While The Hole in the Ground trods well-worn trails in terms of originality, it’s an effectively freaky horror film set in the woods of rural Ireland, it does a good job of executing its slow-building dread, and makes the viewers question just what it is they’ve seen.
I’m loving the independent horror films coming out of the UK, and Ireland in particular. From The Canal to Don’t Leave Home to The Hallow, we’re getting a lot of really good films from Ireland, featuring close character stories told with a particular focus on atmosphere. Lee Cronin’s directorial debut The Hole in the Ground feels like a mixture of The Shining and The Descent, along with any number of elements from the best creepy kid films.
Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) move to the Irish countryside to get away from Sarah’s abusive husband. Their house is terribly creaky and creepy, with peeling wallpaper and many bangs in the night, sounds of feral creeping coming from her son’s room. Those things seem to be drawing Sarah into the woods, searching for her son who tends to wander off. In the middle of these woods lies an enormous sinkhole (complete with ominous accompanying music and whispering).
After moving to the area, Sarah hears the local legend of a mother and child who lived nearby—this mother murdered her child. She had noticed that he was changing, becoming different in a way only a mother would notice. This woman, of course, still wanders about the area, whispering creepy nothings in Sarah’s ear when Sarah finds her just standing frighteningly in the middle of the road. She says things like, “He’s not your son.” That definitely doesn’t weird Sarah out at all.
At the same time, Chris begins to change from willful and defiant, mad at his mother for making them move, to sweet and kind, picking wildflowers for her and obediently anticipating what she wants. He’s also prone to bursts of anger and strength. She wonders if he’s really changing or just going through a phase, but she’s reassured by her boss, who has twins: “They swing from being monsters to angels and back in the blink of an eye.” Everything’s fine.
The Hole in the Ground is wonderfully eerie, filled with the deep uncertainty of parenthood—am I messing up my child? Am I the source of the problem? Is he secretly plotting to do me in?
The sound design and cinematic motifs underscore the creepy-factor of the goings on in the O’Neill house. Images of swirling tea in mugs, a tight focus on the eyes, or even a chewing mouth (with the accompanying accentuated chewing and slurping sounds) all mirror the gaping maw of the sinkhole. Moreover, there are numerous cutscenes of Sarah daydreaming or imagining scary things, doing an excellent job of establishing her as an unreliable protagonist. How much of this is in her imagination, rooted in some trauma or the power of suggestion, and how much is actually her son being a creepy kid?
Unfortunately, the film gets just a bit shaky in the last act, dragging on a bit too long as well to get to the climax. However, Cronin brings it all together, leaving us with more of that uncertainty which I loved from the start. All that being said, The Hole in the Ground is an effectively shudder-inducing film playing on the fears that plague us all: fear of the unknown woods and of how well we can actually know one another. It’s wonderfully effective.