Some directors are simply in the right place at the right time. This is why Tim Burton has spent the last decade recycling the same ideas, visuals and motifs to ever-diminishing returns with ever-escalating budgets. Surely Burton would not be where he was had the ever-underestimated Joe Dante not turned down directing “Batman” in the late '80s, citing the self-awareness that has eluded Burton his entire career: Dante famously refused the job on the grounds of being a Joker fan more than a Batman one. Sadly, it’s that sort of vision that allows Burton to keep lighting studios’ money on fire while Dante is reduced to low-fi time-wasters like “The Hole."
“The Hole” follows the Thompsons, a big-city family who abscond to the suburbs, transplanting two young sons coping with serious growing pains. In his late teens, moody Dane (Chris Massoglia) now sulks and complains, pressured to be a surrogate father figure to younger preteen brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble). Their single mother (Teri Polo) understands the difficulties of moving from address to address, and her repeated pleas for Dane to hang with Lucas are an implicit attempt to see growth from Dane, and affection from Lucas, even if their PG-13 rough-housing suggests Dane has grown tired of the “kiddie table” and wants to have a life of his own.
Despite the discomfort in his own skin that marks most boys his age, he still finds an easy companion in cute next-door neighbor Julie (Haley Bennett). It’s a courtship that feels fairly old-fashioned — Julie has an adventurous tomboy spirit not only in flirting with Dane, but in her proactive stance towards hanging out. There’s no sign of kids on computers, no real texting or video game playing, and only one Act One iPod sighting. It’s as if “Gremlins”-era Dante hasn’t aged a day, certain that kids still find excitement in front lawns, swimming pools, roller coasters and dusty basements.
Of course one could make the argument that the film has these dated elements from sitting on the shelf for so long. “The Hole” was shot in the late aughts, intended for 3D consumption when theaters still seemed uncertain about the format’s longevity. What was a novelty then is old hat by now; almost every single kids’ film takes advantage of the format, and in glamorous, big-budgeted ways. Dante, however, prefers the low-fi thrills, presenting a mystery centered around the Thompsons’ locked basement, which, when opened, seems to allow for all sorts of supernatural shenanigans.
“The Hole” fits in with Dante’s body of work in presenting a genuine PG-13 level of threat: highlighting scares and thrills straight-faced, having respect for kids without once turning the dial to eleven. The grab bag of ghouls introduced by this nefarious hole include, but are not limited to: a demonic clown doll (never not scary) and a dead girl leaking tears of blood. The movie wastes no time emphasizing that the threat is very real and very dangerous, but its strength lies in the characters’ reactions. Terrified and overwhelmed, they nonetheless attack the situation with kid pragmatism: it’s a full-on mystery, and they’re going to solve it, because the illusion of power kids feel often comes from secrets — the only way they can feel superior to their elders (in this case, worried mom) and their oppressive life situations (constantly changing addresses).
Sadly, “The Hole” seems to have been compromised from the start. Shot with shoddy digital video, it feels extensively over-edited, with scenes getting chopped off at the end, beginning in media res, or segueing from one into another via graceless transitions. Dante’s young performers are serviceable when the film allows them to act, but it’s in such a frenzy to include the subpar thrills (the effects are cable-level) that any appeal the three leads may have is buried underneath the rush to get to the end. The tackiest sign of the film's lack of TLC, which no doubt helped it stay on the shelf for years, are the sloppy overdubs when characters aren’t facing the camera, often featuring last-minute exposition and blanket transitional statements meant to clear up the unraveling mystery of the hole itself.
It’s unfortunate because the secrets behind the hole reach into some complex psychological areas that have affected all three characters, and within these moments, there’s the sight of a tougher, more unusual kids’ picture. These affecting sequences, which challenge our leads both viscerally and emotionally, suffer compared to the wallpapered content of the rest of the film. Brief moments with old vets Bruce Dern and Dick Miller suggest Dante conjuring up that old magic one more time, but neither sits long enough, suggesting the director's skills have been swallowed up by modern producers and editors looking for expediency over craft, neglecting that Dante, for all of his effects-heavy pictures, built his weird and wacky body of work through the quiet moments — a smirk here, a witticism there, and an overall comedic attitude towards the ridiculousness that surrounded his characters. With that self-awareness filtered out, we might as well have called on Tim Burton. [C]