Joe Dante’s The Hole is a throwback to the 1980s, the heyday of Spielburgian, scary-fun horror, when kids played the heroes and men like Dante owned the genre. One of the earliest images in this movie is of a station wagon pulling into Anytown, U.S.A.—after the camera has been spit out of the tail pipe—and, really, when’s the last time you actually saw anyone driving one of those? In the car are Chris Massoglia (teenager) and Nathan Gamble (pre-teen), playing brothers; behind the steering wheel is their single mom. They’ve fled Brooklyn for Bensonville, moving into a new house with a padlocked-shut hatch in the basement. The kids pry off the locks, of course, and find a mysterious abyss, a hole without a bottom that’s home to fear itself: it (somehow) discovers what gives you the creeps and unleashes it upon you.
Each character, including a girl-next-door hottie (Haley Bennett), are forced to confront their personal boogeymen, conquering them by denying them power, by not being afraid anymore, a la Nightmare on Elm Street. The psychology is facile—we each have one and only one deep, dark, conquerable fear?—but Dante handles it with compensatory aplomb. He’s the consummate professional here, evident from the manipulations of creepy shadows and Javier Navarrete’s anxious score to the male leads’ warm fraternal rapport, or the movie’s general grasp of the group and the sense of collective discovery that’s particular to youth.
Written by Vacancy scribe Mark L. Smith, The Hole grapples, really, with kids confronting the terror of encroaching adulthood. You could think of The Hole as the sex orifice, the epitome of adolescent anxiety, that represents maturity in all its scariness. In fact, like growing up, the hole tends to take benign signifiers from childhood and rework them into sinister objects, making menacing what was once safe, whether it’s dolls, policemen, parents, amusement parks, best friends, or home itself—each undergoes a Burtonesque deformation, culminating in a Caligari-like climax, the delayed trip into the hole that plays out like German Expressionism filtered through the sensibilities of Saturday morning cartoons—that is, like something grown-up imagined by children.