I walked out of The Hole (which closed 3DFF this past Sunday) utterly glowing. It wasn’t that the film was mind-blowing – although it was a hell of a lot of fun – but put plainly: this is the Joe Dante I’ve been waiting to see again for almost twenty years.

The majority of great filmmakers start to lose their spark as time marches on – either from returning to the same well too many times to stay fresh, or simply from losing the youthful verve that had once propelled them in their glory days. Then there are filmmakers like Joe Dante, who aren’t given the chance to lose their verve or wear out their welcome. They get effectively benched by the industry.

Following Gremlins in 1984, Dante created a string of amazing generational cult hits that unfortunately left the box office and studio heads somewhat under whelmed. After 1993’s Matinee, Dante became relegated to TV movies and theme park attractions (Haunted Lighthouse), only given a couple shots at the big screen again, with Small Soldiers and Looney Tunes: Back In Action. Small Soldiers in particular was a troubled production that never allowed Dante to truly flex his muscles. Dante was one of my favorite filmmakers growing up and it has saddened me greatly over the years to see him so absent. Sad for him and sad for me. Sad for all of us.

Of course, as Dante’s poor luck would have it, now that he’s finally been given free reign to create a film that feels truly his own once more, it can’t get US distribution. But let’s ignore all that for the moment and talk about the film…

The Hole almost feels like a lost Dante film, like it should have come out in 1986, in between Explorers and Innerspace. The only thing that is missing here to complete the 80’s aesthetic is a “Steven Spielberg Presents” credit. Lined up with Dante’s former hot streak, The Hole would definitely be considered a lesser Dante work, on par with Matinee or Explorers. This isn’t 1986 though. In 2010 I can’t possibly be disappointed that Dante didn’t deliver another Gremlins or Innerspace. I will gladly take a Matinee. I loved Matinee!

The film begins with the Thompson family moving into their new home in sleepy Bensonville, Anywhere. The Thompson’s are Mom (Teri Polo), and her two sons – the teenage Dane (Cirque du Freak’s Chris Massoglia) and younger Lucas (The Mist’s Nathan Gamble). The Thompson’s move around a lot, which Dane is not happy about. We aren’t told why they move so much, but a few dropped hints give a heavy implication that they’re trying to avoid the absent Mr. Thomspon. While exploring their new house Dane and Lucas make a curious discovery in the basement: a door in the floor. Not just a door, but a door latched closed with several locks. After finding the keys to the locks (with nonsensical ease), the boys discover that there is nothing on the other side of the door. I don’t mean nothing interesting, I mean literally nothing. There is a bottomless black void. While Mom is settling into her new job, Dane, Lucas, and their comely neighbor, Julie (The Haunting of Molly Hartley’s Halley Bennett), become increasingly obsessed with figuring out the secrets of the hole. Especially when strange and spooky things begin happening to them.

The first half of The Hole absolutely sings. And no one can carry this kind of tune quite like Dante. Dante always seemed like Spielberg’s goofy brother, the one with the twisted sense of humor. Like Spielberg, Dante has a somewhat unparalleled flair for working with children and capturing the best tones of suburban life. Unlike Spielberg, Dante’s suburbs don’t harbor adorable aliens. His suburbs have dark and dangerous secrets. And his children always get hurt. These were the elements that drew me toward Dante’s films (and TV’s Eerie, Indiana) when I was younger. There’s no better place for something awful to happen than the boring suburbs, and no one better to tell the tale than Dante. And he never pulls his punches just because kids are involved. In fact, he seems to love pushing the material to dark corners.

The Hole plays like a cavalcade of classic Dante themes and bits, while never feeling like he’s simply repeating myself. Though, again, this might just be because it has been so long since he’s been allowed to empty out his bag o’ tricks. There are hints of Explorers; his segment from The Twilight Zone movie; Eerie, Indiana. After first opening the hole, Lucas becomes menaced by the scariest clown doll since Poltergeist. When Lucas becomes trapped in the basement with the creepy thing, the scene is straight out of Gremlins, in the best possible way.

While never quite as relentlessly scary at Gremlins (they aren’t going to create a new MPAA rating because of The Hole), this is definitely Dante’s scariest film effort since the first Gizmo outing. There are some solid jump scares (that really got my audience jumping), but more impressively there is a great sense of dread to many of the scenes. In particular a scene where Julie has an encounter with an inhabitant of the hole in a diner’s bathroom – a scene which has been floating around on-line, and frankly sucks out of context.

This is also the kind of film that makes 3D seem like a good idea. Dante is a true fan of the medium (he co-hosted a 3D film festival I attended long before the recent 3D craze), and you can tell. The comfort with which he uses the technology seems effortless. He even feels comfortable enough to do some of the silly coming-out-at-the-audience gags that have become somewhat taboo in the new serious, post-Cameron 3D world – yet without the gags seeming like distractingly meta Evil House of Pancakes moments. Dante uses the 3D emotionally, creating space within the compositions to subtlety alienate the characters during times of suspense. The hole itself is often shot from deep within, looking out, creating the kind of perspective that just can’t be done the same with 2D, which is what 3D needs to do to be more than a gimmick.

If The Hole could have maintained the level of electricity and intrigue from its first half all the way up to the end, the film really would have been on par with Dante’s biggest and best. Dante’s direction never sags or wavers, but the pay-offs, revelations, and resolutions we get in the final third of the film aren’t great. They aren’t bad. They just aren’t great. If this had been an episode of Eerie, Indiana they would’ve been top-notch, but for a film, they don’t pack a lot of punch, which becomes a little problematic when we can tell they are meant to – in particular the big finale when Dane enters the hole. The ending is average, which unfortunately is a big emotional drop after the highs the early portions create.

The only part of The Hole that feels like a legitimate misstep to me is Creepy Carl (the great Bruce Dern). Creepy Carl we learn used to live in the Thompson house, so of course we know eventually the kids will go find him to seek info about the hole. While the film definitely walks well-worn ground throughout, none of it feels rote – except Creepy Carl. You already know every beat that is going to happen involving the character. Not to mention nothing surrounding Carl makes much sense. Carl freaks out when he learns the kids opened the locks on the hole, but why did he leave the keys in the house in the first place? The way Julie leads them straight to Carl in the empty factory he hides in, it seems like she visits him frequently, like they’re friends, but this isn’t the case based on comments she makes. Creepy Carl also fills up a notebook with individual sketches, which Dane later assembles… to no real end; it is a hollow gimmick meant to goose an unearned moment of revelation. And sadly, Dern is given little to work with here, and kind of phones it in on what he is given. Upside: Dick Miller shows up. How could he not? Is Dante going to need to retire when Miller finally passes away (god forbid)?

Fortunately, Creepy Carl isn’t in much of the film, and the rest of the performances are pretty sound. Haley Bennett is quite good when Julie is being coy and flirty, but seems overwhelmed when asked to handle the emotional scenes. Chris Massoglia bored the life out of me in Cirque du Freak, but Dante is able to wrestle a performance out of him here. He still feels kind of distant and charmless, but it works for the moody character. Massoglia meshes excellently with Nathan Gamble, which is the most important aspect, as their relationship is the emotional core of the film. Gamble is fantastic. The character of Lucas feels like a real kid, never going too far into the pitfalls of overly smart movie children cliches. The Thompson bros have a great chemistry, and both boys mesh well with Teri Polo too – who obviously is kept to the sidelines, but still retains relevancy in the film.  

I really hope The Hole finds its way to American theaters (it has been released in the UK) and doesn’t just get dumped on DVD. The tragedy, though, is that I don’t think it will do particularly well even if it does. If it can find a rare 3Dless slot in the year, when audiences are hungry for the format, maybe, but otherwise audiences will likely treat The Hole the same way they treated Zarathura. I think this is a perfect family film, especially for kids who like to be scared. But parents are pussies now, unless Harry Potter is involved, so I worry the film has that awkward tone which I adore but normals seem to flee from like the plague. So, unhappily, this probably isn’t going to be the movie to pull Dante out of the bog of under-appreciation. But, for those of us who already do appreciate him, the film is a delightful return to form.

This score is perhaps an oversell, but I can’t help it…

8 out 10