Sunday, October 22, 2017

Joe Dante, part XV: It knows what scares you


A return to a form we were only modestly sure Joe Dante ever had in the first place.

2009 (the few)/2012 (the many)
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Mark L. Smith
With Chris Massoglia (Dane Thompson), Nathan Gamble (Lucas Thompson), Haley Bennett (Julie Campbell), Teri Polo (Susan Thompson), and Bruce Dern (Creepy Carl)

Spoiler alert: moderate

If The Hole isn't the most straightforward feature Joe Dante ever made, it was, at the very least, the most straightforward he'd made since The Howling and Piranha, three decades prior.  And maybe that's appropriate: Dante had risen up doing (comparatively) straightforward genre riffs, and, in the twilight of his career, it was to comparatively straightforward genre riffing he would return.  It was clear, anyway, that Dante had expended the very last of the credit his post-Gremlins reputation had afforded him.  Yet while bereft of the studio backing that had allowed the commercial failure of Looney Tunes: Back in Action to become a major item on Warner Bros' third 2003 quarterly report, Dante remained armed with all his wits, and all his skills—and a twelve million dollar budget, which, you know, ain't exactly nothing.

And to what ends did Dante dedicate that small-but-not-too-small budget?  Well, it's worth pointing out that, like most people (by which I mean "most people who have actually seen The Hole," which is already a very small slice of what the phrase "most people" would literally denote), I have never had the opportunity to see The Hole in its 3D presentation.  And yet this is probably what the movie is most famous for, if it is, in fact, famous for anything.  It's something Dante was no doubt keenly interested in himself, being such an outsized aficionado of the 1950s.  He cites Dial M For Murder as a major influence.  I'm sure it was.  But, c'mon—it's Dante.  It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From the Black Lagoon must have weighed just as heavily upon his mind, when he sat down to plan out his own 3D feature.

Dante's efforts paid off, at least in the short term: The Hole came out of the Venice Film Festival with a special technical award and generally smelling like a rose. You can see, even in the 2D version, moments that 3D would've made better, from the shots where Dante and his DP, Theo van de Sande, use the technique as an excuse to throw shit at their audience's face, to a few shots that would likely reel the mind in 3D, that use depth and darkness in ways that are already awfully pleasing in a mere two dimensions.  Hey, the movie is about 20% shots peering up through a bottomless hole in some kid's basement.

But, of course, a 3D wide release was not its fate.  The Hole's fate was getting a pro forma theatrical release in 2012, three years after its Venice premier, whilst simultaneously getting dumped on VOD, which is where I found it.  Not that that's necessarily a bad thing—the "theatrical experience" has been dead for years, and I can't wait till they truck off its stinking corpse—and, now that I reflect upon it, the release of The Hole on streaming services was what really got me back into movies again as an art form, or at least as a hobby, after a solid decade spent in passive consumption.  I don't even remember how I heard about it; but I distinctly recall my excitement upon hearing the words "Joe Dante."  The man responsible for the greatest of all kid's adventures, back to try his hand at kid's horror?  And I don't even have to leave my house?  Sold!  (Literally: it was the first movie I'd outright purchased in ages.  Long story short, I have an addictive personality, and even if my copy of The Hole is only a notion of 1s and 0s on somebody else's server, thanks to The Hole, I presently own about 700 blu-rays.  It beats alcoholism.)  As it turns out, The Hole is no Explorers.  But, if I'm being realistic, most folks would probably say that's to its credit.

So let's see just how straightforward a movie can be: we meet our callow teenaged hero, Dane Thompson, as he, his mom Susan, and his little brother Lucas complete the latest in what shall soon be revealed as a long-running series of moves for this single-parent family.  (You can guess, within minutes, who exactly it is they're running from.)  As they get settled, Dane and Lucas discover a locked door on the floor of their basement.  Being naturally curious, they open it up, only to discover, well... nothing, just a black pit of curiously unfathomable dimensions.  When they attempt to measure it, they get no answers, only more questions.  Often enough, they lose whatever object they put down the hole.  Soon, they've roped a neighbor girl Dane's age, Julie, into their investigations, and together they learn what we already knew: the hole is a portal to somewhere—maybe hell, maybe someplace else—and the thing that lives inside it, whatever it is, has seen what's inside them.  From the hole emerge various phantoms, each reflecting their greatest fears: for Lucas, it's a terrifying clown; for Julie, a dead girl; for Dane, it's the father he hasn't seen in years, but has been afraid of since before he can remember.

The Hole follows the pattern of a great many horror movies and kid's adventures from the 1980s, then; though The Hole is distinct in the sense that most such contemporary efforts aren't directed by a man who spent over a decade making the real thing.  I'll repeat that it's still rather different than the usual Dante joint: he treats the horror of the situation with the kind of gravity that he'd rarely displayed in years past, and very little in The Hole winds up being played explicitly for laughs.  Even something that probably ought to be funny (like, for example, Lucas getting punched repeatedly in the face by a clown puppet) is played almost as straight as possible.  And while hardly anything in The Hole is genuinely scary—one wouldn't say that a few well-crafted jump scares really count—Dante still has the basic decency to treat it all as scary.

