Last week I saw two movies in 3D. One was a monstrously expensive mocap film that came from a director who has spent the previous decade working in three dimensions. The other was a low budget indie – still without an American distributor – that came from a director who has spent most of the previous decade in the wilderness, not really working as much as we might like him to be. That second film, Joe Dante’s The Hole, blew away the first in terms of how the 3D was used as a legitimate tool of artistic expression. In fact, The Hole may be the first 3D film that I have ever seen where the 3D feels integral to the storytelling.

The film itself is an overblown episode of Amazing Stories (this is in no way a put down); a single mom and her two kids move into a new suburban home and the kids discover that a bottomless hole in their basement unleashes their greatest fears in physical form – more specifically in the forms of clowns and dead little girls. Mark L Smith’s script has one really strong point – it’s right up Dante’s alley. No other filmmaker gets the dark side of small town/suburban living the way that Dante does, and I’m not talking David Lynchian dark side here. I’m talking Stephen King dark side, where the local bullies might be scarier than the monsters. In fact it’s hard to believe that Dante never directed a King adaptation, as their sensibilities seem so aligned.

That understanding of the dark side of small town/the suburbs – the personal tragedies and secrets that lie just beneath the manicured facades – is a large part of what fuels The Hole. The other is Dante’s ability to get kids. Dante understands that kids today listen to different music and wear different clothes but are essentially the same kids he grew up with and as, and he creates real-feeling kid protagonists.

Precocious Nathan Gamble plays the youngest of the two kids, while unmolded lump of clay Chris Massoglia plays his older brother (in fairness Massoglia, while leaden, is miles better here than in Cirque du Freak). They have a reasonable chemistry, and while Massoglia’s no great shakes as a thespian, Gamble fills the void with that sort of kid actor charisma that could turn him into Corey Feldman one day if he’s not careful. Joining their group is Haley Bennett as next door hottie Julie; Dante doesn’t shy away from some serious dirty old man shots of Julie in her swimming pool, but it isn’t Bennett’s body that’s her main selling point. The actress plays her role with a supreme amount of confidence that’s appealing and attractive; a small town girl she’s always two steps ahead of love interest Massoglia, supposedly a big city boy.

The film’s scares are decidedly PG level but effective. Dante creates a creepy little dead girl, a cinematic trope I thought long since beaten into the ground. He also mines the old scary clown doll, perfected decades ago in Poltergeist, but gives it a Gremlins-esque spin. The scenes of tension are creepy without being so scary that the film’s 12 year old audience can’t handle it. What’s scariest might be some of the family dynamics that get revealed as the film goes on; it turns out that the home life of our two boy heroes isn’t as idyllic as it looks and their dark secret is pretty heavy and played very heavily.

I thought for sure that Dante’s approach to 3D would be William Castle-esque. Goes to show how well I know the director, since Dante is entirely restrained with the 3D, only using it a couple of times for obvious gimmicks (like a ball being tossed into the camera). In fact, Dante tends to avoid the most obvious gimmicks, although whether that’s completely a stylistic choice or a budgetary one is unclear. But what Dante does use the 3D for best is atmosphere and texture. The depth of the 3D in the basement is different from the depth of 3D in the main house, and there’s a sequence at the end of the film where Massoglia goes into his greatest fear that uses 3D so well I almost believe the technique isn’t a fad. The scene wouldn’t be quite as effective in 2D, and I’ve never said that about any 3D movie that didn’t have shit being tossed into the lens non-stop.

What really hurts The Hole is the low budget, which was obviously stretched thinner by the 3D. You can just about see Dante racing to get his days, and there are scenes that probably could have been better if he had more time. There are also connective shots missing and a couple of scare beats lose their impact because the editing is off, possibly because Dante didn’t get everything he needed. It must have been even more difficult when working with young actors, but Dante and his crew mostly manage to pull it off. Still, the cheapness of the film may be a turn off for audiences used to Dante’s more polished Hollywood films.

Sometimes the great directors lose it as they get older. Dante’s bucking that trend, which is what makes it even more of a tragedy that he’s not working as much as he should and that this film, a solid double that will appeal to plenty of CHUD readers in training, is still languishing on the festival circuit. While other filmmakers who came up alongside Dante foist huge, soulless spectacles on audiences, the real talent works cheap and fast. At least all those years with Roger Corman paid off for Dante.

7.5 out of 10