Sundance Review: THE HOLE IN THE GROUND Offers Smart, Compact Horror

A24 has another doozy on their hands.

A mother and her young son move into an unkept house out in the country. It doesn’t even have a house number, but it can boast a giant backyard that gives way to an intimidating forest. The mother seems to be constantly pushing away a creeping sadness. The boy is insular and not as good at keeping his negative feelings at bay. But they also occupy a world of their own together. Life isn’t great, but they’re making it work.

And then one day, the boy goes into the woods and comes back changed. It’s subtle at first, but he’s now an altogether different type of weird kid.

That’s the general premise of Lee Cronin's The Hole in the Ground, and all by itself, the film honestly does not sound all that interesting. It’s what Cronin does with it that makes all the difference. The Hole in the Ground’s success is in its constraints. The film is small, economic and - once the third act hits - actually cool.

For many, The Hole in the Ground will automatically recall The Babadook. The comparison is not a huge stretch, but there's definitely room for both. Each film focuses almost exclusively on a single mom and her troubled son. Both rely on intense sound design (The Hole in the Ground might have the driest, creakiest house in all of cinema) to aid their scares. Both are horror films that largely eschew violence, though this one less so. But while The Babadook’s narrative functions largely as metaphor, A Hole in the Ground is much more direct and literal.

Everything is just so compact and economical. Cronin utilizes flawless pacing, ensuring you never get bored as the film builds toward its rousing climax. The film rests on the shoulders of Seána Kerslake’s performance as Sarah, mother of the troubled Chris. She is a unique and exciting horror character. When the film begins she seems small and shy, strong enough to have just gotten through something requiring her and her son to remove themselves to the country, but also wounded by that process to her core.

By the film’s end, it turns out any weakness seen in Sarah was a misread. She doesn’t wallow in misery at her son’s predicament as many horror mothers would, but instead turns bold and proactive almost immediately, which not only aides the film’s excellent pacing but offers us a hero we like and root for in a way that is rare for the genre. In short, the kid is fucked up and she’s not having it, whether he looks like her son or not.

The finer details of what’s going on are never quite spelled out for us, and there’s no real place for them anyway. The information we do get is satisfying. The only real exposition scene (delivered by the great James Cosmo) is bolstered in emotion and serves to strengthen Sarah rather than inform the audience of raw narrative data. The film works like a Swiss watch, and Cronin has it cut to its essentials, never succumbing to that one scene that throws the whole thing off.

As this is a DIRECTV/A24 release, I imagine everyone will get their chance to eventually see The Hole in the Ground, hopefully nice and loud on the big screen. For all its smallness, I anticipate a lot of great conversations about the film. If nothing else, Sarah deserves a spot among the great heroines of horror, and I sincerely hope she moves enough people to get it.