With a family-friendly return to the kind of filmmaking Amblin did best in the 80s, Joe Dante’s The Hole earns a strange honor as a horror film. It’s pleasant. A pleasant, scary movie.
It builds from a standard coming-of-age tale: the single mom (Teri Polo), teenage son Dane (Chris Massoglia) and younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) move from the big city to the small town complete with the tough transition. That change of pace (at least for Dane) is softened by the cute next-door neighbor Julie (Haley Bennett), but it’s made a bit more difficult by the bottomless hole in their basement that brings their personal fears to life. Apparently that wasn’t in the real estate listing.
That core element allows Dante, working from Mark L. Smith’s script, to explore different levels of fear. For Lucas, it’s a clown doll that terrorizes him, leaving Dante to craft a tone worthy of freaking out a six-year-old. For Dane and Julie, the nightmares are far more existential and personal, giving room to build on their characters and get into slightly more grown up terror-tory.
Sorry about that, but puns aside, this isn’t the kind of film that will ensure sleepless nights for a mature crowd (although who knows what it might do for the younger set because Gremlins did the trick back in the day despite its sillier components). It’s commendable amid a sea of gore to see horror crafted well that’s made available to all ages.
Ultimately, the story has far more to do with the trio of kids hanging out, trying to figure out what the hole is, trying to ignore the strange stuff happening once they’ve opened it, deciding they have to confront it, and then fighting against their fears. However, those horror movie moments are lightning strikes against a well-rounded landscape of learning about themselves. Creepy Carl, the hole’s former owner, is in that same electric family – adding some insanity to the proceedings courtesy of Bruce Dern, who makes Doc Brown look like an accounting professor.
Dante proves his sensibility is still well intact, even if it doesn’t have a big studio check behind it. Naturally, some of the computer-generated elements near the end (when the fantasy adventure tone takes hold) are a bit cheap, but the design of the big baddie is still an aggressive one. There’s an inescapable smallness to it that simply wouldn’t exist if it had been under the wing of a major financier.
Ground isn’t being broken here, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, and it’s nice to see even a glimmer of an older brand of horror comedy to prove that it’s not extinct quite yet.
The Upside: Broad storytelling that works, a range of scary elements for all ages, and a good set of actors
The Downside: It’s nice while it lasts, but it’s definitely digestible
On the Side: This is the first movie since The Howling without a Jerry Goldsmith score.