Don’t write Joe Dante off just yet. You may not have heard much from the perpetually underrated filmmaker lately, but The Hole, which premiered at TIFF in 2009 but is just now getting a Region 1 home video release, is not a bad place to start getting reacquainted. Like Gremlins and — to a lesser extent — Gremlins 2, The Hole occupies a “kids horror” genre niche that doesn’t constrain it to the obvious or prevent it from delivering genuine fright and dark humor.
Dante is the master of a kind of film that’s far more subversive than meets the eye, and while The Hole isn’t his sharpest genre exercise, it’s still a wholly enjoyable, purely archetypal horror tale. It’s also a good bet if you’re hoping to start engendering a healthy fear of clowns in any young ones you might have.
Moving to quiet suburban Bensonville from Brooklyn, 17-year-old Dane (Chris Massoglia), 10-year-old Lucas (Nathan Gamble) and their mother (Teri Polo) are hoping to start a new life following some unexplained trauma. Dane is prepared to be bored out of his mind by their less than exciting new neighborhood, but soon, the brothers discover a mysterious locked-down hatch in their basement, which opens up to a seemingly bottomless empty hole. Joining them in their investigation of the mystery is next-door neighbor Julie (Haley Bennett), whom Dane instantly takes a shine to.
Part of what holds The Hole back is its uneven performances by Massoglia and Bennett, who seem to be competing in a contest to be the blandest character possible. Gamble is much more of a natural and a far more compelling audience surrogate as the trio must deal with a bloody little girl, a sinister clown doll, a giant faceless man and the ominous mumblings of previous homeowner Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern).
If this all sounds fairly routine, it’s meant to be. At times, it seems like Dante is seeking to pack as many horror tropes and references in as he can. He’s such a deft visual filmmaker and a great humorist that it works just fine, never devolving into a jumbled referential mess, but toeing the line between irony and sincerity and sometimes achieving both simultaneously.