Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Film Review: THE HOLE (2010, Joe Dante)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Chris Massoglia (CIRQUE DU FREAK), Haley Bennett (KABOOM, MUSIC & LYRICS), Nathan Gamble (THE DARK KNIGHT, THE MIST), Teri Polo (MEET THE PARENTS, MYSTERY DATE), Bruce Dern (THE 'BURBS, SILENT RUNNING, FAMILY PLOT), Dick Miller (THE TERMINATOR, GREMLINS).  Cinematography by Theo van de Sande (WAYNE'S WORLD, MIRACLE MILE).  Written by Mark L. Smith (VACANCY, VACANCY 2). Directed by Joe Dante (GREMLINS, GREMLINS 2, EERIE INDIANA).
Tag-line: "It knows your deepest fears."
Best one-liner:  "Nobody built the hole!  The hole has been there since the world's first scream!"

I had pretty low expectations for THE HOLE.  I had seen too many beloved 80s horror directors fall victim to runaway CGI, slashed budgets, and the other side effects of the digital era to think otherwise.   Joe Dante's last theatrical feature was 2003's LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION, and THE HOLE (despite being in 3-D) struggled to find distribution for nearly three years– neither of which boded well.  Furthermore, Dante's slight contribution to the largely terrible TRAPPED ASHES did not inspire confidence, but, dammit, I should have known better–  he did make it through two seasons of MASTERS OF HORROR relatively unscathed and emerged with one mini-masterpiece (HOMECOMING).  As to THE HOLE:  I'm sorry I doubted ya, Joe!

What we have here is a pretty solid "scrappy suburban kids versus unspeakable evil" movie in the tradition of THE GATE, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, SILVER BULLET, THE MONSTER SQUAD, and FRIGHT NIGHT, among others.  This being 2013, its success is largely dependent on three important elements of faint praise which in an earlier era would not even need to be addressed:

#1.  The kids are not too annoying, airbrushed, or overly dull.

#2.  Bad CGI is kept to a minimum.

#3.  It tries for a sense of childlike wonder instead of corporate soullessness uncomfortably packaged as "cynicism."

[As a side note, I hold it in a higher regard than another recent, commercially successful film that attempted this vibe (SUPER 8), and though that film succeeded at #1 & #3, it failed miserably at #2, its third act revealing the "monster" and becoming a muddle of groan-inducing CGI reminiscent of the TRANSFORMERS films.]

I've always thought that the best kiddie fiction (from ALICE IN WONDERLAND to CORALINE) involves some combination of parallel dimensions and child abuse, and Dante delivers on both fronts, presenting a more mature children's piece.  It's not as good as GREMLINS or EERIE, INDIANA, sure, but it certainly tackles child abuse with a degree of empathy and sophistication that's not often seen– I was recalling the subtle hints toward Simon's abuse in EERIE, INDIANA, the bonds between the boys in EXPLORERS, and the childish sense of menace in Dante's segment of THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE.

A few other things I enjoyed:

Corman/Dante regular and film legend Dick Miller's wordless cameo as an eyebrow-raising pizza deliveryman:

The bits with the POLTERGEIST/TRILOGY OF TERROR/CAT'S EYE-inspired evil clown/jester doll, who, for the most part (thank God!) is a bona fide puppet:

The twisted, cartoonish vibe  of the sets in one sequence, which recall the best of Dante's TWILIGHT ZONE segment, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT:

And, hurrah: the generally deranged Bruce Dern shows up to chew on some scenery 
as some kind of steam-punk, Christopher Lloyd-ish light bulb enthusiast named Creepy Carl who utters foreboding dialogue such as "Nobody built the hole!  The hole has been there since the world's first scream!"
You tell 'em, Bruce!

Anyway, THE HOLE is not a masterpiece, but it's a fun kiddie-horror flick that proves Dante's still got some grit, guts n' gumption left in him, which is good enough for me.

-Sean Gill

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