'The Hole'

"You've got a gateway to hell under your house ... and that is really cool," says the teen heroine in "The Hole."

“You’ve got a gateway to hell under your house … and that is really cool,” says the teen heroine in “The Hole.” Cool it may be, but scary (or even mildly shudder-inducing) it ain’t, even in 3-D. Shake-’n’-bake genre item — with dialogue of the corny “It’s coming for all of us, it’s coming for me” variety — is Joe Dante’s first full-scale live-action movie since “Small Soldiers” (1998) and a cautionary reminder that he was always more comfortable with gizmos, gremlins and gadgets than with pure, old-fashioned horror. Pic looks a weak bet theatrically, though 3-D showings should add some biz.

As the Thompson family — mom Susan (Teri Polo), teenage Dane (Chris Massoglia) and young Lucas (Nathan Gamble) — move into a comfy house in the small Oregon town of Bensonville, Susan quietly says to Dane, “I need you to be better than the things you’ve seen.” Huh?

Soon Dane’s distracted by a pretty blonde next door, Julie (Haley Bennett), who pals up with the two boys and is around when they discover a heavily padlocked trapdoor in the cellar that they just can’t resist opening. To which Julie comments, “Is that what you do for fun in Brooklyn? Play with your holes?” — hinting at a risque side to her character that’s never developed.

After discovering the hole is bottomless by throwing things into it (which gives the 3-D a good workout), and even lowering a vidcam inside (but completely missing the important part of the recording when they view it afterward), the three simply close the trapdoor and, uh, think about what to do.

Soon, Julie finds herself haunted by a young girl in a white dress (Quinn Lord) and Lucas by an old-style clown doll — sequences in which Dante is clearly more in his element. As for Dane … well, Dane won’t talk about his father, even on long walks with Julie.

Luckily, Julie knows where the previous inhabitant of the house now lives: Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), who warns them that the hole has been there “since the world’s first scream.” But when the kids finally guess its purpose, there’s no option for Dane but to jump inside for a look-see.

Per production notes, scribe Mark L. Smith (“Seance”) wanted to write a horror story that was still suitable for his 12-year-old daughter to watch, which may explain the lack of anything visually hellish, but doesn’t justify the practically computer-generated dialogue or lack of any sustained tension. Pic doesn’t even make a virtue of its self-imposed limitations by going into the realms of the fantastic instead.

The most atmospheric scenes, apart from those with the clown doll, are set in an abandoned carnival, where Dante also seems more at home. And it’s here that the 3-D element, which largely avoids hurling objects at audiences, comes into its own, with the extreme depth of field enhancing the spooky theme-park setting. Elsewhere, the 3-D sometimes exaggerates foreground objects and people in an unreal, distracting way.

Massoglia makes a flat male lead, and is consistently outshone by offbeat looker Bennett (“The Haunting of Molly Hartley”) and sparky 11-year-old Gamble. Polo, alas, is largely limited to scenes of telling the kids what to do, and is conveniently removed from the film when the plot starts to congeal.

Score by Javier Navarrete (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) is weak and unmemorable, but Marshall Harvey’s editing and vet Theo van de Sande’s lensing are smooth.

In what has long been a regular item in Dante’s pics, Corman vet Dick Miller contributes a cameo, here as a pizza delivery guy. Despite the summertime setting, including a garden pool sequence with the three young leads in swimwear, the pic was actually shot in Vancouver last winter.

The Hole

Production

A Bold Films production, in association with Benderspink. (International sales: Bold Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Michael Litvak, David Lancaster. Executive producers, Gary Michael Walters, Chris Bender, J.C. Spink. Co-producer, Robert Skotak. Directed by Joe Dante. Screenplay, Mark L. Smith.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, 3-D), Theo van de Sande; editor, Marshall Harvey; music, Javier Navarrete; production designer, Brentan Harron; art directors, Tyler Harron (Vancouver), Gary Myers (Los Angeles); costume designer, Kate Main; sound (Dolby Digital), Daryl Powell, Ken King, Bruce Nyznik; sound designer, Jussi Tegelman; stunt coordinators, Scott Ateah (Vancouver), John Medlen (Los Angeles); special effects coordinator, Darren Marcoux; visual effects supervisors, John Gajdecki, Robert Skotak; visual effects, 4Ward Prods., Paradise FX; stereographer, Max Penner; assistant director, Carl Mason; casting, Sari Knight (Los Angeles), Sean Cossey (Vancouver). Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Sept. 11, 2009. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Dane Thompson - Chris Massoglia
Julie Campbell - Haley Bennett
Lucas Thompson - Nathan Gamble
Susan Thompson - Teri Polo
Creepy Carl - Bruce Dern
Monster Dad - John De Santis
Addy - Quinn Lord
Travis Newman - Mark Pawson
With: Jonathan Bruce, Peter Shinkoda, Ali Corbin, Chelsea Ricketts, Dick Miller.

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