Reviews

Joe Dante

USA, 2009

Credits

Review by Glenn Heath Jr.

Posted on 24 October 2012

Source Big Air DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror IX

I need you to be better than the things you’ve seen.

During the opening sequence of Joe Dante’s crafty 3-D horror film The Hole, single mother Susan utters this prophetic line of dialogue to her moody teenage son Dane. The family has just completed a long move west from the urban sprawl of Brooklyn to the quaint and deceptively docile small town of Bensonville, U.S.A, the motivations of which are shrouded in mystery, and Dane is already bullying his younger brother, Lucas. Susan senses that Dane is experiencing a profound internal battle of identity, but doesn’t quite know how to handle it. Like most stressed out but well-intentioned parents in a Dante film, Susan does her best to put things in perspective: she lays into Dane with mentoring words that suggest both a sense of responsibility toward the future and an understanding of the deep-seated trauma lingering beneath the surface.

This type of sly, subtext-heavy content has long been a staple of Dante’s work. In fact, Susan’s statement can be taken as kind of a thesis for this criminally undervalued auteur who’s spent the better part of three decades making hugely entertaining and deeply weighty genre films. Dante has always been obsessed with the power of fear over good people, the way it can spread effortlessly to create havoc at a communal and familial level. So it’s fitting that the haunting supernatural story that envelops Dane, Lucas, and their charming new neighbor, Julie, who as a group discover a seemingly bottomless hole in Dane’s dank basement, is a perfect creative synthesis of this idea. Dante mixes familiar motifs and narrative threads from his own Gremlins and The ‘Burbs, but he gives The Hole its own unique structure and momentum. Most fascinatingly, every plot twist revolves around an individual character’s repression of the past, and how that fear materializes into physical form thanks to the mysterious hole.

As creaking floorboards, muddy footprints, and menacing cackles become prevalent indicators of oppressive menace, the triptych of lead characters grow closer as a unit and more complex as individuals. Dane isn’t just a brooding hipster in the making, but a talented artist tormented by an abusive past. Lucas isn’t just a precocious pre-teen, but a sensitive and deeply vulnerable young lad who simply wants to connect with his brother. Finally, Julie isn’t just a blond “it” girl who reads Twilight rip offs, but a smart and perceptive young woman with her own cross to bare. Each seems genuinely conflicted by the scenarios presented to them, torn between curiosity and crippling fear of the burgeoning horror at their doorstep. This dimensionality allows The Hole to evolve as a narrative, beginning with a seemingly simple set-up of discovery and foreshadowing before building to a triangle of climaxes that perfectly encapsulates each character’s relationship with hidden fear.

Dante films it all with a swooping camera that often hovers above each scene before diving down to the action and finishing at eye level. Often, symbols of horror are left off screen, leaving much in the way of specifics up to the imagination of the viewer. The most harrowing example of this comes during the death scene of a character lovingly referred to as Creepy Carl (played by the great Bruce Dern), a hermit who gives the three young protagonists some sage advice. Surrounded by vines of hanging light bulbs in an abandoned glove factory, Carl desperately tries to finish a sketch that will help Dane in his struggle to transcend the hole’s omniscient power. One by one, the bulbs start exploding, signifying the oncoming presence of evil and gradually leaving Carl shrouded in darkness screaming for mercy. It’s a brilliant sequence that speaks to Dante’s skill at creating inventive horror set pieces that both stand-alone and advance the plot.

Inevitably, theoretical traumas manifest themselves as destructive and evil physical entities in The Hole. These demons come in all shapes and sizes (a drunk father, a clown doll, and a shoeless little girl), challenging all three youngsters to face their past fears and embrace a newfound sense of strength. While each dramatic crescendo is potent, Dane’s is clearly the aesthetic highlight. Forced to literally dive into the hole to save Lucas from his beastly patriarch, Dane descends into a Caligari-esque maze of sharp angles and shaped patterns that evoke his subjective memory of the past. The cramped scene is eerily reminiscent of Dante’s batshit crazy segment of The Twilight Zone Movie, entitled “It’s a Good Life,” which paints a similarly insane version of family living tainted by fear. Here, Dane’s traumas begin to literally crumble away as he gains confidence, a process that is both metaphorically apt and cinematically engaging.

If The Hole doesn’t feel nearly as major as Gremlins, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or Matinee – three brilliant Dante films that indict societal and political institutions as seamlessly as they subvert genre tropes – it does work beautifully as a contained amalgamation of the director’s interest in suburban trauma. Midway through, Julie lovingly calls Bensonville her “playground,” which is very fitting considering Dante himself has used the physical spaces of suburbia as a way to subvert Hollywood clichés and explore the hidden ideological complexities of the modern middle-class experience. In doing so, his characters are allowed the opportunity to find peace despite their deeply entrenched emotional baggage. Susan sums it up best at the end when she once again advises her brood, “We can’t be scared forever.”

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