[Review] The Hole in the Ground

A24 has become known for a specific kind of horror. Some call it elevated. Others call it stuffy or slow. But their movies of this ilk never fail to impress me, even when the horror community at large might be disappointed (see It Comes At Night, for example). Their typical brand of horror, when they’re not making zigzags into the surreal (Slice), is the slow burn, character-driven kind that, when successful, can get under your skin and linger.

The Hole in the Ground falls into this category and is mostly successful, even though I wish it had gone a bit harder towards the end.

The first thing you’ll notice is the absolutely stunning camerawork by cinematographer Tom Comerford. It begins with a tracking shot, following a car containing Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) as they drive down a long, winding road surrounded by the deep and seemingly unending Irish forests. But as they drive, the camera slowly starts panning so it looks like they are driving downwards, descending from the heavens, before flipping completely upside down in a stunning display of cinematography.

A hooded woman appears in the middle of the road, causing Sarah to twist the wheel and almost crash the car. When Sarah goes to check on the woman, she finds her staring vacantly at her and they eventually leave, disconcerted at the whole ordeal.

Sarah recently separated from her husband and she's bringing Chris to their new home, deep in theIrish woods. One day, after Chris is terrified by a spider that Sarah safely carts outside, he corners her about his father. He’s under the impression that his father is on his way behind them, but he obviously isn’t. And while we can kind of understand what’s going on, Chris is too young. And so he angrily runs off into the forest. Sarah gives chase and stumbles upon an unsettling discovery.

There is an absolutely massive hole in the forest that descends deep into the earth. It looks deep and dark, with the ground near the bottom constantly churning and possibly unending. Honestly, it reminds me of the Sarlacc Pit from Star Wars. Briefly taken aback at this finding, she turns around and sees her son, staring at her with big, yet somehow vacant, eyes. She scolds him, takes him back home…but something seems a bit off with Chris.

It starts with little things. Finding his favorite toy in the woods. Banging noises at night. Slamming doors. Creaking house noises. Chris is ravenous and acts out in sudden displays of powerful aggression. At night, she finds him scampering on all fours and making whispery animal noises. But he is also unfailing polite, with an innocent lilt to the way he says, “Mommy.”

At a dinner with friends, Sarah learns that the old woman she almost hit earlier is Noreen Brady (Kati Outinen) who killed her son in what was either a freak accident or premeditated murder. See, she started believing her son wasn’t her son. That he was someone else. Another chance encounter with Noreen escalates with Mrs. Brady whispering to Sarah, “It’s not your boy” before slamming her head bloody against the passenger side window of Sarah’s car. And then Sarah starts to wonder…just who did she bring home from the forest?

Okay, so before I dig into anything else I just have to say that this movie looks stunning. The framing of every single shot is practically perfect, enhanced by the truly gorgeous location that evokes both isolation and serenity, in equal measures. The way The Hole is the Dark is lit changes, from a more homey glow of night time scenes of harmony to a more washed out and stark style that elicits tension. It’s a slick and beautifully shot movie to watch. 

Without ever naming the folklore it’s based on, The Hole in the Ground delves into a modern take on a traditional European legend of a changeling. In traditional legends, fairies steal a baby and replace it with another fairy that takes the appearance of the child. In pre-industrial Europe, the idea was that the changeling’s ravenous appetite lead to familial hardships that created a threat to the family’s existence. This, of course, lead to parents murdering their kids. And while The Hole in the Ground skirts these tropes, it’s obvious that the idea is the foundation of the story.

The narrative by director Lee Cronin and co-screenwriter Stephen Shields grounds the fantastical in the mundane. Sarah is obviously on edge, trying to keep everything together and its hinted that maybe her previous relationship wasn’t good. She has a scar on her forehead, that she covers with her bangs, that suggests an unpleasant past.

The majority of the movie rests on the performances of Seána and James and they do exceptional work. The fear, distrust and confusion that Seána goes through is palpable. And James is that rare child actor who feels beyond his years. The innocence he exhibits reminded me of a less-staged, hokey version of Haley Joel Osment’s performance in The Sixth Sense…only more realistic. It’s hard, as the viewer, to look at him and think he’s evil because he just seems so caring and well-mannered.

In the beginning a lot of the more grotesque and horrific/supernatural scenes are either dreams or daydreams (think, again, It Comes At Night), but unlike movies that utilize these dream sequences to jolt the audience, these sequences actually tie directly into Sarah’s mental state. As we experience Sarah’s rapidly increasing paranoia and the off-putting way Chris is acting, these brief moments only these brief moments serve to exacerbate both her feelings and influence the viewer.

Slow burn is often thrown around as a way to say “boring” by critics of this type of storytelling. And while there are movies that feel strung out until some bonkers ending, I don’t think that fits the bill here. Yes, The Hole in the Ground is deliberately paced and decidedly a slow burn, but it’s about establishing and maintaining a sense of ever-increasing dread. But when it goes horror, it goes full tilt. The third act actually goes places and commits to the type of story its telling. I just wish it had gone a little further or stayed a little longer in some of the truly intense places the third act goes.

It’s not perfect and doesn’t quite achieve the heights of some of A24’s bests, but it’s still a fantastic little thriller, anchored by absolutely beautiful cinematography and pitch perfect acting.

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