Back in 2014, the top-hatted, top-coated Mister Babadook infused some style into his spine-tingling spindleshanks shenanigans. Since then, plenty of indie horror films have wanted to be The Babadook, and so few succeed — forgetting Jennifer Kent’s film was very much its own thing of sound-and-fury fright and fraught metaphor for the quiet everyday struggle of depression. The latest out-of-fashion effort is director / co-writer Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground — which made a minor hubbub at last month’s Sundance Film Festival before an A24 pickup and a swift, and sadly deserved, VOD excommunication.
About as ambitious and memorable as its title, The Hole in the Ground feels like a Mad-Libbed ghost story gone south — spooky nouns and eerie adjectives nonsensically thrown together with no attention to thrills, tension or logic. Everything about the movie is “yet another.” Yet another creepy-kid entry on the heels of The Prodigy, this one with an infinitely less intriguing hook (albeit with a similar mother-son staring contest conceit). Yet another purposefully dark visual scheme that confuses atmosphere for being able to tell just what the hell is going on. Yet another opening on an aerial shot of winding road, as if the characters’ home is located where Shining Parkway and Descent Drive meet. And as if you didn’t get it, the image inverts to really let you know things are going upside-down.
It’s there, deep in the Irish backcountry, that Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) relocates to raise her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). Because kids take the chance to feel like gods when they can, Chris explores the woods and comes across a giant sinkhole that seems to beckon to him. When Sarah finds Chris, she’s relieved to know he hasn’t fallen in … but also suspicious that the boy who came back is not her Chris at all. And when local legend tells of another mother who suspected the same thing about her son, perhaps you’ll want to be changeling the channel.
There’s a brief flicker of hope that Cronin and co-writer Stephen Shields are going to tie into some sort of feedback loop of folkloric frights — that basic instinct of seeing a character freaked out by the stories she’s hearing … and becoming freaked out yourself. That would require an elemental initiative for storytelling that Hole simply lacks. There are also some allusions to madness a la The Yellow Wallpaper (what with all of Sarah’s renovative scraping), but those don’t pan out, either. Even a familiar dynamic would be a welcome one in a film that modulates solely between low-key and no-key.
At least Markey is up to the challenge of being called to act malevolent — one moment gazing upon Sarah with the regard of a predator whose trap has sprung as perfectly as he’d planned, and playing one confrontation about an hour in that goes down differently than you expect. But the final half-hour peters out in a disappointing, deflating conclusion that picks dry the bones of maternal uncertainty we’ve seen in countless horror films before. Given a surplus of sycophants like this one clinging to his coattails, perhaps Mister Babadook now regrets his sartorial choices.