Synopsis – A young mother living in the Irish countryside with her son suspects his increasingly disturbing behavior is linked to a mysterious sinkhole in the forest, and fears he may not be her son at all.
My Take – Yet another month and yet another horror film involving an evil kid has landed in theaters. I get it, creepy children often manage to freak us out and add to that parental anxiety, a terrifying thought itself. This trend has long been a fertile ground for horror filmmakers for decades. While some films encompassing this themes have ended up being downright terrifying, others (like the recent The Prodigy) have only managed to leave a rather bad after taste despite their riveting buildups.
However, what caught my attention for this film was the involvement of the production company, A24, whose contribution to modern horror (Green Room, The Witch, and Hereditary) has been particularly noteworthy. It’s no secret that the young studio has taken the world of cinema by storm over the past few years, steadily building a library of vital, creative, and challenging films. They have effectively positioned themselves as the standard-bearers for art house in the mainstream, granting wide exposure to auteur filmmakers who would otherwise have serious difficulty finding distribution.
The studio has a clear passion for intelligent, substantive horror that avoids the cheap and shallow scares routinely delivered by the major studios. And their latest entry from debutante director Lee Cronin, is no exception. It’s a small Irish production with only a few characters. But while it treads familiar ground, it manages to do so in a fresh and satisfying way, with a very chilling atmosphere of dread. Like most of A24‘s film, this one too is more of a psychological horror, which treads quite slowly, with a subtle tone. And yet manages to be smart, short and sweet, while also entertaining and a very spooky.
While the film is not emotionally draining like Hereditary, but it sure manages to take your mental well-being for a quick spin. Sure, it does lack a little bit of explanation at the end, but sometimes I think it is okay for film to leave a bit up to the viewers to figure out by themselves.
The story follows Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake), a newly singly mother, who in order to retreat from her broken relationship moves to a heavily wooded rural Irish town with Chris (James Quinn Markey), her eight-year-old son. While Sarah is worried about how Chris is finding it difficult to make new friends at school, she too is slowly also adjusting to her own anxieties.
However, things take a turn for worse soon, beginning with an unsettling encounter with a neighbor (Kati Outinen), a mentally ill older woman, who the locals believe to have killed her own child, followed by a change in Chris. Sarah starts noticing a shift in Chris’ demeanor which sends her into a paranoid panic, as she’s led to believe that her son’s behavior is connected to a massive mysterious sinkhole she found in the woods, out in the dark.
Much of the run time finds Sarah having vivid nightmares about her fears, and the lines between dream and reality blur until they inevitably collide and we get an answer that might not satisfy everyone, but I personally felt, works in the context of this film. As one could probably tell from the synopsis, this one is not truly an original film. But manages to be a polished horror film that looks good, has a few great effects and it’s able to use simplicity and craftsmanship to create an atmosphere. What it does, it does well.
Written by Lee Cronin and Stephen Shields, the film plays with the known legends and applied them to modern, everyday life. Little seeds are inconspicuously planted in the first act that suddenly becomes alarming payoffs in the second and third. But it is how director Cronin avoids genre norms while weaving an unnerving web of paranoia that entangles its characters, and the audience, that makes this a strong directorial debut. A major plot point here is the paranoia of the film’s characters, which Cronin interjects consistently through nuanced interactions. There is the constant sense that the fabric of the protagonists’ relationship is slowly and irreversibly unraveling, which quickly becomes unnerving as tension builds.
For example, Sarah sports an ugly wound on her forehead (usually hidden by her hair), and it’s strongly implied that Chris’ father, who’s never seen and rarely spoken of, physically abused her, precipitating her move to the middle of nowhere. For an hour or so, director Cronin wisely lets Kerslake’s quivering, empathetic performance do the heavy lifting; every shot of Sarah staring nervously at Chris communicates her unconscious fear that half of the boy’s DNA comes from a violent man she had to escape, and that Chris might take after him.
While Hereditary offered an absurd sense of humor and an austere style, this film takes a more head-down, meat-and-potatoes approach to the genre. While it doesn’t manage to linger in the imagination for long, it does deliver effective scares throughout and most importantly, never lets up. Nothing in the film is set up without a payoff, even if that payoff isn’t quite what you’d imagine.
While I was never truly scared, the mood is thoroughly unsettling throughout and there are a few good surprises along the way. Director Cronin’s ability to a relatively simplistic plot and make it uniquely memorable and engaging is noteworthy. He also smartly holds back on what’s really going on until the last possible moment and never explains too much.
For films like this, it’s much scarier to know what without ever knowing the why or the how. Cinematographer Tom Comerford find malaise in the mundane like Chris ‘warped reflection in a hall of mirrors, the transition from sinking earth to a child slurping spaghetti, a camera circling a car on a forest road like a buzzard. These arresting ominous images, coupled with Stephen McKeon’s loud, droning score and tight editing by Colin Campbell, create a potent dread-filled atmosphere.
However, unfortunately the film is not a masterpiece some reviews from Sundance claim it to be. While it shows fantastic promise for the future some may find the ending a bit too predictable, there are too many plot holes, too many things are left unexplained and underdeveloped. It also doesn’t distinguish itself from recent films like The Hallow and The Ritual. While the slow burn is brilliant and the first hour of this is excellent but as Chris descends further into a dark world it becomes quite silly at times.
Coming to the performances. Seána Kerslake delivers a brilliant, authentic turn, which makes her struggle with forces beyond her that much more compelling. She moves from moment to moment between reassuring herself all is fine to visceral terror in a way which feels recognizable and human, helping to anchor the horror in reality. Her performance is only rivaled by child actor James Quinn Markey, whose performance is both unsettlingly mundane while also quaint and charming. Apart from a pivotal scene where it becomes apparent things are most definitely wrong, his mannerisms and behaviors put you on edge. On the whole, ‘The Hole in the Ground’ is a solid horror film which despite a few snags manages to be affecting and captivating.
Directed – Lee Cronin
Rated – R
Run Time – 90 minutes