbing his shoulder from out of frame like a psycho, and they all get to watch the ghost girl from earlier creep downstairs and slide into the hole. The way that she moves is very eerie, making me think that she was shot moving backwards and the footage was reversed. It's around here that I figured that the point of the Hole is that it summons forth childhood fears into the real world. Lucas is freaked out by clowns, Julie has a mysterious child haunting her, and Daniel doesn't have an avatar of his fear because he doesn't have a personality.
A pretty hilarious jump cut immediately leaps from the trio of freaked out kids standing in darkness to the basement completely blanketed in Christmas lights and all three of them armed and dressed in scavenged body armour. Just because you have a mysterious ghost hole in your basement doesn't mean you can't play it smart. Theories bounce around from doorway for the dead, to wormhole, to portal to hell from Julie, who's been reading her Dante. Their attempts to close the door are thwarted by the disappearance of the locks, leading them to shove a hefty crate over the hole. The kids are remarkably casual about living in a haunted house and we get a brief scene with Mom and some Nice Guy that she seems to be dating. We get a set up for her ex husband and she explains that a new job means that she'll be spending even LESS time in the house! YAY!
The next morning, the crate has been shoved aside, and while looking for something to bind the trapdoor with, we finally get a little bit of development with Dane when he finds an oversized belt with a heavy looking buckle. Gee, wonder what that's supposed to represent.
They nail the door shut and head out to talk to Freaky Freddy, or Creepy Carl, or whatever. Turns out he lives in an abandoned theme park, because when your name's Scary Terry, there aren't a lot of options for you. They find him surrounded by light and diligently at work...painting eyeballs? When they inform him of the situation Horrible Henry seems furious. He is very upset that they took the locks off the door, even though he was storing the keys about five feet away from the damn thing. The way he describes it, The Hole is something primordial, existing since “The first Scream”. What, so...1996?
The kids bug out of there and whatever resides within The Hole forces the nails out. The next morning, he realizes that he dropped his sketchbook back at Magic Mike's place and goes to retrieve it, only to find that what ever darkness resides within the hole has claimed him in the night. A series of blurry scribblings have been left behind in Dane's book, which he grabs and heads back home with. Back at Julie's place, a much needed pool party is interrupted by the appearance of some muddy guy and an unknown assailant that tries to drown Lucas. The hauntings get worse that night, as Dane hears a chilling whistle that leads him downstairs to a letter sent from the New Jersey Penitentiary. Ominous.
Lucas has a brief fright with a mutilated police officer who claims to be looking for two girls in a photo before disappearing back into the hole. Lucas and Dave manage to figure out that one girl in the photo is the ghost who has been following them, and the other is a young Julie. They get to her house as she is fleeing the phantom, who's name turns out to be Annie Smith. She's haunted not by memory, but guilt. Julie runs back to the amusement park with Dane right behind her, telling his brother to wait there, just...out in the open.
Julie finally confronts the ghost of her friend, revealing that she fell off of the top of a roller coaster they were playing on, along with a police man that tried to rescue them. Julie was too scared to help either of them, but she comes clean with Annie's ghost, who forgives her and vanishes. Dane prevents her from taking a tumble of her own and the two hug.
But wait! You left your brother standing in the middle of the street in the middle of the night you shit! Lucas gets lured back into the house by a voice claiming to be his brother, and the clown is back! And man, did he get a lot less scary now that he's actually moving around. It's just a little dude trying to mess with you at this point. This is why I never thought the Child's Play movies were very freaky; it's hard to be afraid of something that you could fuck up with a swift kick. A lot of Gremlins shows through in this sequence, when Lucas fights the dumb clown puppet, eventually tricking it into a vent fan, reducing the thing to scraps of cotton and wood. Dane and Julie arrive home, believing the entire matter to be concluded. The older brother retreats upstairs, finally assembling the puzzle with Julie's help. It turns out to depict the image of a large man with stringy hair grabbing a child, just as the same man appears in Lucas's room. How exactly did Oogie Boogie predict that? Seems like a pretty big leap in logic. Granted, Dane is one big pile of daddy issues, so maybe he just read it off of him.
Dane runs to his brother's room, concluding that the Hole's purpose is to bring your fears to life, and realizes that the man has taken Lucas with him, into the Hole. Dane reveals in a panic as he prepares to go in after his brother that the large man that has been haunting him is his father, an abusive alchoholic that has been locked in prison for the last ten years. The reason the family is constantly moving is that they have to every time the father finds out where they live and sends them a letter. With a remarkably cavalier attitude for someone who is about to dive into sheer oblivion, Dane leaps into the hole, his life line snapping almost immediately.
The inside of the Hole makes sense, though it is a tad disappointing for something as vague and all-encompassing as some sort of fear dimension. It's just warped locations drawn from Dane and Lucas's memories, forming a sort of Tim Burton fun house with a lot of fog on the ground. Dane rescues Lucas, who was grabbed in order to lure him there and tells him to climb out of the Hole via a conveniently massive book case, and finally confronts the ghoulish monster of his father.
Also, what IS it with every single writer from the 80's having daddy issues? Either he's abusive, or he isn't there, or you have to prove yourself to him, or have to acknowledge that your life is going in a different direction from him. Film protagonists can have other crises you know. The Father starts to sort of knock Dane around for a bit, all while Dane tries to say that he's not afraid of him. I guess that whole “Conquering your fears through the power of belief” jam isn't quite as effective when your fear is getting the crap kicked out of you. Finally, Dane acknowledges WHY he is afraid of his father as the factors that made him monstrous fade away leaving him as what he truly is: an ordinary man. Or a ghost, or image or hallucination or something. I mean, they might have to move again if the ACTUAL dad ever finds them again, but it's a happy ending for now. Dane climbs out of the Hole, Dante-style and the three reunite as mom comes home. They try to explain their adventure, only to find that the hole has closed up. The mother leads them back upstairs as she mentions that it's okay to be afraid of things every once in a while, just like she was afraid of a monster under her bed when she was a girl. The brothers exchange a look as the Hole flies back open...
The Hole has a few unexpected frights, but is definitely on the lighter side of horror films. It is a movie that is all about confronting childhood fears, so it rarely feels like there is a genuine threat. The Silent Hill -for-kids conclusion doesn't really carry the same weight as the aformentioned game or something like Over The Garden Wall due to the very on the nose representation and lack of abstraction. The whole thing comes off as more like an extended episode of Goosebumps than an exploration of the root of fear. Dane's fear comes from childhood trauma and Julie's comes from guilt, forcing them to confront and absolve them, whereas Lucas is younger and thus has a more irrational fear of clowns, which he just has to prove can be beaten. Creepy Carl is just dead or trapped in Terror Hell forever I guess. This movie is a fun, well made scary flick intended for more of a family audience, but that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable for some decent spooks.