The Hole is Joe Dante’s Underrated Masterpiece

The Hole is a movie that’s lingered with me since I saw it, nearly a decade and a half ago, in the cinema; I was still reasonably new to the horror genre, and I certainly wasn’t at the stage of seeing real horror movies at the cinema yet, for fear it would be too scary and I couldn’t look away without getting the piss ripped out of me by my friends. Joe Dante’s throwback to the suburban teen horror of the eighties seemed like the perfect fit; I didn’t expect a huge amount from it, but, with Sir Gremlins himself behind it, I figured at least it would be solid, right?

The Hole is so much more than just solid. Joe Dante’s got an impressive career behind him, from The Howling to The ‘Burbs to the one-two punch of utter brilliance that is the Gremlins duology – but I still think The Hole might be his best work.

Following Dane (Chris Massoglia), a teenager who moves with his younger brother and mother from Brooklyn to a small town in the middle of nowhere, it’s a pretty simple set-up: in the basement of their new house, the family discovers a seemingly-bottomless hole (and there will be no jokes about my seemingly bottomless holes, thank you very much). The titular hole starts producing monsters that reflect the deepest fears of anyone who looks into it, from creepy clowns to…well, some much darker stuff, too.

The brilliance of The Hole is what comes out of it. I mean, just to start with, every creature, monster, or ghoul that emerges from the hole is really unsettling; they’re often shown in stop-motion, even when played by human actors, giving them this disconcerting oddness against the otherwise normal cinematography. Dante knows how to construct a scare, and every villain feels uniquely unsettling – I particularly love the pool sequence, where a killer clown stalks a boy under the water. They’re not particularly gory or gross or shocking, but they have a decided strangeness to them that creates a deep feeling of off-ness within the movie’s universe. It’s clear these things don’t belong in the real world, and yet, here they are.

But also what those things that come out of the hole represent. If The Hole has one major theme, it’s what haunts us. Looking into the hole draws out an unstoppable force that torments you with the darkest moments of your life, a manifestation of guilt, grief, frustration. Dane’s greatest fear comes to him in the form of his abusive father, in a terrifying sequence that almost looks like something from a German impressionist movie from the early twentieth century, and the helplessness he as a boy felt in the face of his father is so effectively conveyed here. Using this kind of inherently daft premise to explore something as serious as the impact domestic abuse has on children has no business working as well as it does, but Dante captures this distinctly dark feeling of helplessness without turning this into unwatchable horribleness. It’s disturbing, for sure, but it doesn’t feel exploitative or needlessly graphic; I’ve talked about The Hole as a great family horror before, and I still stand by that, even though the scares do hit.

On top of that, it’s just built of a solid movie-making basis: Dante’s confidence behind the camera, a tight script, and really solid performances (especially from Haley Bennett, who went on to have a really interesting career – if you haven’t seen her in Swallow yet, fix that at once). There are shades of Dante’s earlier career here, especially The ‘Burbs, but there’s a maturity in the subject matter that lifts it to Dante’s best work for me. He’s always had a good handle on telling stories from the point of view of younger people, and he uses that deftness to explore something darker that really works. Turning the now-familiar Dante setting of a family home into a setting for the horror that happens in domestic spheres is downright inspired.

The Hole balances Dante’s excellent monster movie skills with an impactful and unforgettably effective throughline about the things that haunt us – and it’s about time it had the comeback it deserves.

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By Lou MacGregor

(header image via IMDB)

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