The release of Joe Dante’s 2009 film The Hole on a poorly mastered Canadian DVD in 2012 deserves a case study analysis on what’s happened to one of the golden graduates of Roger Corman’s unofficial film school, Corman’s New World Pictures outfit, where Dante’s alumni (Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Kaplan, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola) learned the basic skills to make films by their wits while saving money and delivering a commercial exploitation product to cinemas.
Dante’s unique among his colleagues because he wholeheartedly embraced the clichés of fifties B movies – horror, sci-fi, sexploitation, - and gave it own spin through a personalized matrix heavily influenced by a sense of humour and visual style from Warner Bros. cartoons.
Dante eventually made a celebratory animated film – Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) – but the commercial and critical failure of that film pretty much sent him into TV, since Hollywood no longer cared for his blend of nostalgia and referential humour. He tried that combo once before in the expensive dud Explorers (1985) and with better success in his short segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), but cartoonish humour – in visual, sonic, and story areas – is a tough sell, with only Gremlins (1984) being his most perfect fusion.
Critics could argue Dante is his worst enemy – Gremlins was primarily written by Chris Columbus, and executive produced by Steven Spielberg – when there’s no producer willing to argue against indulgent references & sequences (chief problems with 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch).
What’s absurd is how a new generation of film fans deliberately seek out eighties shockers and fantasy films on video, if not make their own riffs on classic eighties kid shockers, where the most clever filmmakers snuck in a few dark shades typical of their own world views.
Spielberg is part of that classic generation – his embrace of edgier material is evident in his allowances of Dante and Columbus’ dark moments & black humour within Gremlins, as well as quality control and shaping scenes in Poltergeist [M] (1982) – but it’s Dante’s sensibilities which are key to the success of eighties kid shockers because they bear his tough-to-replicate blend of humour, horror, and a family structure where the parents are smiling, clueless characters that hover at the peripherals of the film while all dramatic meat comes from the more knowing, instinctively reactive and defensive kids; whether it’s aliens, monsters, or inter-dimensional weirdness, in most cases it’s the kids who find solutions to save the world while parents are (essentially) functional dolts.
It’s not excessive to pin down the success of that formula – smart kids saving the world from blindered parents – on Dante himself when there’s his short-lived TV series Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992): on a daily basis, kids save their town from the weirdness that repeatedly bubbles up from underground, or appears right next door. Dante’s cinema worldview has one unique concession towards the distribution of intelligence and success of any grievous problem: kids may figure out the problem and save the world, but the wisdom and caveats come from cranky old farts with weird inventions or fixations, and in The Hole, the key to what lies beneath the basement of the Dane (Chris Massoglia) and Lucas’ (Nathan Gamble) new home in Smalltown America comes in cryptic form from former house owner Creepy Carl (Dante regular Bruce Dern).
It’s a formula that Dante probably refined into his own warped sensibilities from Spielberg – the dopey parents and smart kids combo is core to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – but whereas Spielberg fixated quite obsessively on suburbia, Dante likes to set his family dramas in small town environments, if not those ersatz small town designer homes sold to yuppie parents and (surprise) weird, paranoid older farts – a key example being The ‘Burbs (1989) , where the heroes are specifically male parents stunted at 14 years of age, and the kids watch the adults act like brats, fighting amongst themselves; with the new weird neighbours; and weirdo older neighbours.
Even Small Soldiers (1998) carries on the Dante worldview of a small town beset by dangerous, scheming cartoonish aggressors in the form of a locally based toy company whose popular, nationally distributed products go wild in the white picket fence yards of citizens, and ruin the décor of quaint Main Street.
Although he revisits the same worlds in every film – Matinee (1993) is unique in being set during the fifties, the era Dante that influenced his worldview – there’s a freshness to the lunacy that pits adults, kids, and real / imagined monsters into a Tasmanian Devil whirlwind of chaos and PG-level carnage, and that’s why filmmakers such as J.J. Abrams, when given the chance, make their own reverent ode to eighties kid shockers. Super 8 [M] (2011) is a near-perfect mix of that cache of films + Abrams’ obsession with and steeped depiction of loss (death of loved ones). Dante similarly worked in some grievous loss in films like Gremlins (admittedly, the death of Santa is ostensibly a sick joke), but in The Hole the death of a child is very serious, and it’s key to a character’s redemption and freedom from her worst inner fear.
The absurdity of Dante’s current career situation – he’s a pioneer and ongoing proponent of eighties kid shockers unwanted by the film studios he enriched – is aggravated when you have filmmakers like Abrams given money while the original proponents either stay in TV, or must seek financing from overseas with no guarantee of a theatrical or home video released in their native America – the chief reason why Dante’s 2009 film has been a sore spot for genre fans.
