Your deepest, darkest fears come to life in The Hole, Joe Dante’s return to the big screen following his 2003 flop Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The director of cult favourites such as the original Piranha has never repeated the success of his 1980s blockbuster Gremlins, but he has continued to make consistently entertaining fare, particularly for fans of science fiction and horror movies from the 1950s and 60s. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you will almost certainly be aware of his films: think of Innerspace, a lightly comic updating of Fantastic Voyage; Matinee, a droll tribute to 1950s horror B-movie producer William Castle; or Small Soldiers, a reworking of the anarchic Gremlins formula with intelligent toys instead of hungry furballs. Now Dante has returned to that same small-town setting so often used in Spielberg-produced hits from the 80s, and which he himself skewered with Gremlins.
The Hole kicks off with a mother (Teri Polo) and her two sons, Dane (Chris Massoglia) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble), moving in to a house in a quiet town, the latest of several relocations which the eldest, Dane, is beginning to get fed up with. While arguing down in the basement, the brothers stumble across a trapdoor that has been padlocked several times over. What else would two bored boys do but try to open it? When they finally succeed in doing so, they discover an apparently bottomless hole. Together with their equally curious next door neighbour, Julie (Haley Bennett), they start to investigate its depths – but it’s not long before the inhabitants of the hole start to make their way out.
Once past the slightly daft concept of the bottomless hole in the basement, this variation on the tried-and-tested Spielberg formula of kids investigating a supernatural threat unknown to their elders is actually a lot of fun. The script by Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) remembers to keep the characters sympathetic and believable, even if they are entirely derivative: moody older brother, playful younger brother, cute girl-next-door. The family evidently has a dark history, the details of which are gradually revealed through the course of the story, and this adds some welcome depth to their characters – particularly in the case of Dane.
But The Hole works best as a sort of horror pick-and-mix for the younger crowd. Quite rightly rated 12A by the BBFC for “sustained moderate horror”, there’s nothing that would bring a sleepless night for adults, but there are still a few good genuine scares here, regardless of your age. A brilliant scene in a restaurant toilet early on (clearly inspired by J-horror like The Ring) is a real spine-tingler, and proves that Dante has not lost touch with his horror roots. Younger children might well find themselves wanting to keep the lights turned on at night after seeing it. Lucas’ fear of clowns is also amusingly and creepily played upon – a neat nod to Stephen King, whose influence on the story is readily apparent.
It might not be subtle, original or especially intelligent – why leave the keys to the padlocks so close to the trapdoor if you want it to stay locked? – but The Hole is still good spooky stuff for (almost) all the family. It is only let down by an ending that isn’t as effective as the shocks that came before it, and a flimsy lead performance from Massoglia, whose expressions range from sullen to slightly more sullen. Bennet is far more likeable as Julie, while Polo as the working mother makes a strong impression in her few scenes. Bruce Dern has a nice cameo as Creepy Carl, the slightly mad previous owner of the house, and if you’re a Dante fan, look fast for Dick Miller’s traditional appearance – it’s only a brief one.