Matt Donato wrote a terrific piece last year about a trend in films of using genre to explore parenthood and its very real horrors, and 2019 continues that trend with A24’s newest horror acquisition, The Hole in the Ground. Outstanding performances, creepy characters and exploring the fear of seeing your child change beyond recognition are all elements you can look forward to in Lee Cronin’s feature debut, as long as you can sit through an uninspiring first half hour.
Sarah (Seána Kerslake) is trying to start fresh by relocating with her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) to the Irish countryside, possibly to get as far ahead from an abusive husband, because everyone knows moving to an isolated house in the forest always turns up okay. The sight of an elderly man standing in the middle of the road looking creepy as hell probably doesn’t help.
Even if the forest looks sinister and the townspeople don’t inspire confidence, as least the mother-son relationship makes you think of The Babadook, only way happier and harmless. Chris has trouble adjusting and making friends, and he is a bit detached, he loves his mom and Sarah loves and cares for him.
Like many normal, non-creepy kids, Chris likes to play outside, despite his mother’s wishes. One day he runs off to the woods for a few hours. Before finding Chris, Sarah stumbles upon the titular hole in the ground, which in reality looks more like a gigantic crater in the middle of the forest. When Chris finally turns up back in the house, he says he never left. Maybe he’s just acting up and entering a rebellious stage, or maybe the hole actually did something to him. And maybe, just maybe, the old woman that wonders off to the middle of the forest and believes her son was replaced by an impostor isn’t as crazy as the rest of the town seems to think.
Director Lee Cronin takes full advantage of the beautiful and naturally creepy landscapes of rural Ireland to create an eerie atmosphere that, together with exquisite sound design and Stephen McKeown hellish score is enough to terrify you before anything happens in the film. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where the film’s biggest problem lies. What some people refer to as “elevated horror” most times ends up being horror films that take their time and use slow pace to build an atmosphere of dread.
The Hole in the Ground tries to do the same but ends up with a first half hour that is almost unbearably dull. It is not until the crazy old lady’s theories come up that the film picks up the pace. You know the feeling when someone is acting just a tiny bit out of the ordinary and you immediately think they are “not quite themselves”? The best part of The Hole in the Ground explores this paternal fear of not being able to recognize what your children and growing into, how they can go from sweet little angels into hell spawn that hate you in a moment. Kerslake does a terrific job at selling a mother’s despair at the thought that something happened to her son, while also portraying the descent into chaos as she starts questioning her sanity. Meanwhile, James Quinn Markey is a standout as Chris, a boy cut from the same creepy children cloth as Damien in The Omen and Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son, even if he doesn’t appear immediately creepy. You might think he’s an angel, and even Sarah doubts her theory, trying to rationalize his new behavior as something not supernatural, but then he does something weird that will keep you guessing.
The Hole in the Ground doesn’t hide its influences, from the more obvious like The Babadook, to a wallpaper that looks eerily similar to the rugs in the Overlook Hotel, to even a pinch of The Descent. But just as the film starts picking up the pace and introduce new ideas that will keep you on the edge of your seat, it rushes through the plot in what feels like 10 minutes. After waiting for the real fun to start, it is disappointing that the film doesn’t savor in what makes it special.