The kids are alright with being scared ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The kids are alright with being scared

The Hole
My rating:

The promo copy for The Hole refers to Joe Dante as a "legendary director", which on the one hand may just be typically overblown marketing spiel - but on the other hand, the man did direct Gremlins and its sequel. Not to mention the original Piranha, The Howling, Innerspace and Small Soldiers. His last film was Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and that was a good 7 years ago - and now he has a new movie out, and it's a return to the genre he's most known for at that. So, pretty significant.

I just wish I liked it better.

Teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia), his younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) and their single mom Susan (Teri Polo) have just moved to the small town of Bensonville, fleeing a troubled past. Dane is unenthusiastic about the move, until he meets their attractive next door neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett). But then the kids discover a trapdoor in the basement floor of their new house, a door that opens to a mysterious pitch-black hole. An evil force lives within that hole, and opening the trapdoor has unleashed it upon all three of them - as it did Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), the house's previous occupant.

Yes, you read the labels right. It's family-friendly horror, and it's not as incongruous a combination as you might think, especially if you're familiar with Dante's oeuvre. Kids love the delicious thrill of a good scary story as well as adults, and horror can be spooky and creepy without being R-rated (or 18); witness the popularity of the Goosebumps books. But on film, it's a pretty damn rare genre, and we haven't seen much of it since... well, since Dante's heyday during the '80s. So by rights he ought to be the perfect guy to bring it back.

And it sure seems that way in the beginning. Mark L. Smith's screenplay is solid, with appealing characterizations and dialogue that rings true; one neat thing it does is gradually doling out the backstory in a way that keeps the plot firmly grounded in the characters. In interviews, Dante has been effusive in his praise of Smith's script, and it's a script that certainly deserves it. Dante also gets the tone just right for kid-friendly horror, crafting scenes and images that are chilling in just such the way as to make you feel like you're 10 years old like Lucas again. There are bits with an evil-looking clown puppet, always a good source of frights - and there's a subplot involving a little girl ghost (and the way she moves) who is just terrifically scary.

Unfortunately, the more the nature of the hole was revealed, the more disappointed I was. At the risk of spoilers, I'll say that Dane, Julie and Lucas each have to face the horror of the hole individually, but the ways they overcome it feel anti-climactic and unsatisfying. And then there's the acting. Both Chris Massoglia's and Haley Bennett's performances are somewhat low-key, and I'm almost certain they were directed that way by Dante. It worked at first; their acting seemed naturalistic, and I could appreciate what Dante was going for. Then things started getting hairy, Dane and Julie started to face more and more freaky shit, and the word that kept coming to mind was "wooden".

But it's biggest flaw is that its later half couldn't sustain the creepiness of the first half. The tone gradually switches from horror to action-adventure, and it's quite a letdown after the delicious spookiness we were served earlier. I just couldn't muster up much excitement for the big climactic showdown, and the anaemic acting didn't help things either. I'm not sure I can fault Dante for this, since this is pretty much de rigueur for children's films; our kid heroes must triumph over the bad guys at the end. I think he just misjudged which of the film's bits were really scary; he put the best in the beginning and saved the weakest for last.

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. It's Joe Dante after all, and Gremlins was a pretty big part of my wasted movie-going youth. But I think it at least deserves a tentative recommendation, if only because it's kid-friendly horror, and that's a genre that deserves a revival. It doesn't mean the scary stuff is neutered or sanitized; it's a different kind of scary, one that you'll recognize if you're a child of the '80s or grew up reading R.L. Stine. And you'll definitely get it here. It's just a pity that you don't get it all the way to the end.

Expectations: waah, ambitious-nya