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Non-Review Review: The Hole in the Ground

Reduced to a snappy elevator pitch, The Hole in the Ground is perhaps best described as Without Name by way of The Babadook with a dash of The Descent for flavour.”

Such descriptions are inevitably reductive, and don’t do justice to Lee Cronin’s maternal pagan wilderness horror, but they provide a strong sense of texture for the film. Indeed, given the quality of the three horror movies cited, The Hole in the Ground is at least drawing from the best sort of sources. The Hole in the Ground is a horror movie that draws upon Ireland’s rich supernatural framework to deliver a more relatable and universal sort of horror. The Hole in the Ground is a tale about the parental anxiety about the bond between mother and child informed by a heritage of faeries and changelings. It’s very shrewdly constructed so that one set of primal fears resonates with another quintessentially human fear.

Curtains for you.

The Hole in the Ground is a canny and well-constructed horror. It is effectively directed by Cronin, who knows how to build suspense and dread. It understands the power of something as simple as close-ups and sound effects to create a feeling of repulsion in an audience, even confronted with a seemingly mundane activity; if not for The Killing of a Secret Deer, this film would have cornered the market on the visceral horror of eating spaghetti. Cronin’s ability to build suspense carries the film through to its logical conclusion, culminating in the relatively rare horror movie third act that feels confident, effective and ambitious. It helps that Cronin has actor Seana Kerslake in a lead role as well, effectively tasked with carrying much of the film singlehandedly.

The Hole in the Ground is well made and efficient. Its biggest issue is that it often feels assembled from left-over parts, that it is playing with clusters of ideas that have already been thorough and substantively explored by films with an even tighter focus. This isn’t a fatal flaw by any means; the horror films that The Hole in the Ground evokes are some of the finest of the twenty-first century. The Hole in the Ground isn’t quite competing at that level, but it is stille very, very good.

You must be kidding.

The basic set up of The Hole in the Ground is an intersection of a number of schools of contemporaneous horror storytelling. Most immediately, in terms of tone and mood, the film draws up the geographical horror that has been popularised in the United Kingdom by filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and which has become a fixture of Irish horror cinema thanks to the work of people like Lorcan Finnegan. This is obviously a rich vein of horror that can be traced back to the eighteenth century and beyond, but it seems particularly pronounced in modern British and Irish horror. It is the fear that the land itself is monstrous and that it will consume those who live upon it.

(American cinema is working through its own preoccupations with the intersection of the horror and the western in films like The Revenant, Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight. Indeed, it should be noted that Irish cinema has had its own pseudo-horrorific postcolonial western with the superlative Black ’47. One of the most striking early images in that film was a skull in a puddle of mud, as if to suggest that the ground itself was feeding on those who had dared to draw their livelihood from it. It is a very primal anxiety, one that resonates across the globe. Every culture has a distinct and unique relationship to the land upon which they live. Irish cinema is articulating those simmering fears increasingly clearly.)

The hole in the wall.

Sarah has moved to the country with her young son Christopher. They live in an old rundown house that Sarah takes it upon herself to renovate. The house is so isolated and alone that, at one point, Sarah has to explain to the authorities that it does not actually have an address. At the edge of the property, there is a forest. In that forest, there is a sense that something is lurking and waiting. The title of the film derives from a sinkhole that exists in the middle of the sea of trees, a void that seems perpetually hungry and ready to gobble up anything that might possibly wander into it. There is a sense that primary forces exist in this landscape, things beyond the reckoning of people like Sarah. Repeatedly, the ground threatens to swallow characters, to consume them.

Some of the most interesting things that Cronin does come from this juxtaposition of modernity with antiquity. The film is full of beautiful compositions, but one of the most striking features a small child running towards the forest on a trajectory parallel to a plane streaking across the sky. It is a wonderful snapshot in contrasts, a juxtaposition between Ireland as it is and Ireland as it was, inviting the audience to wonder what primal forces are lurking beneath the advances of civilisation. The film repeatedly reinforces this contrast; one local family tries to identify evil spirits with mirrors and reflections, while Sarah eventually comes to use a digital camera to serve the same purpose.

