Kids don’t watch enough television these days. Anyway, that’s the lesson I’ve learned from The Hole, a movie in which two boys move into a new house and, upon finding a mysterious door on the ground in their cellar – one that’s been padlocked a dozen times and hidden beneath a carpet – then proceed to open the damned thing. Don’t open that door. That’s a bad door. What, haven’t you ever seen The Gate?
But open it they do. They peer inside and sure enough, all their fears come to life because it’s the entrance to Hell. They wind up fighting killer clowns (the only kind we have left in this country), ghosts of their regretful past and spirits of abuse and terror not unlike what you’d find in actual childhood nightmares. The Hole may evoke memories of similar youth-oriented horror films, but more importantly it invokes memories of genuine childhood and adolescent anxiety. This is PG-13 horror done right for a change. Unambitious, perhaps, but solidly scary.
The Hole marks the return of director Joe Dante, who introduced the PG-13 horror film back in 1984 with Gremlins and marks his first feature film in nine years. His latest film lacks the impish wit and chainsaw-wielding monsters of that classic frightfest, but it also focuses on younger characters who see the world more emotionally than the rest of us. The Hole captures a childlike point of view and perverts it to uncomfortable levels, displaying a relatable world that frequently devolves into unsettling horror. Dante isn’t a sadist, and The Hole does ultimately reveal that the terrors of young life can be overcome, but only after confronting your phobias head on. And really, confronting our fears is what scares us the most. We spend most of our lives happily avoiding them, or at least settling into a manageable state of denial.
Kids movies don’t imperil their protagonists much anymore. There’s a difference that some filmmakers forget, or are perhaps specifically told to ignore, between comforting young audiences and lying to them. The greatest films aimed at kids don’t shy away from conflict or even terror – Walt Disney was a master of this, and I present as “Exhibit A” 1940’s horrifying Pinocchio – because kids know that scary things exist. They feel fear more palpably than adults ever seem to. Children get nightmares from horror movies all the time, while adults tend to have nightmares about specific phobias or going back to high school. The Hole, like many great kid-oriented movies before it, acknowledges the existence of those fears and illustrates them in all their subjective glory, making the heroes’ journeys more meaningful.
That’s not to say that The Hole is the greatest film of Joe Dante’s career or any kind of instant classic. But it’s a refreshing example of how to make a film for a specific demographic the right way. It understands kids and shows the world through their eyes, but reserves just enough adult wisdom to make the right assurances that, indeed, everything will be okay in the end. The Hole balances entertainment, terror and playful panache in equal measure, and deserves some attention for going to all that trouble. It’s smart, scary and fun as hell.