Joe Dante’s “The Hole” is being billed as a horror film the whole family will love. I could not disagree with this assessment more. Atmospherically, this is one of the most bipolar movies I’ve ever seen, shifting wildly from the innocence of a Disney Channel original movie to the dark and heavy-handed maturity of a psychological thriller. Is an adult likely to be entertained by two teenagers and a ten-year-old speaking inane dialogue that’s only occasionally highlighted by a swear? Is a child likely to think that parental alcoholism and abuse are in any way, shape, or form fun to watch, especially if, God forbid, he or she is living that reality at home? For a marketing company to even suggest that the whole family would appreciate this film is not only wrong, it’s also very insulting. I would wager to guess that whoever came up with the idea doesn’t have any children.
But inconsistency in tone is only part of why this movie fails. No one in front of the camera seems to be trying very hard. The stars, Chris Massoglia, Haley Bennett, and Nathan Gamble, give embarrassingly amateurish performances, almost as if they weren’t taking the material seriously. Massoglia is in especially bad form; his style of delivery shows not the slightest traces of energy or conviction, and there’s no sense that his character is developing on an emotional level. One wonders if he was napping before every take. Are the kids more to blame here, or is Dante? I grant you that the former were all very young and new to acting when the film was shot back in 2008, but at the same time, perhaps someone should have told them they needed more experience before taking on a major motion picture. Then again, perhaps they were directed to behave like amateurs, which is baffling given the fact that Dante has worked with children to much greater effect.
Much like the recent fourth installment of “Spy Kids,” this movie is at great pains to tell us that it was shot and released in 3D. Early on, for example, the leads try to discover how deep down the titular hole goes by lowering several objects into it, from a paint bucket to a camcorder to a talking plush doll of Eric Cartman to a handful of nails; because most of these objects are captured on an upward-facing camera placed inside the hole, it looks as if they’re coming right towards the audience. And then there are little throwaway moments such as when Gamble lies on his bed tossing a baseball; the camera is located directly above him, and so the ball repeatedly jumps in and out of our field of vision. Haven’t audiences outgrown this kind of 3D? Isn’t it being touted as immersive rather than gimmicky? Cinematic throwbacks aren’t always a good thing.
The plot is founded on one of the oldest conventions there is, namely a mom and her two kids moving to a new town. These would be the Thompsons. The mom (Teri Polo), has a history of moving from city to city and is now starting a hospital job that requires her to work long hours. This means, of course, that she will have an excuse to conveniently be taken out of the action. Her teenage son, Dane (Massoglia), is moody and bitter about leaving behind friends in Brooklyn and coming to a sleepy small town. Her other son, ten-year-old Lucas (Gamble), just wants someone to play catch with. After meeting Julie Campbell, the perpetually bored daughter of the next-door neighbors (Bennett), the Thompson boys discover a locked trap door built into the floor of their dark, creepy basement. When unlocked and opened, it reveals only a deep, black hole that doesn’t seem to have a bottom.
Nothing much comes of it until little Lucas discovers a frightening clown puppet lying on his bed. Lucas is terrified of clowns. Not long after, Julie has an encounter with a pale-faced girl in a white dress (Quinn Lords); she has only one shoe on, her gait is unnaturally staccato, her eyes are sunken in, and she cries tears of blood. She will eventually be joined by a cop who’s missing the back of his skull, and we will see them both crawl into the hole. Julie is scared of the girl because she’s a face from the past, one thought to be long gone. Dane begins to see beer cans and belts, which reminds him of his father, who’s now serving a prison sentence for his years of domestic violence. So it seems this hole can read people’s minds and bring your deepest fears to life. This is corroborated, albeit cryptically, by an insane recluse known as Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), who used to live in the Thompson residence and now lives in an abandoned glove factory in the glow of hundreds of light bulbs.
Although these fears are deeply personal, it would appear that anyone is capable of seeing the manifestations. Dane and Lucas, for example, repeatedly spot the pale-faced girl, despite the fact that they have no history with her. What rules does this hole operate under? The message of the film is clear: In order to get past your fears, one must summon up the courage to face them. Too bad it’s delivered in such a halfhearted way. The only thing “The Hole” has going for it is an intriguing idea, and even then it’s hampered by the fact that it’s far from original. If the intention truly was to make it appealing to younger audiences (never mind the fact that the film is rated PG-13), then it benefits even less from Dante’s tendency to include cinematic in-jokes. Any child that may see this is unlikely to make much of a cameo appearance by Dick Miller, the eighty-three-year-old actor known in part for his appearances in Roger Corman movies.