And hey, that clown isn't objectively not scary.

Meanwhile, the Dante we know and love is nevertheless active and obvious.  That's no small thing, either, considering he was working with an almost all-new team.  Dante had outlived his most important collaborator, composer Jerry Goldsmith (The Hole's score is merely fine); Matinee essentially marked cinematographer John Hora's retirement (The Hole's photography is, actually, pretty damn strong).  The big exception was editor Marshall Harvey, who'd been with Dante since Amazon Women on the Moon, and while we haven't had cause to mention Harvey before, his and Dante's comfort with each other has always shown, and rarely moreso than here in this very movie: Dante pursues his style in smaller ways throughout most of The Hole.  His sense of irony is intact, only now put to dramatic purposes rather than strictly comic ones, like a cutaway shot to Julie's little orange dog, cutely oblivious to the nearly-fatal events that have just transpired before its eyes.  Yes, that's funny; but unnervingly so.

The Hole has its direct precursors in Dante's filmography, however.  Indeed, one of them really is Explorers' first half; this film, too, captures something of the same sense of innocent, awe-filled mystery that the best examples of the kid's adventure genre offer.  Thus the adventure element Dante's working with here is probably actually a little bit stronger than the horror—but only because he's already gotten the horror to work.

Still, The Hole can be fairly accused of wheel-spinning.  Its midsection, while not by any stretch boring, consists mostly of clown wrangling, J-horror girls, and chowing down on Dick Miller's famous pizza.  It's not in The Hole's favor that it obviously cares a lot more about Dane's fears than anybody else's, or that the imagination that goes into Julie and Lucas' terrors is correspondingly less, or that the film bides its time and coasts on its scary-fun mood while waiting to get to the good stuff.  Perhaps this was the cost of doing a kid's horror movie which was as interested in relaying a strong kid's movie message as it was delivering its modest kid's movie frights.  After all, The Hole, above everything, is about domestic abuse, and how it reproduces itself in depressing ways.

The thing is, it's actually very good at being about that, pitching its themes at an assumed audience of children and teens without ever condescending to them.  But this is also how it's hard not to watch The Hole without realizing how desperately it wants a better lead.

Now, let's not be too hard on anyone: our kids' trio is measurably stronger than any of its individual actors; and everybody involved, from Dante on down, gets their dynamic right.  (One of the first moments of the movie is Dane rebuffing Lucas' request to play, and Lucas bouncing a basketball right off Dane's face in retaliation.  Kid's adventures, you know, truly live and die based on whether their kid heroes can be patently awful and still command your affection, and The Hole gracefully walks the line.)  But Chris Massoglia has an outright nasty tendency to retrench completely into conventional teen shitheadedness, playing Dane too close to the vest for the audience to see any conflict in his mind, between being his better self and being his father's son, which manifests instead as a switch going off in the third act after two previous acts spent treating his little brother like garbage.  Dane's never quite unlikeable, but even so, his journey is less investing than it ought to be, considering that the hero we get is mostly a collage of exasperated eye-rolls and anger management issues, without a single identifiable moment where the actor seems to suspect on behalf of his character, "Have I gone too far?"

Oddly (or not) the adult actors shine—Teri Polo is fantastic as Dane's burnt-out mom, and you can even see her try to pull a proper performance out of Massoglia, too, whereas Dante's old pal Bruce Dern is on hand to jolt us upright with some real gothic energy (and actual horror movie stakes) as Creepy Carl, the Thompson house's former owner.  The result's a movie that impresses on the margins, but has a noticeable weakness right in the center.

Still, what The Hole does best of all is entirely bound up with Dane's struggle with himself.  Lucky for Massoglia, Dante has the premise and the vision to make Dane's inner demons much more concrete than in your typical victimhood drama.  The Hole saves the best for last, when it reveals the other precursor Dante's building upon here, his mind-bending segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie.  Now this is full-bore Dante: our hero's past becomes a place inside the hole, a crooked Expressionist terrorscape, cunningly designed to represent the apartment Dane knew when he was ten years younger—and a few feet littler.  Even the exaggerated sound design of a belt buckle striking the floor gets in on the action.  Everything is made to oppress you with the overwhelming helplessness that underlies Dane's formative memories.  There's hardly a more uncanny and affecting sight in Dante's body of work than the physically-adult Dane reduced to the scale of a child against giant props and the amorphous, faceless CGI-boosted horror that is Dane's memory of his father.  Dane can say, "I know you're not this big," but the question remains, in a realm where fear is reality, does that matter?

It's a palpable success, then, and not a bad surprise, either: when looking at either genre this film belongs to, kid's adventure or horror, if you can say a movie of its breed even has a satisfactory third act, let alone a great one, you know you're looking at a minor triumph, at least.

The Hole's surprising in another way, too.  Unlike some filmmakers who fell from grace, Dante's feature output never actually got bad.  Yet it's hard to come to a director on the edge of irrelevance and not wonder if the market made the right decision.  In this case, the answer's an emphatic "No!"—even if The Hole itself has fallen into obscurity.  It has, but that's a shame, for it's one of Dante's best.

Score: 8/10

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