A dirty job.

Writers Lee Cronin and Stephen Shields also have a little bit of fun with the familiar template of these kinds of horror. Not so much as to deconstruct or over-analyse the primal fears at play, but just enough to showcase an understanding of genre mechanics. Notably, the film has a little fun with the familiar trope of the “wise rural elder” template, the stock character who exists to provide exposition and back story to the new arrival, advice which might have come in handy earlier in the film. While The Hole in the Ground does not eschew such a role, it does temper it somewhat. There are two characters introduced to serve that function, but who eventually prove either unwilling or unable. It’s a nice twist on the rural horror template.

The Hole in the Ground weds this pagan primal horror to a more sophisticated allegorical horror. The film uses its relative isolation to explore the relationship between Sarah and Christopher. Sarah left the city in a hurry, and without her long-term partner. There are recurring suggestions that Sarah was not running from something, but away from something. When Sarah refuses to kill a spider that terrified Christopher, he complains, “Dad would have killed it for me.” Sarah firmly replies, “I am not your father.” There’s a recurring sense that Christopher exists as an embodiment of something that Sarah would happily leave behind, that at least half of Christopher is a constant and perpetual reminder of something that left a lasting (and literal) scar on the young mother.

Chris Almighty.

Although The Hole in the Ground inevitably suggests the classic “changeling” horror story, it suggests the core fear underpinning such myths; the worry that parents may no longer recognise themselves in their children. “That is not your son,” one character warns Sarah. (In one pointed moment, Sarah’s friend asks, “If he’s not your son, then whose son is he?”) In a moment of candour that is perhaps more relatable than many parents would like to admit, Sarah asks her friend, “Do you ever look at your kids and not recognise them?” This ties into all manner of related anxieties, about what happens when a parent is (for whatever reason) incapable or unwilling of providing the love that a child needs. It’s a visceral, tangible fear. And it cuts to the bone.

In this respect, The Hole in the Ground benefits from fantastic casting. James Quinn Markey is very effective as Christopher, hitting that sweet spot of creepineess necessary for a role like this to function without pushing into camp. However, Seana Kerslake continues to prove herself one of the best emerging Irish talents. So much of The Hole in the Ground hinges on Kerslake, often asking her to carry scenes by herself or hinging on a perfect reaction shot. Due to the structure of the film, and its emphasis on isolation, Sarah is a character who is largely defined by her interiority and who has to communicate a lot to the audience without recourse to dialogue. Kerslake is a remarkably expressive performer and a major boon to the film.

Hold it right there.

The Hole in the Ground also benefits from a very canny third act that escalates very effectively its starting point. In some ways, the climax of the film feels like the only logical direction in which the story might develop, but it ends up being surprising because so few contemporaneous horrors would commit to such a development so enthusiastically. The third act of The Hole in the Ground represents a slight shift in subgenre, transitioning from one style of horror to another. It is a testament to director Lee Cronin that the film manages that transition as gracefully as it does, and a credit to Cronin and Shields that the film had the confidence to pull off a transition that (while logical and organic) most other horrors would shy away from.

The only real issue with The Hole in the Ground is that these elements are all fairly familiar in terms of modern horror cinema. The pagan rural horror element has been explored quite a lot in recent Irish and British horror cinema, with Without Name standing out as a strong Irish example. The fears about motherhood at the heart of The Hole in the Ground were explored in a more visceral and more tangible manner in The Babadook. Even the pure horror-in-the-darkness-of-an-isolated-rural-environment vibe at the climax channels The Descent without ever quite meeting the heights of that feature film. Failing to beat these three films at their own game is no major shame; The Hole in the Ground is pitching itself against three champions of the genre.

A touching moment.

This would no normally be a source of concern; the horror genre is built on familiar rhythms and structures, after all. It is only an issue because the film leans so hard into these elements that in invites direct comparison. It might be fair to suggest that there is very little new under the sun. Not even The Hole in the Ground. That said, The Hole in the Ground is an effective and evocative Irish horror constructed with a deep understanding of the genre and anchored in a tremendous central performance.

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