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Joe Dante’s name is most synonymous with playful horror films, like The Howling and Gremlins, which led him to a place among Stephen Spielberg’s late-80s power circle. But as time passed, his place in popular cinema went the way of many of his peers. His last really good film, 1993’s Matinee, didn’t get much in the way of mainstream love and he mostly disappeared into a made-for-television niche, emerging twice for family-friendly box office disappointments Small Soldiers and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. His best recent work includes a series of invaluable interviews on genre-specific documentaries and Homecoming, the very best of the depressingly weak Master of Horror television series. In 2008 Dante started filming his second 3D film (following a little seen theme park short called The Haunted Lighthouse), a teen-friendly horror flick called The Hole. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, but aside from some other limited release festival appearances, never really opened wide where the 3D qualities would be best appreciated by audiences. Now, three years later, it finally appears on North American Blu-ray and DVD, which, sadly, follows the pattern set at this later point in the director’s career. The Hole follows the story of Dane (Chris Massoglia), Lucas (Nathan Gamble), and their mother, Susan Thomson (Teri Polo), who have moved from the big city of New York to a small town called Bensonville. Soon after their arrival, the boys discover a seemingly bottomless pit in their new basement and investigate it alongside Dane’s new friend/love interest, Julie (Haley Bennett).

Hole, The
The apparent need to see The Hole in 3D is apparent from the first few frames. Dante has never made qualms about his love for gimmick-based filmmaking. Matinee is basically a biopic of the greatest movie huckster of all time, William Castle, and Dante cut his teeth editing trailers for Roger Corman, which included adding shots of explosions and boobs that weren’t part of the original material. Arguments concerning the artistic validity of the digital 3D format are effectively rendered moot in his hands, because the gimmick is the art. Dante keeps his camera moving smoothly, which is a welcome choice, especially compared to the entirely 3D unfriendly shaky-cam choices less professional filmmakers tend to make. This helps keep his stereoscopic effects relatively graceful (so I assume, watching it in 2D), though he’s clearly not above shoving stuff in the lens for the sheer fun of it. Dante also strikes a nice balance in the horror tones, ensuring that there are genuine disturbing elements and effective jump-scares, but nothing that would alienate the intended 10-14 year-old audience. He also avoids the temptation to let the characters devolve into screaming fits, despite their ages. The pervasive issue with Dante’s direction isn’t that he’s overusing clichés (again, the clichés are kind of the point of the exercise), or that this generally feels like a lesser effort crafter more for the fun of 3D, the problem is that even at its best, The Hole looks a lot like an episode of a TV series. This is partially an issue with the format’s lack of texture, but also extends to the film’s rhythm and a few weirdly-timed fades to black. I don’t intend to call The Hole a cheap-looking film, it is not (the mix of traditional and digital effects is quite well executed), it’s just not the most theatrical-looking movie. There’s every possibility that this is remedied by seeing the film in a good 3D theater.

The screenplay is credited to Mark L. Smith, who is best known for the hotel thriller Vacancy and its sequel, with an uncredited rewrite from Guillermo del Toro. Smith’s basic story is very conventional – it’s the same ‘sibling rivalry, boy and girl crushing on each other in the face of danger’ story you’ve already seen dozens of times. Occasionally, the familiarity can be a little boring, but Smith usually manages to play the conventions to his advantage and create a genuine sense of mystery throughout the supernatural goings-on. I’m actually a little ashamed of myself for not putting together the subtext until the film revealed it outright, which is a testament to how good the script is at using tropes as misdirection. The del Toro rewrite almost seems like a joke considering the manner the Mexican-born writer/director’s name has been attached in some form (writer, director, and/or producer) to almost every major kid-centric (or at least kid-heavy) horror film since he appeared on the scene, including Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, and Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark remake. The Hole even matches the supernaturally attacked new homeowners angle of some of del Toro’s productions, especially Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Dante’s strong visual and tonal presence marks the film as something of an extension of the Amblin era of family filmmaking, as does Smith’s script (which pays homage to stuff like Gremlins, Poltergeist, and even Dante’s entry in The Twilight Zone Movie), but it is that extra dash of del Toro mixed with the Spielbergian tone that sets The Hole apart from other minor thrillers and will likely be the best reason for nostalgic viewers to bother seeking it out. Cell phones and flat screen TVs aside, most of the film could’ve easily taken place in 1985.

