Thursday, December 13, 2012

Joe Dante Tears You A New HOLE

When I watched the superb 1987 Canadian horror flick The Gate two Halloweens back with some pals, we all lamented the fact that nobody really makes horror movies for kids anymore. I don’t know if it’s just that there isn’t really an audience out there for such a beast, or if filmmakers and studios are just squeamish about upsetting children and, by extension, their parents (this latter seems the more likely of the two to me). It’s kind of a shame, really—obviously there was a bit of forbidden-fruit factor to watching movies I wasn’t allowed to see when I was a kid, but there was also something undeniably cool about movies like The Monster Squad and Gremlins that spoke to youthful fright fans on their level. Unsurprisingly, one of the few modern entries in this all-but-vanished genre comes courtesy of Gremlins director Joe Dante, whose long-delayed, PG-13 rated movie The Hole recently came to DVD and Blu-Ray.
The Hole concerns a family of three—teenaged Dane (Chris Massoglia), younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble), and their mom (Teri Polo)—who move out of the big city to the ‘burbs (sadly, not the ones in Dante’s underrated 1988 movie—no Tom Hanks or Corey Feldman in sight, although that film’s crazed Vietnam vet, Bruce Dern, has a fun cameo). Fooling around in the basement, the boys (and Julie, the cute girl next door, played by Haley Bennett) find a padlocked trapdoor in the floor that leads…nowhere? The pit underneath the door is seemingly bottomless, but opening it appears to have unleashed a great evil on the world, and it’s not long before the trio find themselves menaced by apparitions of their worst fears—Lucas is pursued by a creepy toy clown, Julie sees a ghostly little girl from her past, and Dane must face a spectral doppelganger of his abusive father. The kids learn that the only way to send the evil back into the hole is to conquer their fears forever. It’s a nice message of youthful empowerment (reminiscent in some ways of the institutionalized kids in Nightmare On Elm Street Part 3), one that reinforces the very need for children’s horror movies.
The Hole was filmed in 2009 and received a brief theatrical run earlier this year before arriving on DVD and Blu-Ray in October. The theatrical release played in 3D in some markets, and certain scenes are a dead giveaway for the format’s use, particularly in early scenes where objects always seem to be flying at the camera. The movie’s edgy approach to youthful adventure has always been Joe Dante’s stock in trade (in addition to Gremlins and its sequel, Dante directed Explorers, Small Soldiers, and one of the better segments in Twilight Zone: The Movie), and it’s a treat to see the underrated helmer back on familiar ground. Unfortunately, Dante hasn’t had a hit film in a while—his more recent output has been on the small screen, with episodes of CSI and Hawaii 5-0—so he can’t really get his hands on the kind of funds that would allow him to best realize his vision anymore. As a result, The Hole is pretty visibly threadbare in the budget department. Dante does his best with what he has, and it’s better than you might expect; the grinning, evil clown puppet is a standout visual, as is the twisted funhouse version of the real world where Dane faces off against his dad’s monstrous doppelganger. But for the most part, the production design and performances bring to mind a better-than-average episode of a TV show. In fact, the story itself (written by Mark L. Smith), feels mostly like an extended episode of Goosebumps or, more appropriately, Eerie, Indiana (the short-lived series Dante created for Fox in the 1990s)—not egregiously overlong, but a bit on the threadbare side. Joe Dante is a gifted filmmaker who deserves a comeback, and I don’t think The Hole is going to provide it—for either the director or the sadly bygone genre of horror movies for kids--but it’s still a step in the right direction.

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