The Hole in the Ground digs deep in the mind and strikes terror in the heart
Director: Lee Cronin Starring: Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey Running Time: 90 minutes
We think we’re smarter than horror when we see it on film. We tell doomed characters not to go through that door, just pick up their phone and call for help or to run the hell out of that goddamn house. Sarah O’Neill did run away from her nightmare, before The Hole in the Ground even sees its title appear. Hide the scar, move away, just don’t think about it, for jaysus sake don’t talk about it, it’s grand, it’s all grand sure. Bury the trauma and hope it doesn’t resurface, doesn’t find it’s way into the people close to you, doesn’t drag you down with it, an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Modern horror can be more overt than ever about processing familial anxieties and mental health issues through the things that go bump in the night, but some are better than others about fleshing out their subjects and following through thoughtfully once the metaphor clicks, “elevated horror” that loses a sense of grounding. Slick production and more ambient scares for horror are all very well and good, but if the characters and their experiences aren’t worth caring about then in the end it’s still all so many sexy teen butchered in the woods isn’t it? Thankfully Lee Cronin’s debut feature avoids those pitfalls, drawing enthusiastically from his influences and working with terrific leads to deliver a confidently creepy country horror that makes for essential viewing, a descent into hell down in the valley-0.
Determined young mam Sarah has moved to the countryside with her son Chris, leaving an abusive relationship behind her in the city and throwing herself into a renovation project fixing up their new house on the edge of the wilderness of the woods. She’s already got a job, Chris is in a good school even if he’s worried about starting over and everyone seems fairly sound – if a bit keen to either gossip or gloss over the haunted old woman wandering the roads. Another thing no one seems to mention is the Leitrim-sized sinkhole that’s opened in the woodland; a natural phenomenon with a distinctly unnatural feel, cold and silent and ominous, like an obscured wound in the land itself. Not the kind of place you want your kids going near obviously.
Things became more fraught in their home after the unsettling but undiscussed discovery of the hole, and Sarah can’t help but feel something has changed in Chris. No one is talking twisting their head 360 degrees here, but there’s a distinct flying-kites-at-night vibe; Chris is now aloof and overly polite, he’s calling Sarah “Mummy” – unquestionably a cause for concern for an Irish kid – he’s eating differently, even his posture seems off; things a parent would pick up on, even if no one else around can see it. There’s a lot about Hole in the Ground that’s conventional enough in its set up, but there’s an Irish shading that feels realised to the doubts sown in Sarah – no accusations of craziness, nothing too overwrought, just breezily ignoring the very idea that something could be wrong, with the faintest dash of condescension. Creepy kids are ten a penny on screen, but the subtle approach favours this film. Cronin has spoken about how little of what Chris does is outright horrific, and wrinkles the storytelling enough to keep the audience guessing without getting frustratingly obscure. An obvious horror hound, Cronin litters his film with references, but mostly there’s a restraint to it, he’s using what tools that he knows works and is excited to play with himself. The directors enthusiasm is also palpable in having two great performers to give this story more dimension.
Expressive and empatheric, Kerslake continues to add to her reputation of one of Ireland’s fastest rising actresses. She’s got a steel to her that keeps us on her side, frightened, but with her head screwed on tightly enough, a character that’s up to the challenges the film presents her with. Crucially, she pairs perfectly with James Quinn Markey both before and after he starts going all changeling chap – their warm relationship starting off is something that it would be a shame to lose, a believable dynamic between a young parent and child that becomes steadily unnerving. Energetic and inquisitive in the early going, young James makes his character feel like a real kid, tapping into our own protective instincts. Pleasingly, where horrors of this nature often sputter in the third act, having played out all their scares or otherwise ending up at a loss as to where to go, having set up its atmosphere so well and invested its audience in Sarah and Chris, The Hole in the Ground shifts gears from unsettling uncertainty to a full-on Ito/Lovecrafty plunge into madness, meaning not only does it save the most entertaining scares for the end, but it also pays off thematically – all horrors must be dealt head on to be truly dealt with.
Working with cinematographer Tom Comerford, Cronin pitches the environment itself perfectly, a chilly, empty nature of greys and browns that feels hostile in itself. Overhead shots recall Kubrick indulgently, but indulgence can be forgiven in a debut; Cronin and co show plenty of their own skill elsewhere, trapping Kerslake in frames, amping up uncanny sounds, all of which makes for anxious viewing even when the actual events playing out on screen are mundane, planting us in Sarah’s shoes. It’s grand, but it’s not grand and it shows that with greatness.
The story might seem conventional enough, but Ireland has its own context for our youth being harmed, or women pressed to doubt themselves. Still we dug up the skeletons from our past, and thought that’s more nightmarish than any film could ever aspire to be, it’s as necessary for any nation as it is for individuals, confront the truth, deal with the trauma, as to ignore it will only distort things further, a trap in a hole that can’t be climbed out from. The Hole in the Ground understands this impressively, while still delivering the goods on the fright-front, a terrifying triumph that will bury its way into many minds.(5 / 5)