Children have long been a staple of the horror genre. From Village of the Damned, through The Omen and up to last year’s Hereditary, their presence looms large. That they reflect their parents physically, yet are not them, is an uncanny theme which filmmakers have oft returned to. In his debut feature The Hole in the Ground, director/co-writer Lee Cronin explores this subject against the bleak backdrop of the Irish countryside, with varying yet entertaining results.
Seána Kerslake stars as Sarah O’Neill, who has recently moved to a remote Irish village with her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey). Heavily implied that she has fled an abusive relationship, they live in an old house away from the town, on the edge of a large woods, in which can be found ‘the hole in the ground’ of the title – a large sinkhole constantly devouring the earth around it. At first all seems fine as the pair start to slowly settle in to their new environment, tentatively making friends. However, things change after a near-traumatic encounter with an elderly, apparently disturbed neighbour, who Sarah finds out years ago murdered her own son, claiming him to be an imposter who merely looked like her child. Soon, Sarah starts to look at her own Chris and after seeing increasingly altered traits in his personality begins to ask herself the question – is this my son, or an imposter?
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Where the film succeeds is in constructing effective set-pieces to draw an audience in, both of the classic ‘jump-scare’ variety and the more ambitious kind. As Lee Cronin draws us deeper into Sarah’s paranoia he begins to bend reality, so that an audience can only realise two or three shots too late that the abstract parameters of a scene have been drastically altered. A scene in which Chris performs at a school musical recital is particualy affecting, as Cronin slowly draws the action from the other children and audience of parents to just Chris and Sarah, isolating them together.
Cronin’s use of special effects, both computer generated and practical in-camera, is sparing yet effective and serves to dramatically heighten the effect of scenes in which the filmmaker’s aim is to get his audience’s pulse racing. A scene in a basement between Sarah and Chris in which the light keeps cutting out gives the audience fraught glimmers of what is happening – a simple yet effective technique.
Cronin has trouble though linking these scenes together, and pacing issues in the film mean the plot feels at times rushed. Sarah’s suspicion of her child should be a measured enquiry leading to an eventual revelation, but after a first act in which we get to leisurely know Sarah and Chris and the first seeds of doubt are sown in Sarah’s psyche, within the space of two or three scenes in the film’s second act Chris has suddenly altered and Sarah has already come to the conclusion that something isn’t right. Cronin also lays the atmospherics a little thick at times; the over-abundance of sound effects and an imposing score clutter scenes and become a distraction from the action.
Star Seána Kerslake does a lot of the heavy lifting in the film, giving weight and depth to Sarah. She delivers a performance of increasing unease as she slowly unravels the character. Cronin often frames Sarah in close-up and leaves the action on her, resisting the urge to cut away, as Kerslake’s eyes and slight facial movements convey a huge amount of emotion. Supporting cast includes actor James Cosmo (Game of Thrones, Braveheart) as neighbour Des Brady, and James Quinn Markey as the young Chris, who works very well with Kerslake to, in a short amount of time, create a strong bond between mother and son.
With The Hole in the Ground, director/co-writer Lee Cronin effectively constructs classic horror set-pieces, complemented by a very strong performance from star Seána Kerslake.