The Hole in the Ground, 2019.
Directed by Lee Cronin.
Starring Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, James Cosmo and Kati Outinen.
Living on the edge of some woods that contain an enormous sinkhole, a woman begins to worry there’s something strange happening to her son.
British and Irish horror has a rich and compelling heritage, from the iconic work of Hammer through to more recent efforts like Corin Hardy’s The Hallow and last year’s chilling anthology movie Ghost Stories. World premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the latest entry in the field of Irish horror is The Hole in the Ground from debut feature director Lee Cronin, who also co-wrote with Stephen Shields. It’s a muddled grab bag of ideas that never coalesces into a coherent scare-fest.
At the centre of the movie is the relationship between single mother Sarah (Seána Kerslake) and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey). They’ve moved in to a secluded home on the outskirts of a very spooky forest that, for some reason, plays home to an enormous sinkhole that resembles the impact crater of a meteor strike. When Sarah declares, as if trying to convince herself more than Chris, that “we’re going to be happy living here, I promise”, it comes with a heavy dose of dramatic irony. From the opening scene, in which Chris is seen distorted in a hall of mirrors, Cronin makes it clear that the audience can expect this relationship to be anything but ordinary.
Soon, Chris is acting in a strange, detached way that’s eerily reminiscent of the warped kids in The Innocents and a crazed old woman is bashing her head against their car window, claiming that Chris is no longer Chris. Markey makes for a nicely creepy horror movie kid, wolfing down spaghetti like an animal and modulating his performance by just a few notches, making sure the audience is never quite sure whether what is happening is a result of a genuine change on his part, or simply his mother’s increased isolation. Kerslake, too, does solid work, though her performance isn’t as strong as other recent troubled horror mums. In many ways, she’s a victim of Toni Collette’s exceptional work in Hereditary and Essie Davis in The Babadook.
Cronin delivers a sporadically successful collection of scares, building an unsettling atmosphere for the movie’s first half, only to squander it almost entirely with a second half that is a mishmash of half-realised concepts. There are simply too many things going on and not nearly enough explanation as to how they all tie together. The movie’s central thesis – questioning the notion that no one knows a child better than their parent – is quickly buried beneath horror tropes and visual flourishes that never quite work. Even the score, which makes its presence felt through angry, unorthodox blasts, feels like it’s serving a different movie.
It’s an all the more frustrating experience given the strength of some of the ideas on show. Scenes in which the title refers to something other than the aforementioned woodland crater are ghoulishly innovative and leave a real impression after the credits roll, but there’s a sense that each individual idea is stronger than the movie surrounding it. When the movie comes to an end and its secrets have been revealed, it doesn’t amount to all that much.
But that’s not to say that Cronin doesn’t show some flair here, as he seems at home lensing slow-burn chills, even if the conclusion of his story doesn’t match up to the first act’s intriguing starting point. It’s not a particularly successful debut, but it is one that sets some nice groundwork for whatever he chooses to do next. Unfortunately, in the case of this one, the title proves sadly symbolic of the void at the centre of the story.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.