Joe Dante’s The Hole (from a script by Mark L. Smith) doesn’t explode off the screen like a Gremlins firecracker or dabble in gory genre-referential antics in the way that made The Howling and Piranha such high-end, low-down fun. And there’s little evidence in this latest film of Dante the satirist who created such tonally disparate films as Small Soldiers, Matinee and The Second Civil War with a spirit of liberal social engagement that makes watching them feel like discovering a really well-spiked punchbowl. It has been observed that Dante, one of the movies’ most naturally, piquantly visual filmmakers (Gremlins 2: The New Batch felt like a great, feature-length Mort Drucker panel), makes movies that already feel as though they’re in 3D. So why bother? Dante answers that question by choosing to use the newly vibrant technology on a small-scaled story (boiled down to its essentials, it’s Three Kids and a Creepy Basement) which allows him to explore 3D not so much as an effects-enhancement tool but one which can be used to expand the boundaries of the story’s emotional pull. (Fans of Dante’s penchant for referencing other films needn’t worry, though; at least one joke involving a certain glove-bound Peter Lorre movie had the audience I saw it with chuckling with appreciation.)
Dante has often spoken of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder as a major influence on how to take what is essentially a chamber piece and artistically enhance it so that the 3D brings out elements of character and emotion that might not have been so direct or accessible otherwise. Here Dante takes a ‘80s horror movie template (the movie The Hole most facilely resembles is the 1987 low-budget hit The Gate) and lends his directorial authority, his mastery of space and pace and the frame, and now what quaintly used to be referred to as "stereovision," to enrich the film’s basic structure. The story involves two young boys and their overworked mother (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble are the boys, Teri Polo is the mom) who have made another in a series of apparently frequent moves, this time into an old house in a small town that the oldest boy (Massoglia) finds unbearably dull. They eventually meet up with a girl from next door (Haley Bennett) and the three of them discover a locked passage which, when opened, reveals an apparently bottomless hole in the basement from which all manner of fearful things, seemingly directly related to each of the children’s most profound fears, begin to emerge.
But more so than with the references and inspiration of other directors and films, I was struck by the way the movie beautifully resonates with one of Dante’s own movies-- Explorers. Both share a dark, often cluttered yet somehow shimmering color palette and a slightly heightened reality--the steps down to that basement never seemed so long as when there’s a ghastly, cackling jester doll at the foot of the stairs, just like the hometown vistas of Explorers, on which a drive-in movie theater seems surrounded by nothing but the most beautiful of night blue. The sullen, introspective Dane, as played by Chris Massoglia, seems a direct descendant of Jason Presson’s troubled Darren, who in Explorers gets involved with a scheme to build a homemade spaceship and send it off in search of the source of a series of strange interstellar signals as a reasonable alternative to spending another night at home with his alcoholic father who, it can reasonably be presumed, indulges in a regular schedule of violent, emotional abuse. There are even images in The Hole that resonate for me with the perversely funny conclusion of Explorers, when our earnest post-Spielbergian heroes realize they been called on their adventure by a couple of alien kids who know nothing of Earth culture other than what they’ve picked up from TV transmissions floating in the void. The party is crashed by a rampaging monster who resembles the alien kids, but who is even bigger than they are. The creature is back-lit, framed by a giant doorway, and he flails his multiple arms in an angry display that confuses everyone but Darren, who recognizes the parental rage right away. “He’s their dad,” he mutters with bemusement, as all remnants of the glowing Spielberg vision of alien visitation delightfully crumble into space dust. The Hole turns that moment of bittersweet comic recognition into a terrifying tableaux from which Dane must escape with his dignity and his sanity intact.
Leave it to Dante to achieve, with funds approximately equal to that of Avatar’s toilet paper budget, what James Cameron, for all of his movie’s overwhelming immersive grandeur, could not—he takes a story which in other hands could have come off as dangerously thin and imbued it with an impish illusion of depth that comes to mirror that of his characters. And there’s something about the way Dante stages the characters moving around in their environments—that basement full of dark corners and barely illuminated objects which might not be what you think they are, but also the more genial, everyday ones like a kitchen or a bedroom, or simply a small-town street—that allows you to experience those environments not as 3D stunts but as something approaching natural, in the way that the eye experiences objects in three-dimensional space. Cameron achieved this too, but there was always something just a little too dazzling and computer-generated going on to constantly remind you (if those 10-ton glasses didn’t already) that for all of its Z-axis verisimilitude, Avatar was just a movie. The most complimentary thing I can think to say about The Hole is that, in the scenes not designed to showcase the technology, it’s easy to forget that the movie is in 3D. But unlike, say, Wes Craven, whose My Soul to Take betrayed no awareness of how to use 3D to the story’s advantage (or much awareness of anything else, like being scary, for that matter), Dante seduces the viewer into an intimacy with these characters—we really do feel as though we are somehow sharing their space— by using the stereoptic qualities of the image to heighten our response not only to the mounting horror, but also to how the characters live their daily lives. This sensitivity to the relatively mundane works joyous wonders on making the grand 3D moments even more effective. It also helps that Dante displays astonishing acuity with the 3D image-- The Hole was staged and shot in 3D; no chintzy conversion job, this. And because we haven’t been constantly dodging Ping-Pong balls and other objects flying at us for the first half hour, when a particular 3D image resonates, it does so in a big way. For instance, the moment we stumble upon the lair of Bruce Dern is a real eye-popper. Dern is the requisite town oddball with more knowledge of that hole than one would think safe. He also seems to be haunted by his own hole-inspired fear, that of the dark, which is why he lives in a warehouse surrounded by hundreds of lamps. Our first exposure to this glittering, haunted warehouse has some of the same effect as seeing hundreds of fireflies flitting before your eyes—the lamps seem to go on forever—which just makes it more chilling when they suddenly all turn off.)
It seems that gazing into that basement hole leaves one susceptible to one’s emotional closets being cleaned and the fears contained therein being trotted out for a final showdown. At precisely the point where the air usually begins to leak out of similar movie enterprises, Dante manages to invest his movie with the kind of emotional urgency that should be the envy of but seems quite beyond most of the current crop of Hollywood shockmeisters. Bennett ends up climbing the tall tower of a dilapidated roller coaster to confront the demon that most plagues her, and the sequence is genuinely unnerving; the imagery has a primal terror to it that is made richer by the use of 3D, and by Dante’s sensitivity to how 3D can be used to accentuate not just depth, but height. Yet the sequence is triply effective because we never lose sight of why that climb is so important to Bennett’s character, a tribute to Dante’s mastery not just of technology but of inspired storytelling. And the movie’s climactic sequence, in which Massoglia faces down his greatest fear—the one that has kept his family on the move from city to city for so long—Dante finds ways to employ dazzling puzzle-logic imagery to make us feel as though we were seeing how a terrified, and newly empowered boy might envision the interior of his own confused mind.
The Hole belongs in American cinemas—it premiered to acclaim and solid box-office in Britain and all over Europe this past fall. Yet the very 3D technology that assured it would be made has now become a hindrance, not so much in securing a distribution deal (of which it has none as of this writing) as in finding screens on which to play it. In the time between the movie’s conception as a 3D project and its completion, the post-Avatar glut of 3D product (and most of it is truly mere product, not movie magic) hit its zenith, making it difficult for an unassuming horror movie like The Hole a technologically enabled place to spin its tale. One can only hope that with European exposure (including raves at the Venice Film Festival) and occasional screenings like the one where I saw it, as the closing night attraction of a 3D film festival here in Los Angeles last month, word will begin to circulate about the quality of this picture and some executive with as much movie love as business savvy will get it to the marketplace as soon as possible. It has been described as modest, and compared to many of the bloated movies that do find themselves on a release schedule, I suppose it is. But modesty has been taken as a signifier, even in some of the movie's most positive notices, of second-tier achievement. The Hole is not a game-changer; it will not redefine cinema. What The Hole is, however, is not only a reminder of how much fun it can be to work up a serious crop of goose pimples; it’s also a reminder, especially for the suits in power, that Joe Dante is still making wonderful movies and that someone who is as talented as this guy shouldn’t have to wait seven years in between projects, only to find his latest afloat in exhibition limbo. The movie is flat-out terrific, capable of sending chills down the spines of youngsters and the not-so-young-as-all-that-anymore—my 10-year-old daughter was as riveted as I was—and it really should be playing this Halloween at a theater near you.
Joe Dante on the set of The Hole
The latest trailer for The Hole