(USA, 2009, 98 minutes)
Written by: Mark L. Smith
Directed by: Joe Dante
Cast: Chris Massoglia, Nathan Gamble, Haley Bennett, Quinn Lord, Teri Polo, Bruce Dern
Any new film by Joe Dante is a cause for celebration in this reviewer’s wholly biased opinion—sorry, QT, but the Corman-mentored/former “Castle Of Frankenstein” movie critic-turned-trailer-cutter-turned director was the pioneer of ebullient nerdfests overstuffed with high-and-lowbrow references and a giddy celebration of “movie reality” at its most spectacular and craptacular. But this truncated encounter will have to do for now, because my viewing of “The Hole” is an unfinished one. Fifteen minutes before the already-brief film would have ended, the fire alarm at the Ryerson Theatre wailed like a banshee from the bottom of the titular chasm and forced evacuation, delaying the climactic showdown with the ultimate Deadbeat Dad for another day (as yet undetermined, but hopefully soon)…
Up until then, it was certainly an engaging, PG-spook fest: when seventeen-year old Dane (Massoglia) and his younger brother Lucas (Gamble) relocate from Manhattan to the cozy hamlet of Bensonville with their mother (Polo), they find some excitement in the form of Julie (Bennett), the precocious teen beauty next door who not only reads heady tomes by Plath and Dante (cute) but is popular enough to throw the most awesome townie pool parties.
Exploring the basement of their modest bungalow, the boys uncover a padlocked trap door that leads to…well…nothing. After a series of tests and experiments, including lowering a camcorder into the seemingly limitless abyss (punctuated by one hell of a delicious big boo), it’s clear they’ve unleashed something as varying forms of supernatural mayhem begin to manifest themselves, including a ghostly little girl, the most frightening clown puppet since “Poltergeist” (but don’t tell Charles Band), and the boys’ absentee father, an abusive thug who has lived on in their frightened consciences through bad memories and letters from jail, but who has found a direct line back into their lives via The Hole…
Hardly sporting the most original hook—isn’t this essentially the plot of every other book ever written by R.L. Stine? (it also shares a title with a recent British thriller starring Thora Birch and Kiera Knightly)—“The Hole” could be cynically dismissed as another attempt to woo the tween/”Twilight” demographic. Writer Mark L. Smith, who gave us the nifty “Vacancy”, is obviously a student of the genre, having shamelessly pillaged from Tibor Takacs’ “The Gate” to Bernard Rose’s “Paperhouse” to Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu”, but keeps his paranormal shenanigans strictly on the family-friendly level. This poses no problem whatsoever for the consistently-inventive Dante, who infuses the material with the same demented wit he brought to his breakthrough hit “Gremlins”, and palpable affection for his young cast.
Otherwise, he plays it mostly straight here, with fewer genre samples and cameos than usual—but Bruce Dern is back from “The ‘Burbs” in full-throttle Crazy Ralph mode as the local kook who knows a thing or two about the town’s history (his H.Q. is the Orlac Glove Factory), and yes, that’s Dick Miller as the baffled pizza guy.
Despite his obvious jones for notorious cinematic hucksters like Corman and gimmick king William Castle, Dante shows surprising restraint with the stereoscopic technology, which certainly improves with each successive release (and there will be more—so many in fact, that “The Hole” won a Best 3D Film Of The Year (!) award at this year’s Venice Film Festival). Sure, a few things come popping out of frame and are tossed directly into the lens ala Dr. Tongue to elicit a cheap and easy “whoa!” from the viewer—hey, it works—but “The Hole” is one of the most immersive 3D experiences I’ve yet seen, with the creepy confines of the house nicely augmented by the additional spatial distance (and some bone-rattling audio work), and climb up a rickety derelict rollercoaster guaranteed to induce vertigo…
Even with its rich atmosphere, charming chemistry of its cast, and admirable respect for the viewer’s intelligence and patience, “The Hole” could have a tough time finding an audience. Gen Y-ers seeking scares can and likely have witnessed much more extreme exercises in terror with the click of a Torrent, and fans of Dante’s early work might find a cast of teens only slightly less appealing than Brendan Fraser and the major stars of Looney Tunes.
But Bruce Dern and Dick Miller in 3D—as if you need another reason to go…
©Robert J. Lewis 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009