Joe Dante’s latest film, The Hole, which screened at the New York Film Festival on Saturday night, is no more a breakthrough for the 3D process than James Cameron’s Avatar was (though Dante’s film is, as one might expect, far less self-important); in fact, though Dante expressly conceived the film to be shot in 3D, rather than allowing 3D to be added as an afterthought (as has been the case with many recent Hollywood films, most recently Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take), the truth is, despite a handful of arresting instances of set design and camera perspectives which somewhat gain from that increasingly ubiquitous third dimension, overall The Hole probably didn’t need to be in 3D at all. As it is, seeing this film in 3D never presents any major distractions, but neither does it enhance the film in any special way. And as I’ve come to conclude after the immense hype for Avatar subsided, if you don’t much notice the 3D in a 3D film, why not just make the film in regular 2D in the first place?
The Hole still has its pleasures, though, 3D or no 3D. Here is a breezy, old-school horror romp which gets a surprising amount of mileage from the usual genre standbys: creaking stairs, mysterious open doorways, nutty supporting characters, and the like. This is as far from the gruesome torture-chamber horror flicks of recent years as one can imagine; for that reason, among others, the film feels refreshing in its lightness, and Dante brings his usual affection for B-movie tropes to bear. And the performances he elicits from the three young leads (Chris Massoglia, Nathan Gamble, and Haley Bennett) are wonderfully free of cutesy affectations (if anything, they underplay their roles a bit too much at times); these feel like real kids interacting in something that feels like the real world, for all the supernatural jolts Dante throws at us.
As with the best fright flicks, the fantastical situations play as metaphorical dramatizations of real-world pain. Mark L. Smith’s script envisions the titular hole as a kind of demented Rorschach blot for the anxieties of its three main characters, bringing their innermost fears to terrifying life when the hole is opened up. Clowns are younger brother Lucas’s biggest fear—childish enough. But the fears of the other two characters cut deeper. Next-door neighbor Julie still experiences feelings of guilt over her alleged role in a best friend’s death. As for older brother Dane, his own biggest fear is one of the main reasons his family has relocated to this small town of Bensonville: the fear that his drunken, abusive father will track them down from prison and invade the home once again.
Eventually, all of these characters are forced to overcome these literalized phobias, and if these various final showdowns never quite attain the full dramatic weight that one might expect from traumas so heavy in nature (the climax to Dane’s showdown with a ghostly representation of his father, for instance, impresses more for the film’s surrealistic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-inspired set design than for its emotional depth), the metaphors still manage to resonate thanks to Dante’s respect for his characters and lack of condescension toward the tropes he employs. The Hole is a lot of fun, but like the best children’s horror stories, it also manages to sneak in a good amount of real menace within its seemingly lighthearted framework.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10.