Why did it take 3 years for his film – boasting real 3D effects just as studios were re-rendering films in faux 3D to exploit the current craze – to reach home turf? Why is the film available in Europe on Blu-ray (and BR 3D in Spain), but we’re treated to a shitty PAL-NTSC down-conversion on DVD in Canada? And why is The Hole available widely as a digital download from Amazon.com, but the BR + DVD combo disc is tough to find from indie label Big Air Studios?
Perhaps there’s the fear or expectation is of a critical and financial disaster, but as Jonathan Levine’s still unavailable All the Boys Love Many Lane (2006) proves, good films can sit on the shelves when either no one cares, or the current North American / American rights holder decides its cheaper to sit on a property that deal with any kind of marketing and exploitation.
The Hole’s release on DVD with rudimentary making-of featurettes (standard banal EPK material produced in 2010) caught Dante fans off-guard because there was no head’s up. In Canada, it was silently released by Alliance in a poor transfer affected by stutter movements whenever the camera pans laterally, and passing objects have a strobing motion. It also seems there never was any plan for a special edition nor HD release, making this a perfunctory release, like some foreign oddity that came in a 100-film sales package.
The Hole isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an example of Dante’s shift from having fun with nostalgia through his personal filters, and now darkening the palette beyond the standard PG crowd. It’s hardly a film that’ll offend, shock, or traumatize kids, but Dante has essentially made a movie for adults who grew up on his specific brand of shockers, updated with darker references, like child + spousal abuse.
The story has a simple hook: much in the way the two boys in Eerie, Indiana discover their town is the centre of weirdness for the world, the two boys and their mom fleeing from the influence of their abusive, jailed dad in The Hole realize the padlocked trapdoor in the basement isn’t a service panel for the wastewater flue but a doorway to weird dark force that sends up some fearsome figures.
Dante references himself in the climactic battle deep in the hole – the extreme angles and set décor are lifted from the cartoon world he explored in his TZ segment, “It’s a Good Life” – but he also has fun with the evil clown doll, best teased to terrifying results by Tobe Hooper in Poltergeist.
The locale is again another Smalltown in America, and the kids at one point seek wisdom from the hole’s former guardian, Crazy Carl (The ‘Burbs’ Bruce Dern), and the boys’ mother Susan (Teri Polo) is another clueless, marginalized adult. The score by Javier Navarrete is all-orchestral like Jerry Goldsmith’s own nostalgia-steeped themes from Matinee and Gremlins, and as Dante has shown in both feature films (The Howling, Piranha) and TV (Masters of Horror), he knows how to scare audiences with elegant camera movies and lighting.
Like his TZ segment, there are scenes where the hidden face or a shadowy figure is the most terrifying element. The rag doll walk of a ghostly girl in a diner’s washroom is beautifully crafted, as are simple visual tricks that don’t involve heavy CGI (such as a warped hallway that’s literally a mirror trick).
Where the film gets a little wonky is the imbalance between dark tones, surreal imagery, and the emotional memory of the kid characters, of which the ghostly girl’s first appearance causes the biggest continuity error: while neighbourhood hottie Julie (Haley Bennett) was scared to death in the locked bathroom encounter, she never speaks of it again nor shows any lingering trauma until the girl is brought up later by the boys when they find the ghost in their basement. Even then, either because of Dante’s direction, Bennett’s muted performance style, or a continuity glitch, there’s no slight inference that Julie and the ghostly girl are somehow connected.
Writer Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) keeps the characters’ connection to these ghostly apparitions until the end, but Dante reveals them almost obliquely: they come up in conversation, but the information is less important than getting the characters to the next sequence. The Hole is beautifully shot by Theo van de Sande (Blade) and Marshall Harvey’s editing maintains an unusually brisk pacing which covers over some of the continuity quandaries, but the darkness of the characters really deserves some slower pacing in a few spots.
Lesser issues with the film’s continuity include an early scene between mom and the two boys in an unfurnished room that feels like a reshoot stuck between their arrival and unpacking in their new house; and a later scene where a puzzle pastiche of drawings is assembled in one swoop by Julie - wholly unbelievable because Dane is supposed to be a visually minded, burgeoning artist and should be able to figure out a puzzle pencil sketched on standard note cards.
Although he’s made political jabs in his Masters of Horror episodes, Dante has yet to make a realist film – his work deals with nostalgic elements and genre tropes reconfigured into a narrative specific to his sensibilities – but his worldview might make such a venture impossible; perhaps a poke at realism is only possible when he’s restricted to specific genre conventions in areas like crime shows, as with his episodes for CSI: NY (2007), and Hawaii Five-0 (2011), where each series’ story Bible outlines how far any writer and director can push the realms of cartoon humour, satire, and absurdity.
The one thing clear with The Hole is its success as a darker riff on the eighties kid-shocker by progenitor Dante: there’s nothing grievously wrong with the film, and its absence from cinemas – even in a limited release in its intended 3D format – is another blow to a director who deserves better.
For a more a more passionate chronology of The Hole’s idiotic treatment by North American distributors, visit Ma Ha’s Magic Film Corner.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan