Life couldn't possibly get worse, or so thought 17-year-old Dane (Chris Massoglia) and his 10-year-old brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble), when their single mother Susan (Teri Polo) uproots them from New York City to the sleepy little town of Bensonville. For Dane the only exciting about their new town is the beautiful girl next door, Julie (Haley Bennett). With Susan spending more and more time at work, Dane and Lucas are left unattended to explore the depths of their eerie new residence. With Dane paying more attention to Julie, he has far less time and patience for his little brother. But then everything changes when they find a sinister black hole under a locked trap door in the basement...

B-movie master returns to form.

Melbourne International Film Festival: Fans of the trademark dark, supernatural spin on suburbia that highlights director Joe Dante’s best work will really dig The Hole. Like Gremlins, The 'burbs, Explorers and Small Soldiers, The Hole pits ordinary people against otherworldly forces and asks them to rally to overcome all manner of creepiness. Although he is obviously pinching pennies on this film, The Hole represents a solid and oh-so-welcome return to what Dante does best – imaginatively-staged, genuinely-scary small-town mayhem with a sentimental streak.

Dante’s protagonists are very familiar to fans of his work. The heroic lead is a teenage boy on the edge of maturity, aka Dane (Chris Massoglia). Uprooted for the umpteenth time by his shift-working mom, Susan (Teri Polo), Dane and his younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) land in the midst of a middle-American landscape, complete with picket fences, swimming pools and one very pretty neighbour, Julie (Hayley Bennett). The boys soon discover a bolted door on the floor of their cellar that opens to reveal a bottomless pit; attempts to learn more about what’s in 'the hole’ result in the funny (a talking Cartman doll is lowered to his ultimate demise) and not-so-funny (a video camera captures a demonic eye darting back and forth which the trio fail to notice when watching the footage).

Soon, forces that have existed deep within the hole begin to manifest themselves – a demonic jester/clown doll that stalks Lucas; a policeman with the back of his head missing; and a particularly terrifying little girl who cries blood (addressing the crowd prior to the MIFF screening SBS attended, Dante claimed the film was a throwback to the harmless-scary films of the 1980s to which parents could take kids with little concern for nightmares – yeah, right!).

Most of the dynamics in The Hole work just fine. Some dialogue scenes and single set-ups run a little long – a sure sign that the budget did not extend to extra takes or additional location shoots and that exposition had to be served up in big lumps as best could. In this sense, Dante seems to have drawn on his early days under no-money maestro Roger Corman’s studio. Ultimately, the effects of the budgetary restraints on the film are negligible. Dante has always been terrific with young actors so he mostly makes these chatty scenes work. He also exhibits a thankful respect for the surprisingly subdued 3D technology, utilising the device in far more subtle ways than one would expect in a horror–thriller.

There are moments in the second act of The Hole where patience is tested somewhat. Julie seems extremely well-adjusted for a young girl who has recently experienced her own terrifying loss (her meeting with the Girl-with-Bloody-Eyes in a diner restroom is a shocker); all the characters come face-to-face with the horrors of the hole, but seem largely unperturbed within a few moments. The effortless ease with which Dante has pulled off genre mechanics for the last three decades deserts him occasionally.

But what most surprises is an additional element to the film that leaves audiences a little less buoyant than one normally feels following a Joe Dante film. This in no way makes it a lesser film than some of his past works; in fact, it suggests that Dante, at the age of 63, has finally found a balance between weightier issues of a personal nature and the dark-hearted fantasy for which he is famous.

Joe Dante has successfully melded horror with politics (The Second Civil War, 1997; Homecoming, 2005) and gender (The Howling, 1981; The Screwfly Solution, 2006); now The Hole represents further growth as a filmmaker – a psychological horror film in which he finally embraces the grown-up notion that horror need not always be external. It would be wrong to reveal the true nature of the villain, suffice to say that from the depths of The Hole a purely introspective fear exudes; the terror Dante’s player’s face is the terror they themselves have kept hidden for many years. With The Hole, Joe Dante still affords his B-movie heroes like William Castle due reference, but he also tiptoes over into the... dare I say, respectable... realm of the Jacques Tourneurs, Alfred Hitchcocks and Brian De Palmas.

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1 hour 32 min
Fri, 09/09/2011 - 11