by Bill Chambers At the outset, it worried me that The Hole (no relation to any of the films bearing that title in the past), the great Joe Dante's return to the big screen, has little to no marquee value. Silly, I know: It's not like Gremlins' Zach Galligan was or is a household name--and besides, this is one of Dante's kid-oriented pictures, which are never star-driven. Still, to go from "and Steve Martin" to "and Teri Polo" in six short years is pretty humbling; Dante long ago paid his dues in B-movies and, however happy he might be to get away from studio interference/oppression, I'm sad to see him back there--not just because he hardly deserves such a Wellesian fate, but also because he's a director whose imagination grew in proportion to his funding, and he seems no longer inspired but instead stupefied by a shoestring budget. At least where his feature work is concerned.
In The Hole, teenaged Dane (Chris Massoglia) and his little brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) are forced to call the suburban podunk of Bensonville home after being uprooted for apparently the umpteenth time by their restless mother (Polo). From an adolescent standpoint, their new place has two things going for it: a view overlooking cute neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett, who was sort of brilliant in Music and Lyrics); and a bottomless pit in the basement that's part Lovecraftian portal, part Nietzschian abyss. Needless to say, Dane, Julie, and Lucas bond over the titular chasm, literally and figuratively, whereupon all three start having encounters with physical manifestations of their worst fears. (Think Flatliners without the defibrillators.) Promisingly, Lucas is afraid of clowns, and we get a doozy of a jester doll to infect our collective subconscious. But the gag, in what proves a common complaint across the protagonists' nightmares, doesn't escalate; imagine Gremlins stopping at the in-between Mogwai. (Most disappointingly for the cinephilic Dante, the footage from a video camera lowered into the hole is left maddeningly unexploited.)
Maybe Dante's miserable experience on Looney Tunes: Back in Action turned him off frenetic pacing and funhouse gauntlets, but it's worth noting that when a big dose of his signature anarchy would really be welcome (i.e., during the climax to Dane's arc), the picture becomes uncharacteristically lumbering and heavy-handed. It's not a total loss, particularly if you're feeling nostalgic: The Hole resurrects the '80s tendency to abuse the PG prerogative to say "shit," as well as that decade's comfort with contemporary pop-culture--one of my favourite moments has the kids sending a talking Cartman plushie down the well. Dante's still using the Spielbergian camera for evil and there are vintage flashes of his humour in the film, such as a glove factory named Orlac. Alas, it's not enough to keep the (unfortunate) novelty of seeing a theatrical feature directed by Joe Dante--in 3-D, no less--from wearing off, at which point the film loses its flavour faster than chewing gum. Programme: Special Presentation (Originally published: September 13, 2009.)