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The Hole was shot using Red One 3D digital cameras and is presented on Blu-ray in 2D, 1080p, 1.85:1 video. This transfer is just about as hit and miss as it gets, running a wide gamut between top-notch and embarrassingly ugly. On the good side of the equation (which is, for the most part, the most prevalent side) are incredibly vibrant colours, consistent details, and sharp element separation. The entire film has a certain animated quality that extends both to the warm colours and relatively soft details. Sometimes Dante and cinematographer Theo van de Sande like contrasting this soft look with grittier textures (especially in the creepy basement), so there are plenty of fine bits in the mix, but the more prevalent style is concerned with broader details. The colours are clean and tend to skew towards a sort of honeyed hue with cooler highlights. The lighting schemes press the highlights into blooming quite a bit, but even these bloomed edges appear sharp. The really dark scenes are sometimes heavily bathed in blue, even to the point of washing out the blacks on the sides of the frame. Both the light and dark schemes feature some minor banding effects. On the not so good side of the equation are scenes featuring excessive digital noise. The reason for this noise is entirely lost on me, as most of the problem areas are shot in the exact same conditions as the good-looking ones. I would expect more noise in lower light, but there’s really no specific type of shot that is hit. This buzzing noise can literally disappear between camera angle cuts, leading me to believe the problem is in the source material, and swarms most fervently around red hues. I did notice similar effects on a recently-viewed digital 3D projection of Dredd, but, in that case, they were more consistent and likely an intended stylistic element.

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This Blu-ray features a rich and aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that constantly takes advantage of the surround format’s capabilities for the sake of a good scare. There are plenty of relatively thin, effects-lite dialogue sequences throughout the film, but Dante and company find plenty of excuses to keep things busy. The multi-channel representations match the heavily-used 3D gimmick’s fervency and, though a bit silly at times, sound generally quite good. Besides the creep factor of using the stereo and surround channels to signify more subtle, off-screen menace, the best use of sound design revolves around the title hole itself. Noise can eek softly from the hole and bleed spookily from the center, but just as often, it busts out, or the hole is slammed shut and ratchets noise across the channels. Other aural standouts include a sequence where hundreds of light bulbs bust in sequence and rain glass, an unexpected underwater sequence, and just about all of the hyper-stylized climax. Javier Navarrete’s score is a big, old-fashioned, fun time with eerie, warm strings, stinging scares, bombastic and melodic themes, and some nice, round kettle drum sound throughout. The score follows the sound design’s basic lead and ramps up the dynamic and directional effects with the climax.

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Extras begin with The Keyholder (Keeper of the Hole) (3:20, HD), a brief, weirdly paced behind the scenes look at the filming of Bruce Dern’s scenes, including interviews with Dante, producer David Lancaster, and actor Nathan Gamble. Relationships (Family Matters) (4:30, HD) is a similarly brief and weirdly-paced behind the scenes featurette featuring more interviews with actors Gamble, Teri Polo and Chris Massoglia, and writer Mark L. Smith. Making of The Hole (11:40, HD) is a bit more substantial of a look behind the scenes of the film, featuring interviews with the usual suspects, plus prosthetics supervisor Roy Knyrim and actress Haley Bennett. A Peek Inside The Hole (4:50, HD) finishes the featurettes off with a glance at the special effects. A still gallery is also included.

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The Hole sits directly in the middle of Joe Dante’s shaky overall filmography. It’s not particularly memorable, thanks to its familiar qualities, but the initial viewing process is an enjoyable one that should scratch the right itch in fans. And yes, Dick Miller does make a cameo appearance. The image quality of this 2D Blu-ray release is all over the place in terms of digital noise and I’m not sure if this was technically avoidable. The sound quality is solid the whole way through and the brief extras give a decent glance behind the scenes.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.