“The Hole in the Ground” digs its way out of familiar territory with haunting visuals & strong performances

If the decades of horror film history have taught us anything it’s to never have children, ever. On top of throwing fits and always smelling like old milk, they’re the masters of the emotionless stare, capable of singing old-timey songs at high pitches and are easily susceptible to all manner of the paranormal. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is the latest entry in the “creepy kid” subgenre of horror, and while it’s not exactly an entry that reinvents this unsettling little wheel, it certainly finds gripping, unnerving and occasionally shocking ways of driving home the point that having kids can potentially be hellish work.

As with many a’ creepy kid movie, the story centers on a mother, Sarah (Seána Kerslake), and her young son, Christopher (James Quinn Markey), trying to start a new life in a new town, the father completely gone from the picture. They’re struggling, but making the best of it, finding time to goof around – all before the freaky business picks up. After almost hitting a mysterious, seemingly cursed old woman in the road, Sarah and Christopher happen on a – you guessed it – big hole in the ground that certainly looks like it shouldn’t be there. Soon after, Sarah starts to notice her son isn’t quite right, and after a few freak encounters and seeing him munch on a spider she slowly descends into madness as she tries to figure out what is wrong with her sweet little boy.

Again, at that face value, it really isn’t the most innovative take on the genre, coming off like similar movies like THE BABADOOK and this year’s THE PRODIGY – both reflecting varying degrees of quality of the genre. But where this one succeeds in at least making proceedings seem like a breath of evil air is thanks to director Lee Cronin, who in making his feature-length directorial debut here, demonstrates an impressive eye for crafting horror and suspense in a way that makes this take on a well-worn story feel engaging, fresh and all sorts of unsettling.

On that note, Cronin wrings out most the dread and suspense with some superb camera work, on more than one occasion letting the scares and building of tension play out in wide, often sustained shots. He isn’t afraid to let the focus of the terror exists in open spaces, letting several elements work within a single frame keep you on the edge of your seat. All in one shot you can be looking at the creepy old woman approach the car from afar, see the young son reaching for his mom, and wondering if anything is going to come bursting out of the woods any second. The result is a terrifying, bone-chilling experience that makes you feel like you’re watching everything from afar, or are right in the driver’s seat, and in both instances unable to look away.

Sarah (Seana Kerslake) checks around for her spider-eating son.

Without giving too much away, sequences with the creepy old woman and the equally creepy Christopher play out in wide shots, Cronin avoiding the tendency for quick cuts, simply letting the terror exist in the frame alongside some spine-tingling music. This approach is used plenty of times when shooting the vast sea of trees that surround their new home, with several landscape shots giving scope and an ominous feeling to the woods, which are vast, dark and look haunted with history. It’s easy to look at the forest and picture all sorts of ghosts, banshees, and manner of beasts lurking inside – which makes it the perfect home for a mysterious hole.

Speaking of, there’s a lot of mystery going on in this film, with all the different factors almost never focused on, but somehow linking to, the kid. Sarah has a scar on her head that starts acting up and bleeding like Le Chiffre’s tear ducts in CASINO ROYALE; there’s the old woman who loses her mind and raving to Sarah about how Chris is “not her son,” and; there’s the titular hole in the ground. Much of these play into Sarah’s own arc, as she begins to experience some mental instability to the point where maybe you think this is all just happening inside her head, only for it all to come back around to Chris in some nerve-wracking ways. In this sense, the movie is commendable for not wasting time showing the child doing all sorts of weird things, like staring out the window on end and stabbing pigeons in the schoolyard. Focusing so much on Sarah in the first half may not always provide the thrills some horror fans may want, but it’s a noteworthy perspective to take to lend a layer of psychological thriller to the whole thing.

Kerslake is great as Sarah, a character who is never quite happy and always seems to be stressed about her current situation in life, starting out fresh as a single mom. She’s curious and paranoid, and while never getting a big moment to scream her fears, Kerslake does an excellent job conveying her restrained, slowly-boiling-over fear of her own son. James Cosmo makes up the biggest supporting role outside the family, and while he’s a source of warmth as the creepy old woman’s husband, this story is one about the psychological connection between a mother and her son, particularly a mother sensing when her child is no longer her child. It’s Kerslake and Markey’s show, with the latter switching from sweet to flat-out evil at the turn of a coin. Sure, him munching on a spider is freaky, but that last thing you want is to be caught on the other end of his dead-eyed stare.

While the climax HOLE IN THE GROUND does open up to some fantastical elements, everything ends just about the way you may expect, but it’s built up to with some aggressive, fierce moments that capitalize on the slow-burn of the first two acts without going completely overboard into action-horror territory most horror movies find themselves in nowadays. Watching this horror flick, you’re not likely to experience many surprises that won’t also be found in similar movies, and it may not be consistently or bluntly scary enough for the more demanding horror fans who want demon nuns. However, fans always on the lookout for subtly crafted horror tales will find plenty to admire with this one, a grim, quietly evil horror tale with excellently shot sequences of suspense and terror uplifted by fantastic leading performances and one of the creepiest kids of all the recent creepy kids.

Grade: B+

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