Try as we might to dissuade vulnerable young parents in the movies from relocating their families to rambling, deserted homes in the countryside, preferably on the edge of a dark, looming forest, sometimes they simply have to learn for themselves. Happily, Lee Cronin’s “The Hole in the Ground” is largely in on the joke, putting the agonized single mom at its center through a veritable spin cycle of familiar horror dilemmas and distractions — a haunted child, a creaking house, a ghostly neighbor, even a mysterious, beckoning sinkhole — and seeing how she comes out of the wash. Thanks to the resourceful Seána Kerslake in the lead, she fares rather well, and so does Cronin: The Irishman’s trim, jumpy debut feature rewrites no genre rules, but abounds in bristly calling-card atmospherics.
Already acquired for the U.S. by A24 — and set for a March 1 release, following a pre-theatrical run on DirecTV — “The Hole in the Ground” is less subversive than we’ve come to expect from the indie distributor’s genre fare. Compared to Ari Aster’s penetrating family nightmare “Hereditary,” which likewise debuted in a buzzy Midnight slot at Sundance last year, Cronin’s film is more of a straight-up spookhouse ride: jolting in the moment, but less likely to linger in the bones long after viewing. That’s fine when Cronin (already talked up in horror circles for his 2016 short “Ghost Train”) is having this much fun showing off his bulging, reference-packed bag of tricks, starting early with a swooping hat-tip to “The Shining” and only getting more brazen from there. Only in the film’s muddy-in-all-senses finale — which leaves a few too many dots unjoined, even by forgiving genre standards — does its grip on proceedings slip a notch.
The opening shot finds young mother Sarah (Kerslake) and her sensitive, grade school-age son Chris (James Quinn Markey) regarding each other’s distorted reflections in a hall of mirrors; if this doesn’t immediately clue viewers into the funhouse spirit of things to come, they’ll find out soon enough. Escaping an abusive relationship, Sarah moves with Chris to a remote corner of rural Ireland, buying a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of a folksy village. If the eerie confrontation they have with an enigmatic crone (Aki Kaurismäki leading lady Kati Outinen, inventively cast in a frosty cameo) en route to their new home is any indication, they might be better off seeking other lodgings, but on we go. Before long, things are going bump in the dark, stormy night and Chris unaccountably disappears one evening into the adjacent forest — where, as it happens, a sinkhole the approximate size of a shopping mall has opened in the clearing, and no one except Sarah seems to know about it.
Chris may return safely from the wilderness, but Sarah swiftly suspects that he’s not, so to speak, out of the woods. Somehow altered in ways only a devoted parent would notice, he makes Stepford-polite gestures of affection that don’t quite ring true — though talented newcomer Markey plays the changes subtly enough to make us wonder if Sarah isn’t simply losing the plot. (Previously seen in TV’s “Vikings,” the actor has something of the young Haley Joel Osment about him; by the time one car-interior shot mimics the framing of a key “Sixth Sense” scene, that hardly seems an accident of casting.) But as his behavior grows more unpredictable, and as Sarah uncovers some disquietingly tragic local history, perhaps frayed maternal instinct is all she has to count on.
This kind of loopy premise devolves very easily into all-out silliness without the right actor to conjure up some semblance of emotional reality as the tumbledown terror piles up, and Cronin has that in the wonderfully expressive, open-featured Kerslake. The rising star, so beguiling in 2016’s underseen “A Date for Mad Mary,” has the kind of tender-tough credibility that makes you anxiously root for a horror protagonist even as you groan at all their unwitting rookie errors. (It’s the difference, if you will, between making audiences yell, “Don’t go in there!” and “Don’t go in there, you moron!”) She and Markey, meanwhile, have the kind of gentle, natural adult-child rapport that family-in-peril B-thrillers all too often lack — “The Hole in the Ground” holds onto human details like these even when its plotting slides into the odd sinkhole of its own.
Cronin, for his part, conducts the chaos with wired aplomb, as he and cinematographer Tom Comerford crank up the autumn-chill atmosphere in ever-darkening woodsy tones. Composer Stephen McKeon and production designer Conor Dennison make their own essential contributions to the overriding spirit of classy schlock, flirting playfully with genre cliché as their director tacitly namechecks everything from “Goodnight Mommy” to “The Blair Witch Project.” When one scene even finds Sarah wallpapering a room in those signature Overlook Hotel hexagons, it’s hard not to laugh out loud: At a time when the obnoxious term “elevated horror” keeps making the festival rounds, Cronin’s nifty debut is happy to meet the genre at its level.