A New York family of three moves into their new suburban home and discovers a dark, bottomless hole in their basement in Joe Dante's latest witty horror flick, 'The Hole.' Less reliant on the jump scares typical of supernatural chillers, but not shy when it comes to using conventional devices, Dante delivers a family-friendly spook-fest that's hair-raisingly fun. Fans will deem this the best thing he's done in years. The filmmaker has done little of memorable note since 1998's 'Small Soldiers,' except perhaps for the clever political allegory 'Homecoming' for the 'Masters of Horror' series. I'm not sure many even took notice of the Netflix webisode 'Splatter' with Corey Feldman and Tony Todd and produced by B-movie legend Roger Corman.
Nevertheless, this is a return to form of sorts, where the scares are nicely balanced with Dante's twisted, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Working from a script by Mark L. Smith — and reportedly, Guillermo Del Toro had some input as well — the director closely follows two brothers, Dane (Chris Massoglia) and Lucas (Nathan Gamble), coping with yet another move thousands of miles away from home and the strain it puts on their relationship. Their single mother, played by Teri Polo, is a nurse with varying work hours which leaves the two boys to their own devices. For the young Lucas, this means playing with his older brother, who unfortunately is at that stage of thinking himself too cool and mature. There's a welcomed sense of realism as the pair constantly quarrel, yell and almost breakout into a physical fight like teen brothers are wont to do.
One such bout accidentally topples over a shelf in the basement, and the boys discover a wooden trap door in the cement floor sealed with six separate locks. Curiosity gets the best of them while also bringing out their best as they suddenly work together to crack it open and peek at what's hiding underneath. Finding nothing more than a pit of darkness, we spend a good amount of time figuring out what is or was hiding at the bottom. The brothers try one heavy object after another, including a talking plush doll of Cartman from 'South Park' which was pretty amusing, but never hear an echo or a crash. The mystery thickens, and without realizing it, the boys are spending more than five minutes without squabbling, wasting the hours on something they both are enjoying. We can easily assess where the story is going and where it will eventually lead, but learning more about the eerie hole is what keeps us from walking away.
Next door neighbor, Julie (Haley Bennett), seems to pull triple duty when joining the duo of amateur investigators. First, she's a love interest to Dane, hitting it off pretty much at first sight and quickly becoming buddy-buddy with the family. Second, she's a major help in solving the mystery by introducing the boys (and the audience) to the former owner of the house, Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern phoning it in, but with marvelous results). And lastly, the character comes with a dramatic arc that's mostly unwarranted by the narrative, aside from a single clue about the broken heart necklace around her neck. In a story about two brothers dealing with their dysfunctional family issues and an experience that brings closer together, Julie's secret past suddenly coming to light three-quarters into the movie feels largely out of place.
Still, her hidden fears serve as part of the overall effect and Dante never really loses focus of the brothers as the central figures. Whatever entity lurks inside the darkness of the hole makes each kid's fears into a deadly reality, forcing them to confront and ultimately overcome them. Lucas really hates clowns and is chased by a hideously creepy puppet that reminds of the large clown in 'Poltergeist,' only stranger and responsible for a majority of the frights. Julie is freaked by a little girl missing a shoe and crying blood. Meanwhile, Dane plays it cool as the kid who's not afraid of anything, which basically tells us his worst nightmare is much closer to home than even he realizes. It makes for a fun spooky night, something I found myself enjoying more than I thought I would. It comes with a few troubled spots, but they're easy to overlook in a horror film that can be enjoyed as a family.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Hole' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Big Air Studios as a two-disc combo pack with a shiny slipcover. The first is Region A locked, BD25 while the other sitting comfortably on the opposing panel is a DVD-5 disc. At startup, viewers are taken to a regular main menu with full-motion clips and music.
'The Hole' is set free on Blu-ray with a wonky and generally unsatisfying AVC encode (1.85:1) that sometimes looks good and other times pretty ugly. Presented in 2D (it was originally shot as a 3D movie) and taken from a digital source, the transfer comes has that unattractive sterile appearance about it, like something better suited for daytime television than a theatrical showing. And that's not the worst of it.
Image noise is a prevalent issue showing up minute and disappearing the next, and it's most evident during poorly-lit sequences, whether indoors or out. Contrast is fairly bright with lots of excellent clarity, but it also runs hotter than normal, creating very obvious posterization in the highlights and blowing out the whites. Blacks are decent but pretty disappointing overall, looking mostly murky and dark gray with some minor crush in several scenes. Banding in the darker portions of the image is plainly visible, especially during the final moments in the hole.
The only genuine positives are an animated color palette and the vividly bright primaries. Flesh tones appear healthy with good revealing texture. Although some shots are a tad softer and blurrier than others, the majority of the picture is nicely detailed and well-defined. Unfortunately, these are outweighed by the several unmistakable video artifacts seen throughout.
The family-friendly horror movie arrives with a real shocker in this fun DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that makes plenty of good use of the rears. Discrete effects, like the pitter-patter of little feet scurrying across the room, move from one channel to the next with excellent panning and directionality. Outdoor atmospherics also enhance the soundfield with satisfying effect, and the musical score of Javier Navarrete bleeds into the back with pleasing envelopment. The fronts display a wide soundstage with a surprisingly extensive mid-range, fluid channel separation and well-prioritized vocals. Low bass is highly responsive with some very pleasing authority during a few segments, adding to creepy atmosphere and making this spooky lossless mix a good deal of fun.
Supplements are the same between the DVD and Blu-ray.
A lighthearted and amusing horror flick for the whole family, 'The Hole' is Joe Dante's return to form. It's a lot of fun. The Blu-ray unfortunately arrives with a troubled video presentation but excellent audio. Supplements are forgettable pieces that never dig deep, but Dante and horror fans will want to give this a rent nonetheless.