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It’s quite an accomplishment for the first feature from an Irish writer-director to get a US distribution deal with the prestigious A24, the company behind modern horror classics Green Room, Hereditary and The Witch. Yet having watched The Hole in the Ground, its easy to see why it did.
Rising star Seana Kerslake (A Date For Mad Mary, Dublin Oldschool) plays young mother Sarah whose escaped an abusive relationship by fleeing to rural Ireland with her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey, Vikings). Her attempts to start afresh, however, are stymied. One night Chris disappears from his bed and seemingly the house briefly. When he returns, all seems normal at first. However, his change in demeanor causes Sarah to believe he may in fact be an imposter. Could this be linked to the giant sinkhole near their property?
As one could probably tell from the synopsis, The Hole in the Ground is not the most original movie. Its main plot driver – is Chris actually an imposter or is Sarah projecting her anxieties onto him – feels a lot like The Babadook. It’s admittedly very creepy subterranean climax evokes The Descent. And at this point, between The Hallow and Without Name, ominous Irish forests have been well covered.
Yet, The Hole in the Ground still manages to be very effective. This is down to two reasons. The first is the performances. One of Ireland’s finest actresses, Seana Kerslake delivers a brilliant, authentic turn. Her Sarah moves from moment to moment between reassuring herself all is fine to visceral terror in a way which feels recognisable and human, helping to anchor the horror in reality.
Kerslake is rivalled only by child actor James Quinn Markey whose performance drums up a lion’s share of the scares. In the opening scenes, Chris feels like an ordinary child – a world away from the precocious kids so often seen in cinema. However, once returned from his quick disappearance, through very subtle changes the audience understand immediately all is not well and its down to Markey’s acting. His speech is slightly more clipped, his movement looks more robotic, his stares feel more vacant. All combined, its like if the viewer reached into the screen and shook Chris, he would disintegrate in their hand or malfunction.
The second reason The Hole in the Ground rises above being just Body Snatchers with a Celtic twist is the work behind the camera. Co-writer and director Lee Cronin along with cinematographer Tom Comerford (Michael Inside) find malaise in the mundane – Chris’ warped reflection in a hall of mirrors, the transition from sinking earth to a child slurping spaghetti, a camera circling a car on a forest road like a buzzard. These arresting ominous images – coupled with Stephen McKeon’s loud, droning score (recalling the late Jóhann Jóhannsson) and tight editing by Colin Campbell – create a potent dread-filled atmosphere.
A24 probably picked up The Hole in the Ground because they see Lee Cronin as a filmmaker to watch. On this basis of his first feature, this reviewer can’t wait to see what he does next.