A black void swirls at the heart of the movie business. Roiling inside it are countless bad ideas for blockbuster films. I imagine most of these begin as earnest pitches that are quickly eroded by the crushing influence of 3D gimmickry, brand recognition, and franchisability. The middle tarnishing ingredient (also known as "nostalgia") is relativley new, but has overloaded the void's capacity--causing a hard, smelly crust of cheap cash-ins to form along the rim.
I'd love to fill that hole with The Hole. Last Friday, director Joe Dante brought his unreleased family horror film to Chicago's Music Box Theatre for a rare screening, and it was one of the most thrilling experiences I've had at the movies all year. Within the first ten minutes, it became clear that all the recent attempts to bottle the magic of 1980s filmmaking have been cheap imitations of the real thing.
Ti West came the closest with The House of the Devil, but movies like Super 8 and Hatchet are fan films compared to the work of an era-defining master. Sure, Dante, Spielberg, Lucas, and others spent a great deal of their careers paying homage to the sci-fi and horror of their youth, but they worked hard to make these quirky passions relevant to contemporary audiences. In Gremlins, for example, Dante's reference to Invasion of the Body Snatchers acts as both loving pop cultural touchstone and foreshadowing--not as cheap padding for a weak script.
Mark L. Smith's script for The Hole is deceptively complicated as well as familiar: A put-upon single mom (Teri Polo) moves to a new, lame town with her grumpy teenage son, Dane (Chris Massoglia), and younger boy, Lucas (Nathan Gamble). She works all the time, leaving the kids at home to get into trouble. Very quickly, they discover a padlocked door in their basement floor. Underneath is a black, bottomless pit, which they explore virtually, by lowering a camcorder on some rope as far as it will go.
They can't see anything in the abyss, but the abyss sees them; soon, strange things happen in their neighborhood. Lucas battles a demented jester puppet scurrying around the house; Dane is haunted by feelings of being followed; and the cute girl next door, Julie (Haley Bennett) has visions of a bleeding little girl with a missing shoe. The novelty here is not in the horror set-ups, but in the relationship between the three young leads. Their quest to solve the mystery of the hole distracts them from deeper, secret problems, and brings them together in unexpected ways.
I won't go any further in my synopsis because you should really go into this movie cold. The film's surprises won't bend many adults' minds, but The Hole isn't exclusively for them. It's truly a family horror picture: one that's safe enough in language and graphic content to bring the kids to, but which will likely give everyone nightmares--or at least make them run for the door when coming up from the laundry room.
Unlike many contemporary horror movies, this one is full of solid laughs. Sure, many of them are cat-in-the-closet jump scares that lead to "I can't believe that got me" chuckles. But these are cool short-hand reassurances on the part of the filmmakers that we've signed up for a cinematic carnival ride: as scary as a demonic, teleporting puppet may be, it's still just a puppet.
Half the film's strength lies in Massoglia, Gamble, and Bennett's performances. Their chemistry is perfect, and I was reminded of how the child actors from The Goonies always seemed like a gang of genuine lifelong friends. Though the characters in The Hole are thrown together, Dante and Smith capture teenage timidity and the warmth of making fast friends. You may recognize more than one emotion from your own childhood--not in anything that's written down, but in a look between actors; in an awkward pause; or in a springy step that devolves into a shuffling walk.
The second strength is the way the movie was put together. It's a hard alchemy to describe, but aside from Dane's Killers t-shirt and the characters' modern wardrobe, The Hole feels like it could have been filmed in 1984. Cinematographer Theo van de Sande and production designer Brentan Harron make Dante's world of basements, diners, and the dimensions below expansive, creepy, and tangible. Watching this film is like reading one of Stephen King's novels about childhood, where the scenery is informed by the golden hues and ink-black shadows of nostalgia.
Towards the end of the movie, we're treated to a fantasy sequence that recalls Dante's segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie, in that most of it was filmed on real sets with honest to goodness props. It's so odd to see a team of artisans figure out how to film bendy floors and disproportionate set pieces in ways that will best evoke a sense of Alice in Wonderland delirium; as an audience member, I'm so used to having these things handed to me through unrelatable digital effects that my brain had to work overtime while watching The Hole: first to take in the action of the scenes, and second to marvel at how the filmmakers achieved their vision without leaning on a "do it in post" crutch.
On a related note, you should know that The Hole was filmed as a 3D movie. I only saw it in two dimensions because the Music Box isn't set up to run the movie as intended. However, the artistry and care that went into creating full audience immersion renders the artificial enhancements practically moot. A couple of the "made for 3D" scenes are unreasonably conspicuous, but for the most part, this thing has an amazing, consistent depth of field that comes across really well in a traditional presentation--largely thanks to the old-school filmmaking techniques I mentioned earlier.
Now that I've gotten all the drooling hyperbole out of the way, let me take a moment to discuss the downside of The Hole: chances are, you won't be able to see it in the way it was meant to be seen. In September, Big Air will release the movie in Atlanta and possibly on Video on Demand. Dante's masterpiece has been in the can for three years, and has failed to get the major studio/distributor push it needs to reach as many theatres as possible.
If there's such a thing as grand cinematic injustice, this is surely it. With all the sequelized, productized, generic, flashy garbage clogging up the multiplex, you'd think there'd be an executive or two willing and able to recognize a genuine hit in the making. Just throw together six of the film's dozen trailer-ready shots and slap "From Joe Dante, director of Gremlins" above the title, and watch the midnight ticket sales go through the roof.
Audiences hunger for new entertainment. Even though The Hole feels like it could have been made thirty years ago, its quality, themes, and imagination are timeless. I laughed, I jumped, I got goose bumps (both warm and icy)--none of which happened while watching Battleship, The Avengers, or The Dark Knight Rises.* True, The Hole is a different kind of film, which is precisely why supporting it is the only way to plug that terrible, black void. If someday you have the chance to see it in a theatre, do yourself--and the movies--a huge favor and check it out.
Note: In a post-screening Q&A, Joe Dante lamented the fact that his entire movie has been posted to YouTube. I mention this by way of a plea: do not watch this movie on-line. The Hole deserves the big-screen treatment; in lieu of that, it should be seen on the largest available TV, in the highest available resolution. I watched a few seconds of the YouTube version; it's small, fuzzy, and completely magic-free. Have some respect for the filmmakers, and for yourself as a film lover, and avoid the temptation. You may have to wait awhile, but your patience will pay off in spades.
*Okay, Battleship was pretty hilarious.