The line between horror classification and a more childlike fantasy thriller is unclear at times, and if anyone challenges such genre boundaries film after film, it would be director Joe Dante. From his Gremlins franchise to horror influences seen in comedies like The ‘Burbs and even a childhood favorite of mine, Small Soldiers, it’s hard to call Dante’s films straight horror. We know Dante has the capacity to create legendary terrors like the original Piranha, which is more of a cult Corman classic, and a still relevant werewolf thriller in The Howling, making his fluffier material which relates to younger audiences even more surprising.
The Hole follows that same line-dancing adventure-centric mentality, as Dante has created yet another family based horror film which audiences of all ages can be exposed to, although there are some frightening images that may keep the youngest of viewers fearing the dark for a little while.
While Dante’s tactics in mass audience appeal seem sensible, the director actually creates a “live by the sword, die by the sword” scenario to work out of. Balancing minimal scares with tamer storytelling for early teen viewers could be a huge success amongst budding horror fans not courageous or mature enough for R-Rated material, but in the same respect Dante has to know such an approach will turn die-hard genre fans off in an instant. Missing is the focus on blood, gore, slashers, and killers, instead replaced with more exploritory childlike curiosity, making our characters more detectives than survivors.
Appealing to younger audiences isn’t a bad thing necessarily, as no generation should be deprived of any genre, but The Hole struggles to consistently entertain viewers of all ages. Think of how the best animated movies offer enjoyment for both children and their parents, throwing in jokes or references specifically for audience members maybe not in the initial demographic. A 10-year-old isn’t going to understand the connection between Johnny Depp and a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference cleverly inserted into Rango, just like how parents may not find the idea of a bird-riding chameleon as instantly gratifying.
Relating back to The Hole, a lot of older die-hard fans will find themselves underwhelmed by Mark L. Smith’s simplistic and predictable storytelling, as both Dante and Smith fail to respect all watchers. Likewise, genre junkies won’t find many quippy nods or interesting tidbits to distract from watered-down and safe horror, while adventure fans will find the same lackluster production missing from an idea that begged for a much grander discovery. So many doors are left shut and so many ideas are left unexplored, as Smith creates an interesting concept with minimalistic implementation afterwards. In a mess of words, underdeveloped is the first that comes to mind.
The movie I wanted to see involved much more utilization of the hole’s mystical powers, not simply picking one horrific thought for each to battle. However, The Hole is content with only conjuring up enough ingenuity for three concrete story arcs, all of which are dealt with rather easily by each character. Maybe I was just spoiled by Cabin in the Woods and its unrivaled “kitchen sink” mentality, but I mean not even one character had to fight more than one demon? Either that’s the laziest haunting attempt I’ve ever seen a demonic bottomless hole make, or the three main characters have unbreakable wills of steel except for one minor flaw. C’mon, I know there are fearless people out there, but for entertainment’s sake why couldn’t these characters be neurotic messes possessing every phobia and heightened fear possible? Or why couldn’t there at least have been a few more characters to introduce more tantalizing materializations, replacing the simple cookie-cutter choices The Hole goes with.
Mix that nagging feeling of wasted potential with passable acting by our young trio of main characters and one of the more anti-climactic finishes I’ve seen all year, and The Hole becomes just another creation which makes us ponder “what if” instead of delivering the full package. So many great minds are continually pushing genre boundaries and inventing fresh takes on tired ideas, but Dante’s film plainly tells a story about exposing inner fears like you’ve seen time and time again. Curb your expectations and know you’re going into a film about how curious children overcome their fears, not how malevolent darkness torments a group of unsuspecting “victims.” For that reason alone, recommending this film to anyone besides novice horror watchers or lovers of simple-minded writing becomes almost impossible, as most fans will simply be asking for more.
But, to those who want a good weaning into terror cinema or need a good “bedtime” watch, The Hole may serve as a perfect start-up or filler flick to bridge some gaps. Joe Dante is at least able to nail the fantasy feel by creating nifty set pieces and utilizing effective cinematography that again play towards children’s imagination, which makes me believe younger audiences will be much more forgiving.
Not everyone can dive right in with a Nightmare on Elm Street for their first horror rodeo, and that’s where The Hole comes in.