Thursday 23 September 2010

Enter the void (#2): "The Hole"

In Joe Dante's fondly remembered, little seen homage to the monster movie, 1993's Matinee, John Goodman played a flamboyant producer apparently modelled on William Castle, the poverty-row tyro prepared to leave no gimmick untried in the quest for a quick buck. The spirit of Castle, and B-movies in general, has always hovered close to the surface of Dante's films: it's what made the likes of Gremlins and Small Soldiers the subversive mainstream experiences they were. The Hole marks the director's first theatrical venture in the new digital 3D format - and part of the fun is that Dante clearly relishes it as as good a gimmick as any available to contemporary filmmakers, short of possibly wiring the multiplex seats up to the mains.

Single mom Teri Polo uproots her two sons for the umpteenth time, relocating to the suburban dead-end of Bensenville, Illinois. With mum out working for much of the day, the boys (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble) roughhouse one another, befriend the girl next door (Haley Bennett) - oh, and stumble across a heavily padlocked trapdoor in their basement covering a seemingly bottomless pit. When the kids prise the door open - oblivious to the scratchmarks on its underside - they unleash all manner of chaotic forces: a plague of jester dolls that do nothing to ease the nervy youngest's bozophobia (or fear of clowns) - these the latest in the strong Dante tradition of very creepy, non-merchandisable marionettes - plus the spectre of a little girl who cries bloody tears and would perhaps be unlikely to appear in a safety-tested studio feature.

The youngsters' investigation into these phenomena will take them to a glove factory ("Gloves by Orlac") abandoned save for Bruce Dern and the thousand lightbulbs with which he's attempting to keep "the darkness" at bay, plus a dilapidated theme park (no longer) operating under the name Frolic Gardens, but there's no escaping the pull of the literal and gaping void in their lives: a repository for all their fears, of which - given the family are on the run from an abusive spouse writing threatening notes to his boys from behind bars - there are plenty. This hole - a suggestion of limitless empty space to which the 3D format is especially well-suited - is the star of the show here, and Dante throws everything he can at it and into it: an idling can of screws, a talking Cartman doll, a camcorder on a rope, eventually his juvenile leads.

For all this shameless, in-your-face spectacle, Dante retains a knack for the skilful shock-reveal: an eye suddenly appearing on a television screen, a patrol officer turning to reveal his brains have been exposed, even - one might argue - the gradual revelation that sunny, placid Bensenville plays home to numerous ghosts and regrets. It still feels slight: if not as eminently throwaway as Dante's work-for-hire Looney Tunes movie, than certainly lacking in the wall-to-wall invention of The 'Burbs, the black comedy that, despite lukewarm reviews at the time, looks increasingly like this director's masterwork. The highpoint is the expressionist finale, which replaces a New Jersey storage facility for the madhouse in Caligari, and plays a handful of neat tricks with perspective; in the main, though, it's just refreshing to see a filmmaker treating 3D with the respect it deserves, which is to say precisely none whatsoever.

The Hole is on nationwide release.

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