A clunky, rattling toy chest of tired horror tropes reconfigured for kids, Joe Dante’s The Hole will nevertheless win over the Gremlins and Matinee mastermind’s devoted fans (hello, Rosenbaum!), and maybe a few brave tots in the bargain. The incredibly uncomplicated plot goes something like this: Three relatively obnoxious white kids—tow-haired and whiny little Lucas (Mason Gamble) and his older brother, Dane (Chris Massoglia, who with his perfectly mussed Efron hair and gym-toned body, hardly looks like the troubled loner he’s meant to be), and Julie (Haley Bennett), the literal girl next door and Hayden Panettiere lookalike who’s always wearing cleavage-hugging tops when she’s not teasingly sunbathing in the backyard—find a steel-locked trap door in the basement of one of their houses and while the boys’ mom is out working late shifts at the hospital (do single movie moms have any other job?), they get curious. Underneath there’s a pit that, with its apparent bottomlessness and proclivity to make the kids’ greatest fears come to life, is quite clearly a portal to another dimension. It takes a while for the kids to figure this out, even after bloody-eyed, monotoned little girls (well, hello, Ring!) and wicked, devil-faced clown puppets (hey, Poltergeist, long time no see!) begins to haunt, and in some cases, attack them.
As a fairly archetypal kids’ story of overcoming your fears, The Hole has built-in thematic heft, for sure, but there’s no new twist here; often it feels like Dante’s just going through the motions, with little visual wit to compensate. Even as a jack-in-the-box thriller, it doesn’t seem particularly effective or elegantly made—the scenes between Gamble and the evil clown doll lack the spatial coherence and tension of nearly every other film incarnation of this common childhood fear; Julie’s confrontations with the ethereal little ghost girl (who’s, natch, a manifestation of her guilt over having let her friend fall from a roller coaster during childhood—cue flashes of Flatliners) are pale J-horror knockoffs; and Dane’s thread, concerning his need to overcome the memory of his abusive convict father, who here assumes the guise of a frightening, distorted giant with an immense whipping belt, is pure Oedipal schlock—even if the black-and-white German expressionist-inspired art direction that accompanies their final showdown does finally push the film into the realm of the appealingly surreal.
Oh, and did I mention that The Hole is shot in 3D? A nice marketing ploy, perhaps, to get families in to see a non-franchise movie with no stars, but the muddy three-dimensional effects in The Hole come across as purely gimmicky, whereas the similarly themed and plotted Coraline (the best children’s film of the year, hands down) used the technique to lustrous, expressive effect. So here we get such Friday the 13th Part 3D-level inanities as baseballs being tossed at the camera and handfuls of nails being thrown down the hole and at us. Like the recycled plot and images throughout, they’re just further illustrations of the film’s basic lack of imagination. —Michael Koresky