The Hole in the Ground, like 2014’s now-classic The Babadook, centers on the relationship between a single mother and her young son as they are beset by forces seemingly beyond their control. But while The Babadook kept the nature of the intrusion firmly ambiguous nearly all the way through, co-writer/director Lee Cronin’s feature debut starts off that way but soon takes a more conventional route. That renders The Hole in the Ground more generic in some ways, although Cronin still manages to pull off an atmospheric shocker for much of its running time.
As the film opens we see little Chris (James Quinn Markey) and his mom Sarah (Seana Kerslake) driving in their aging car through a vast swath of Irish forest, the two of them are immediately made to seem small and powerless amidst the large, unknowable surroundings. It’s heavily implied that Sarah and Chris’ dad are estranged, if not divorced (she also hides a scar under her hair that hints strongly at the relationship being abusive), and that the young woman and her child are heading off to a rural village in Ireland to restart their lives in a calmer setting.
Of course the creepy old woman (Finnish actress Kati Outinen) that Sarah nearly hits with her car, and who then stands there mumbling to herself while appearing as frightening as possible, is the first sign that mother and child are not going to get the relaxing new beginning that they paid for. The second sign is when Chris wanders out of the house one night, and Sarah then discovering a giant sinkhole nestled in the woods behind their house while searching for him. Chris seems okay at first, until he doesn’t. Sarah soon begins to wonder whether her son is even her son anymore. Is she suffering herself from a stress-related breakdown or has Chris been… replaced?
Plenty of horror films revolve around the changing nature of a relationship between a parent and a child. For the first two thirds of The Hole in the Ground, we are led to question what is happening between Sarah and her son: Is she just collapsing under the strain of starting a new life and recovering from whatever her ex-husband put her through, or has something truly sinister happened to her boy, who is already dealing with traumas of his own? What do the old woman and some other local tragedies have to do with it all? And why does no one seem to acknowledge that hole in the woods, which is as big and inescapable as a volcano crater?
Cronin and co-writer Stephen Shields seemingly lay the groundwork for a big reveal or twist of some kind, but the answer when it comes is disappointing. Nevertheless, Cronin manages to milk it for some decent if more humdrum scares, thanks in large part to Kerslake’s raw, impassioned performance. Kerslake acquits herself well throughout the film, as does Markey, who goes the “evil child” route without taking it too far over the top (at least for the most part). Their relationship comes across as both real and occasionally emotionally painful. There is also welcome support from James Cosmo as a local with regrets and secrets of his own.
It’s Kerslake, however, who does most of the heavy lifting (along with cinematographer Tom Comerford’s evocative, moody work), especially when one starts to question some of the film’s genre underpinnings: why, for example, do characters like this always move into isolated old houses? How is it that Sarah never asks a soul about the canyon-sized hole behind the house? And why in the year 2019, even in rural Ireland, are the contents of that chasm never investigated? One starts to ask these questions almost as soon as the credits roll, but until then one can’t help but get caught up in the plight of Sarah and Chris–a good sign for future, perhaps more original outings from Cronin.
The Hole in the Ground is out in theaters this Friday, March 1.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye