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The Hole in the Ground (Movie Review)

The Hole in the Ground (Movie Review)
8 10

PLOT: Sarah O’Neill (Seana Kerslake) is a single mother trying to escape her troubled past by starting life anew out in the isolated Irish woodlands. When Sarah and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) discover a giant sinkhole surrounding their property, a series of supernatural phenomena begins to occur.

REVIEW: On the trade-honing heels of four short films and a pair of television episodes, Irish writer/director Lee Cronin has made the leap to feature films with his stark and rakishly crafted spook story THE HOLE IN THE GROUND, which ironically tills no terrifying new territory at all, but rather executes a well-worn formula with just enough of a cryptically gripping mystery and a dense air of slow-suctioning suffocation to warrant a cautious walk through. A lot has been made of this newest “elevated” horror title from prestige distro-house A24 opening in limited fashion March 1st, and while a definite recommendation is in line for what is a very fine first film, it need be said clearly and upfront that THE HOLE IN THE GROUND does NOT belong in the category of such deservingly apotheosized modern-day horror classics as HEREDITARY, THE WITCH and THE BABADOOK. It’s a simply a cut below. Perhaps two. And yet, with its possessively hypnotic sway, deliberate pace and well-captured atmosphere, exemplary craftsmanship and two standout performances by unknown Irish leads, THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is certainly worthy of diving into!

Cronin snatches our eye in a terrific opening shot in which the camera flips 180-degrees to track a vehicle trudging down the road. Unfortunately, per the unoriginality whinge, we saw Fede Alvarez do something almost identical to open EVIL DEAD six year ago. No sweat. We meet Sarah (Kerslake), a twitchy single mother driving the car through the woods with her son Chris (Markey). As they approach their destination deep in the foreboding forest, the car screeches to a halt in front of a creepily-robed-and-hooded figure standing in the middle of the road. Stash the portent. As the two settle in to a appositely moldering old farmhouse slanted in shadows and silhouette, we learn Sarah has recently divorced from her husband, and that Chris not only kind of blames her, but would prefer to live with his dad. Rough stuff for Sarah and her confidence. The scenario worsens when Chris disappears one night, much to the panic and paranoiac dismay of Sarah, and finally awakes to find himself next to a gigantic sinkhole surrounding their property. Upon returning home, we instantly sense something amiss with Chris. Does the sinkhole somehow possess him?

Much of the movies mystery lies within the reliability, or lack thereof, of Sarah as a protagonist who may or may not be losing her mind. As the film wears on, she continues to slam pills down in order to cope with her anxiety and paranoia, but soon it becomes clear that the pills aren’t helping but rather compounding the problem to a far worse degree. Cronin is most interested in, and for the most part succeeds with, this psychological gray area that demands from viewers whether to parse what we’re seeing is inward psychosis projected outward or literal, physical supernatural horror. I like this myopic distinction a great deal, even if our suspicions are too easily aroused at one point and ultimately rewarded as correct later on in the film. Still, Cronin intoxicates us, like Sarah is, with a slow-acting barbital effect, woozily pacing the film with a simmering hypnosis. When Sarah starts accusing her son of being an imposter, convinced that someone or something took her son in the middle of the night and replaced it with a soulless doppelganger is also fascinating meditation on motherhood, but as mere metaphor, it pales compared to that of THE BABADOOK. But as it relates to the mystery of Sarah’s mind, Cronin does a decent job of pulling the strands of uncertainty tight enough to keep the whole thing from falling apart.

Where the movie does unravel a bit, aside from the bald derivativeness, is nonthreatening temperament of Chris when he’s called upon to come off as truly scary. While Markey gives a good performance on the whole, when we’re most crucially asked to credibly buy that he’s a potentially lethal force of evil acting on behalf of a demonic spirit, we simply do not. Or at least, not for long enough. He’s no PRODGIY (Jackson Robert Scott), that’s for sure. The other thing, and this relates to both the lack of diegetic uniqueness as well as the overall dearth of genuine terror in the film, is that the final act literally descends into THE DESCENT, replete with a wriggling clan of filthy mud-ghouls worming through crawlspaces in tired and turbid imagery we’ve trampled over for 15 years now. Irksome as it is though, the execution of even the most cliché of conventions is done well enough, with a high level of craft by all of the below-the-line talent, DP Tom Comerford and composer Stephen McKeon chief among them, to forgive much of the retreading. The dark and dour wooded ambience of the forest setting goes a long way in drawing us in, holding us tight and never yielding the ever-mounting tension. The sinkhole itself, which, as a title character, needs the requisite gravity to pulls us in with utter belief, is designed alarmingly enough to keep us mystified in a quasi-state of terror long enough to retain our intrigue.

It’s that old chestnut. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND breaks no new ground, but because the source material is so fecund to begin with, and because Cronin shows through pitch-perfect execution that he’s an undeniable force of a filmmaker to watch in the future, an urging to see the film is certainly in line. While it isn’t the instant classic some are prematurely categorizing it with (HEREDITARY, THE WITCH, THE BABADOOK), THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is only a step or two below (note: while rounding up to an 8/10 score, the film really ranks more accurately as a 7.5/10).

Source: AITH

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