The Hole in the Ground ****
Dir: Lee Cronin. With: Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Simone Kirby, James Cosmo. 90 mins. Cert: 15
Here’s an Irish folk-horror that clearly drew the right conclusions from the midnight-movie pairing of The Babadook and Under the Shadow: a film operating at a suspenseful, spider-like creep that allows it to skirt your defences and get some distance under the skin. It opens with a broadly familiar set-up, as recently separated, subtly scarred Sarah (Seána Kerslake) installs herself and young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) into the kind of countryside fixer-upper that conventionally serves as a magnet for trouble. Yet its foundations are undermined in unexpected fashion, first by the discovery of a vast sinkhole in the surrounding forest, then by the neighbourhood crone (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen) who pauses her catatonic murmuring to insist Chris isn’t who he seems. As Sarah briefs one confidante: “It’s been a funny few days.”
The bathos in that aside testifies to the care director Lee Cronin and co-writer Stephen Shields take to describe a semi-functional household against which the mounting weirdness can be more starkly defined. It’s there in the way Sarah strips wallpaper with a kitchen spatula, and Chris’s rejection of parmesan as “dust cheese”; there again in the appearance of James Cosmo, bringing his usual stout Celtic solidity to bear on the role of Outinen’s desperate-distraught spouse. For a good, enthralling hour, we’re uncertain whether the real threat facing this household comes from within or without. The sinkhole’s a nifty feat of VFX that exerts a strange pull, but there’s also the curious cuckoo-in-the-nest business – and young Markey was surely cast for his uncanny resemblances to Sixth Sense-era Haley Joel Osment and The Shining’s Danny Lloyd.
Cronin sometimes leans a little heavy on the Kubrickisms – Sarah tempts fate upon repapering the hall with a pattern recalling the Overlook’s carpets – but transcends mere homage by providing us with the resources to invest in these characters. The terrific Kerslake gives an anchoring performance, suggesting a slightly young-seeming mother beginning to question the evidence of her own tranquiliser-heavy eyes and having to trust her instincts anew. It’s a film in animated conversation with genre history – even a casual survey of that sinkhole might discern traces of Carrie White’s corpse, The Descent’s doomed spelunkers and the victims of The Vanishing – yet it always finds new, invariably cinematic ways to nudge us towards its final mise-en-abime. Cronin feels like a real find for our especially insecure moment.
The Hole in the Ground opens in selected cinemas from today.