A24 has become a hub for incredible filmmaking. Since 2013, A24’s filmography is a solid foundation of technical skill, impressive direction, memorable performances, and defining storytelling that takes us deep into the darkness of humanity. The latest entry in the A24 catalogue moves us into the darkness and dread of Ireland for the dark drama THE HOLE IN THE GROUND.
THE HOLE IN THE GROUND tells the story of young mother Sarah (Seana Kerslake) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) who have moved to an isolated home on the outskirts of a large forest. Dealing with possible abuse and misconduct that has endangered Sarah and Chris, we find both are looking for a fresh start. After a fight between the two over Chris’s father, Chris runs into the woods and Sarah follows trying to regain control. As Sarah roams the massive woods, she comes across a crater size sinkhole swallowing the ground gradually around her. Finding Chris, she has also come across an evil in the woods that has impacted the area. For how long or why we do not know?
Moving on with their lives, Sarah deals with a variety of traumas that affects her world and family. Waking one night to find the door open downstairs, Sarah begins to wonder if her mental state is just in her head or if something is truly wrong around her? Taking pride in her son Chris during a very difficult time, she starts to notice something is off with Chris, things only a mother would notice. Working through it, she hears stories in town about an elder woman who believed her son was not her son anymore and was replaced by something sinister. Sarah does not believe these tales at the beginning but slowly starts to embrace the fact that there may be some merit to these claims and stories that connect the change of the townspeople, her son, and the hole in the middle of the woods.
As Sarah comes to grips, she begins to look even closer at Chris and the effect this horror has had on the town. As she gets closer to the truth, Sarah will test her limits and sanity as a mother to learn the truth about what behind and within THE HOLE IN THE GROUND.
Across the board, THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is a very detailed film. Bravo to A24 for having a keen eye to such complete films. A24 has been responsible for some true genre gems over the last six-plus years. Films like A Ghost Story, Hereditary, It Comes At Night, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and The Monster to name just a handful of very human horror within the home backdrop. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND also continues that trend of authentic and frightening projects from the emerald isles. A fan of the naturalistic and very rooted tradition of Irish horror, I jumped at the chance to not only see THE HOLE IN THE GROUND on the big screen but to watch it several times again before this review.
The frightening magic of THE HOLE IN THE GROUND happens on many levels. Filmmaker Lee Cronin (Ghost Train) co-wrote and directed THE HOLE IN THE GROUND as his first feature. Going by the formula of several Irish genre features that I have seen recently; Cronin and his team make so much out of so little. A very streamlined story, this film does not offer much exposition at the beginning which is filled in somewhat during the run time. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND, however, puts the pieces together wonderfully by taking that simplicity and questions and using that to build dread from moment one. This happens also through the use of symbolism and the understanding of how to manipulate the locations especially the surrounding forest, home base, and the underground. Cronin and his DP Tom Comerford reunite from their previous short film collaboration which benefits this film. Using a variety of camera techniques and outside the box thinking, Comerford does not allow THE HOLE IN THE GROUND to just sit back and simply use the cinematography as just a tool. Like a carnival ride, the cinematography as well as the audio side of this film immerses you, invokes something in you, and leaves you on edge throughout. Understanding the visual layout of this script, Comerford effectively creates claustrophobia in the forest. He uses a variety of aerial shots throughout that add unbalanced fluidity (including the opening sequence) creating an Alice in Wonderland perspective.
Keeping the majority of FX work and reaction in the frame, THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is a feature which is told by performance. This builds a tightness that stains in each frame and holds the viewer. This is built through the stand out performances of Kerslake, Markey, and veteran actor James Cosmo as Des. Each actor stands on their own and adds layers to their character. The maturity of Markey as a young actor playing multiple versions of himself is so chilling at times. His performance as Chris reminds me somewhat of the character of Gage (Miko Hughes) in the original Pet Sematary but with so much more focus. Markey’s ability to react opposite to Kerslake’s Sarah and the environment around him invoked a lot in me as a viewer. Markey finds a believable and effective balance of child and monster. Reflecting what we recently saw in Ari Aster’s family tragedy Hereditary, the sequences and brutality between the mother and son are palpable in pivotal moments. Kerslake’s emotion channeled through her eyes, tells such a story. Her facial structure and body language sell so many moments and are a muse for DP Comerford as many of the focal shots revolve on her reaction to the variety of conflicts and emotions.
The actual screenplay and some of the dialogue may be the weakest part of the whole production. From the first moment on screen, the viewer is given breadcrumbs and a lot of symbolism to help predict what will happen. However, there is a lack of explanation on why they ended at the house or the history of the town or why the hole even exists? Like most films I watch each year, the storytelling does not reinvent the wheel but tries to give it a different spin. In fact, I wish instead of hints at the past with Sarah, Chris, and Des, they had included some more backstory, even if it adds another ten minutes to the running time. I feel it would have added some needed structure to the foundation and would develop the story a bit more. Whether a victim of editing, constraints of indie film or Cronin’s experience of doing short form and this being his fully developed feature. The story works in the same dark vein as The Babadook, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Hallow, and even The Descent.
Behind the camera and scenes, the film is amazing. The grip work is worth watching and studying. Most of the scenes embrace the story like a glove. Cronin was wise to bring several of his crew from his previous shorts aboard. It shows how focused and balanced each frame ends up. How the darkness is not just a filler of space but has a depth to it. Especially inside the house at night and later in the underground tunnel, Comerford and his team know how to effectively light no matter the location. The lighting helps to create the haunted house feel that home reflects as well as making the figures able to be tracked in the blackness. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND, however, does not rely on practical FX to be the focal point of the film. Cronin and his team place the FX as bridging points for each act using them to really advance the story.
The film has an authentic feel to it. The costuming (overseen by Saija Siekkinen) stands out. Sarah’s ‘jumper’ outfits especially build a comfortable look visually against the uncomfortable life and conflict she is living in the film. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND lives in detail. Detail in the characters ticks and reactions. Detail in the production design and how the home transforms, reflecting the psychological state of the characters. Detail in the timing of practical scares. Detail in the authentic foundation of Irish lore and culture (especially in the burial ritual and the songs selected). Detail in the film’s edit.
The sound and score are standouts in THE HOLE IN THE GROUND. Hats off to composer Stephen McKeon and the team handling sound. Without a doubt, these elements sold the film for me. While the coloring and light set the overall mood and dread, the audio side immerses you. The selection of score and songs builds an authentic range of emotion and heightens the tension. It tells an emotional story throughout. The sound design highlights certain moments and has a sinister quality as the film unfolds.
In all, THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is one of the best genre feature films of this year. I know it is early, but it is effective on so many levels, hooking you from the first moment on screen. Why it does follow a similar formula of several modern-day genre features, it taps into the human horrors within us. That paranoia in losing ourselves. The fears of parenting. The initiate fear of the dark and things that go bump in the night. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is an effective film no matter where you watch it but I recommend a system with a great sound and in a dark space. Another brilliant entry in Irish horror, check out some of these website like https://www.irishcentral.com/culture/entertainment/7-scary-irish-horror-movies and https://www.fandango.com/movie-news/top-7-irish-horror-movies-749008. THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is currently available on DIRECTV and available in theaters on 3/1, find out more at https://a24films.com/films/the-hole-in-the-ground.