Written by: Lee Cronin, Stephen Shields
Directed by: Lee Cronin
Starring: Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, and Simone Kirby
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Something's not right with him..."
After being a parent for nearly 18 months, I can safely say that I’ve never been more consistently terrified in my life. I carry with me a dull but constant ache, a subconscious worry that I’m not doing everything I could to protect and provide; it sometimes feels truly irrational that we burden ourselves with this as a species, to willingly choose a life of endless fretting. And that’s before horror movies introduce and exploit more parental anxieties with absolute nightmare scenarios. What if, for example, your child suddenly wasn’t your child? That’s the premise of The Hole in the Ground, Lee Cronin’s unsettling entry in the creepy kid canon, and it’s the rare effort in this arena that intimately dwells on a parent’s growing, horrifying realization that something is not right with their child. It’s an admirable approach, if not one that may be a bit too restrained to leave an impression.
But still, the approach is a nice change of pace from the schlock-filled direction these things often take. Cronin’s delicate touch is on display early, as Sarah O’Neill (Seana Kerslake) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) arrive at their new home in the Irish countryside. Laconic dialogue and cryptic conversations will later reveal they’re fleeing from Sarah’s abusive husband, and Cronin emphasizes the dreary desolation of the scene. The film’s title unfolds as the camera deliberately spirals upside-down, foreshadowing how their lives will soon be upended by this small town’s sordid history. Trouble first arrives in the form of a strange old woman (Kati Outinen) that Sarah nearly plows into because she’s standing in the middle of the road, unresponsive. Sarah later learns this is Noreen Brady, whose own tragic story involving her dead son has become town lore; she soon finds herself unable to escape Noreen’s orbit, especially when Chris wanders off into the woods and discovers a massive hole teeming with unseen horrors.
The Hole in the Ground thrives on suggestion and the slow, upsetting sensation that Chris has somehow changed. It’s so subtle that even Sarah herself doesn’t quite detect it until Noreen frantically informs her that he’s not her son, which Sarah initially dismisses as the ravings as a mad woman. However, both the script and Markey’s subtly disturbing performance keep the suggestion lurking: this is the sort of demented child film that largely trades out obvious, violent outbursts for more reserved, uncanny shocks. Chris becomes something of an old soul, watching old TV programs and parting his hair like someone several times his age; initially a source of amusement for Sarah, it grows into something more sinister.
Cronin and co-writer Stephen Shields rightfully couch the ordeal from Sarah’s perspective, as it’s very much her story and not just a vehicle for her demon seed to unleash unholy hell. Kerslake is tremendous as a beleaguered mother struggling to recognize her own child as he goes about a daily routine that seems just off. Watching her wrestle with these realizations is heartbreaking: harmless observations about Chris’s new hairstyle gradually escalate to genuine distrust, and, eventually Sarah can barely conceal her disdain for what her son has become. Her entire reality collapses around her once she begins to suspect the horrible truth: that Chris is apparently the latest in a line of children in the area that have been replaced with sinister doppelgangers over the years.
Even as this becomes evident, Cronin is content to play it slow. The Hole in the Ground patiently rumbles along, dabbling in haunted house theatrics (of course this modest little cottage they’ve moved to is creepy in its own right) and building intrigue about its titular clearing in the woods. Not that there’s a problem with it, but this is a festival horror movie that distributor A24 specializes in: it’s full of deliberate camerawork, a vaguely menacing score that barely rises above some scattered shrieks, and a genuine investment in its characters. The worst of this type sometimes linger too much on atmospherics without scripting enough actual incident, and, for a while, The Hole in the Ground starts to feel like such an offender. When your unsettling moments hinge on sinister spaghetti-eating, ominous cheese-spreading, and blurry photos, it’s fair to wonder just how satisfying the payoff might be.
Thankfully, Cronin ramps up the proceedings considerably during the final act with more overt shocks and violence. The hole itself also yields its secrets, but the script nicely avoids spelling out every single detail and simply allows some killer creature designs to fill in the blanks. There’s no eureka moment, nor is there much dialogue during this stretch to bog down the mystery: it becomes evident enough, so the audience is free to simply invest in the visceral experience of watching a mother fight for her child’s life. Arguably, even this drags on a bit too much, and the movie inarguably features one scene too many, but it’s a solid enough landing. Rather than indulge the typical—and now all too predictable—ambiguity, The Hole in the Ground goes out of its way to establish a definitive ending. Its protracted epilogue is almost needless, though: as this final scene unfolds, you suspect you’re being led to some topsy-turvy reveal, only to see the movie thud to its end credits.
These quibbles aside, however, The Hole in the Ground lands as an auspicious debut for Cronin. He grasps that the strength of this sort of horror film rests in its characters and performers, and he does an admirable job of letting the inherent terror and drama of this scenario flourish. With this particular approach, actually seeing a child commit horrific acts pales in comparison to observing his mother reckon with her own suspicions. What must it feel like to distrust—or even loathe—something that looks like your child? The film’s most unsettling moments involve Sarah’s moments of doubt, like when she asks a friend if her kids went through a similar phase of not being themselves. As someone who has done a lot of that during the past 18 months, it was all too relatable and vaguely unsettling because it made me realize that parenthood is sometimes about seeking constant reassurance. Sarah finds very little of it here, and that’s what makes much of the film so effective.
I do wish The Hole in the Ground had a little bit more oomph to it: it’s finely crafted and guided by captivating performances, but it also needs just a bit more of a pulse. Even though Cronin doesn’t completely succumb to the “slow burn, minimal payoff” temptation, he doesn’t do quite enough to send the film over the top and provide a particularly memorable payoff. Rather, the film just sort of trails off into the woods and staggers back out to a mundane conclusion that doesn’t feel quite as disturbing as it should be. It’s fine, but it’s the sort of film that leaves you hoping its director will make good on his potential with a sophomore effort.
The Hole in the Ground is available this week on DVD from Lionsgate; the disc includes a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.
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