OCTOBER 3, 2012
I hate going to downtown LA more than pretty much anything, but the appropriately named Downtown Independent was the only theater showing Joe Dante's (independently made) The Hole 3D, so I had to bite the bullet. And so I fought the omnipresent 101 traffic, parked in a shady area, and paid a premium for a not very comfortable theater (stiff seats, no A/C) with 3D that was below the standards of the other theaters in town, just so I could enjoy a fun horror flick aimed at the younger set that in no way deserved its fate.
Seriously, this thing has been on the shelf since 2009, produced BEFORE the 3D powerhouse known as Avatar had everyone scrambling for their own "gimmick" driven film. And yet, with the studios hastily post-converting anything they could and greenlighting anything with "3D" in the title, here was this perfectly enjoyable film that was already COMPLETED, one that could have done some fine business in the spring or early fall, when the competition for both horror and 3D was slimmer and thus the film's hurdles (no stars, not a lot of FX) would be easier to overcome. Yet, for reasons I'll never understand, it just kept sitting there, collecting dust in between the occasional festival screening. Now it's finally hitting DVD and Blu-ray, with this two screen release being something of a consolation prize, I guess.
But even if you ignore the 3D machine, it's a new horror film from Joe Dante! The man who gave us The Howling, Piranha, and Gremlins hasn't really done any horror features since Gremlins 2, and that was more of a comedy anyway. And hell, he hasn't even done a FEATURE since 2003 (Looney Tunes: Back In Action), so again I am baffled - what exactly was the problem, here? It's a solid film from a veteran, highly regarded filmmaker, with an easily marketable hook to boot, and yet it's treated like some weird foreign film that a studio bought in a panic and didn't know what to do with. If you ever needed a good example to demonstrate how broken the current distribution system is, look no further.
Anyway, the movie itself. I really enjoyed it, as it had the sort of fun charm but real scares that films like The Gate or Monster Squad provided back in the day, sans those films' rampant homophobic slurs. Nowadays, a "teen horror" flick is something like Molly Hartley, where there's no danger whatsoever, just a series of false scares that probably wouldn't even work on the average teen, let alone any parent who had to sit a row behind their daughter and her friends and suffer through the damn thing. But this one is actually kind of dark and scary at times, dealing with such elements as abusive parents and the death of a child. Some of the home-life stuff can be a bit generic (Mom works too much! The main kid's littler brother bugs him!) but in a way it actually helps the darker elements that follow - you're not expecting it to take that turn because the writers seemed content with going through the motions at first.
I also liked the villain, which to be fair has been used in a few films: fear itself. But unlike The Fear or whatever, there's no physical embodiment of the antagonist; it's more like Final Destination in that it's more like a force that affects anyone who looked into the titular Hole in the basement. Once you look, the presence will try to kill you by whatever you fear the most; the little brother fears clowns, so clown puppets suddenly attack him at random times. The guy who used to own the house (Bruce Dern!) was afraid of the dark, so now he has lights everywhere to protect him - that sort of thing.
And then our male hero, Dane, and his new girlfriend (incidentally, Haley Bennett from Molly Hartley) are also menaced by things that are built as mysteries of a sort. They're not hard to figure out, but I like how Dante and screenwriter Mark L. Smith slowly put more pieces of the puzzle into place (including an actual puzzle at one point), and broke the scenes up so that the movie had momentum and never got to be too much of a bummer. So there will be a scary scene of one of them dealing with their specific trauma, but then we'll cut to the rather "whimsical" nature of the clown puppets, which are no scarier than any scene from Gremlins (and never as scary as the clown in Poltergeist, though that might be due to my difference in age). Plus, it kind of reminded me of Flatliners in a way, where we see these creepy things and eventually learn how they relate to our heroes. And much like that film, we learn that our heroes aren't so innocent themselves; there's one element to Dane's story that's shockingly harsh (it involves his little brother), and I laud Smith/Dante for doing something that probably contributed to its difficulty finding a release. "Can you NOT reveal that our hero did something really cowardly and terrible?" "No!" "Fine, you get to play the most out of the way theater in LA!"
Speaking of Dante, another thing I found surprising was the lack of his trademark "film buff" humor in the movie. There's a reference to The Hands Of Orlac, and a Cartman doll makes a pretty funny cameo, but otherwise it seems even less referential than a regular movie, let alone one from the guy who made it into something of an art form in his best known movies. In fact, the only real evidence of his personal stamp is a quick cameo from the awesome Dick Miller, which brought a big cheer from my tiny audience. I can only assume that he was merely doing this as an exercise, having fun with the 3D cameras as a trial run before tackling something bigger (Gremlins 3-D, if this world was awesome enough for such a thing).
On that note, the 3D was fine; Dante puts it to good use in the 3rd act when all three heroes are battling their personal demons (particularly in Dane's case, as he finds himself in a sort of Funhouse that looks like the set of the "Don't Come Around Here No More" video), but with so much of the movie taking place in a pretty typical suburban home, there isn't a lot of depth to play around in, and the occasional "3D Friendly" sets (like Dern's new hideout) are only seen briefly. Thankfully, he doesn't try to make up for it with a bunch of pointless Comin At Ya shots (just one, with a baseball), especially since most folks will sadly be watching the movie at home in 2D anyway. Again, it was his first time using these cameras (and they have come a long way since the film was shot), so as a first time user of the technology, AND coming off a long hiatus from feature filmmaking, it's a pretty solid effort - I've certainly seen worse.
Interestingly, one of the scary figures is played by Quinn Lord, who was Sam in the similarly orphaned Trick 'r Treat. Like that film, The Hole has child endangerment and a lack of big stars that probably made it a tough sell for the current theatrical system, but it doesn't help when perfectly good wide release originals like Splice and The Ruins play to empty houses. Those were risky propositions for their studios, and their gambles didn't pay off because ultimately those two films combined didn't make as much as a Platinum Dunes remake will get in its first week. As a result, the next risks that come along, like this or TrT, get kicked to the curb while the studios retreat to safer territory. And then the filmmakers behind those movies struggle to get another one made even though it's in no way their fault that the film "bombed", while the guys behind successful remakes can write their own ticket after making a ton of coin for a movie no one actually liked. Great system, huh?
Moral of the story - always go see Joe Dante movies when you can. They're all good, so it's not like it'll hurt.
What say you?