Four teenagers get trapped inside an underground bunker and only one emerges alive in "The Hole," a clunky British attempt to merge the psychothriller and teen movie genres.

Four teenagers get trapped inside an underground bunker and only one emerges alive in “The Hole,” a clunky British attempt to merge the psychothriller and teen movie genres. Despite good production values and an effectively creepy lead perf by young “American Beauty” discovery Thora Birch, the whole enterprise is undercut by a messy script, thoroughly unsympathetic characters and a general lack of tension. With no strong names and without a highly visible marketing campaign, Pathe is taking a huge chance releasing this today on 360 screens in Blighty . Any returns in Anglo markets look likely to be hit-and-run, with a longer life beckoning on ancillary.

Helmer Nick Hamm (“Talk of Angels,” “Martha — Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence”) spent almost a decade trying to get the movie on screen after first reading Guy Burt’s novel, “After the Hole,” in the early ’90s. But, most of the original book — written when Burt was only 17 — was thrown out by tyro scripters Ben Court and Caroline Ip; unfortunately, the writing duo, fresh out of film school, fail to come up with much convincing material in its place.

Aside from pitching the dialogue in a phony mid-Atlantic youth patois, and going for characters with more attitude than substance, Court and Ip break the cardinal rule of any effective psychothriller by not giving the viewer a single character to sympathize with. Result is that “The Hole” too often plays like a genre spoof sans the laughs.

Pic opens with a media circus as the haggard and disheveled Liz (Birch) is discovered to be the only survivor among students missing for 18 days. As the police investigate the old WWII steel bunker from which she escaped, Liz is questioned by psychologist Philippa Horwood (Embeth Davidtz).

Memory flashbacks fill in the background of the school (an exclusive rural co-ed) and intro the other characters, including Mike (Desmond Harrington), son of an American rock musician. Liz, who can’t compete with the other girls in the looks department, confesses to her closest confidant, techno nerd Martin (Daniel Brocklebank), that she has a huge crush on hunky Mike.

Martin, who also has a huge crush on Liz, arranges for her to be part of a small group who want to skip an end-of-term geography trip to Wales. Instead, they’ll spend the three days in a disused underground bunker that Martin has found in the nearby woods.

But Martin doesn’t come and let them out after the three days. That’s just the start of an increasingly tangled — and increasingly unbelievable — yarn in which Liz’s initial version of events turns out to have been economical with the truth.

Despite some truly awful dialogue, which goes out of its way to mimic attitude-heavy U.S. teen movies, the pic’s first half at least lays out a potentially interesting scenario, and Birch (with a flawless English accent) makes the most of her enigmatic main character. At the halfway point, however, the movie starts to jump the rails, busily cross-cutting between alternative versions of what happened in the Hole.

Side characters, such as Steven Waddington’s police detective, are almost completely marginalized and, as the movie tries to cram too many strands into an increasingly small space, even Davidtz’s psychologist is left stranded. However, the major flaw — for a movie that spins on a teenager’s obsession — is that a convincing case is never made out for Liz’s crush on the shallow, egocentric Mike: We keep hearing about it, but it’s not up there on the screen.

Technically, the picture is well mounted, with fine widescreen lensing and use of color chiaroscuro by Denis Crossan, some smart editing by Niven Howie, and sets by production designer Eve Stewart (who makes effective use of two slightly different versions of the bunker). Clint Mansell’s score is over-insistent rather than subtly atmospheric, but in the circumstances that was probably a correct decision.

The Hole

U.K.

Production

A Pathe Film Distribution release of a Pathe Pictures presentation, in association with the Film Council and Studio Canal Plus, of a Cowboy Films/Granada Film production, in association with Impact Pictures. Produced by Lisa Bryer, Jeremy Bolt, Pippa Cross. Co-producer, Suzanne Warren. Directed by Nick Hamm. Screenplay, Ben Court, Caroline Ip, based on the novel "After the Hole" by Guy Burt.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints, widescreen), Denis Crossan; editor, Niven Howie; music, Clint Mansell; production designer, Eve Stewart; art directors, Tom Read, Andrew Grant; costume designer, Verity Hawkes; hair and make-up, Sarah Monzani; sound (Dolby), John Rodda; sound designer, Paul Davies; assistant director, Dominic Fysh. Reviewed at Century preview theater, London, April 17, 2001. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Liz Dunn - Thora Birch Mike Steel - Desmond Harrington Dr. Philippa Horwood - Embeth Davidtz Martin Taylor - Daniel Brocklebank Geoff - Laurence Fox Frankie Smith - Keira Knightley DCS Howard - Steven Waddington

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