Irish horror has a reputation for being kind of…rubbish, in spite of its insane popularity stateside, which continues to confound those of us on this side of the pond. From Shrooms to An Irish Exorcism, Grabbers to The Lodgers, and even the ghastly A Dark Song (“I’m only a man!”), actually British movie shot predominantly in Ireland, we just can’t seem to get it right. Extra annoying is the fact our history is loaded with all kinds of spooky stuff prime for exploitation. Last year’s clever little zombie movie The Cured tilted the scales ever so slightly, but it’s the very notable exception to a list that also includes The Canal and Wake Wood.
To my mind, the only other decent Irish horror offering is, like A Dark Song, not technically an Irish movie. Corin Hardy’s rather brilliant The Hallow, a British-Irish co-production shot in the wilds of County Galway, utilizes some of that aforementioned creepy history to tell a creepy, Evil Dead-esque tale of fairies, stolen babies, changelings, and family strife. Also, the legendary Michael Smiley is in it, so you know it’s good. Unfortunately, for newcomer Lee Cronin, The Hole in the Ground has both too little and too much in common with Hardy’s barnstorming debut to really compete with it.
A Date For Mad Mary‘s Seána Kerslake (it’s pronounced like Shauna, FYI) is struggling single mother Sarah who, with young son Chris (James Quinn Markey, Vikings) moves into a spacious, yet strangely dilapidated, country pile somewhere in County Wicklow to start afresh. She’s suffered some kind of abuse in her recent past, as evidenced by the bruise Sarah hides beneath her fringe. Chris, although a well-behaved and quiet child, has trouble fitting in at school and even wanders out into the forest against his mother’s wishes.
After one of these ill-fated trips, Sarah discovers a massive sinkhole in the middle of the trees and warns Chris against going anywhere near it. Being the curious child that he is, Chris ignores his mother and ventures out anyway. When he returns, Chris isn’t the same child. He’s more social, he can’t remember the weird game they used to play together and, most concerning of all, Chris suddenly wants lashings of Parmesan cheese on his spaghetti bolognese(!) Sarah tries to warn everybody that her son has changed but, naturally, they all think she’s lost it.
The Hole in the Ground, Cronin’s debut feature as writer-director following his well-received short Ghost Train, is a funny little film. The cinematography is bathed in earthy browns and greens, so you feel muddy watching it, almost like the action is taking place in the sinkhole itself. The atmosphere starts off relatively eerie as Sarah’s previously suffered abuse is slowly revealed, along with Chris’s ongoing social issues. But once the movie mutates from kitchen sink drama into fully-fledged horror, Cronin loses his grasp of the material.
Part of the issue is with Markey’s Chris, who goes for Pet Sematary-style evil kid tones but settles somewhere around grumpy, or even bratty at times. The revelation that he can’t remember his mother’s bizarre, hide and seek game (something that should’ve been refined in the script, since it makes little sense as an actual game in the first place) should pack a real punch but instead it’s left to the reliably brilliant Kerslake to quiver her lip while the camera zooms in on her. Markey looks on, bored, almost as though he’s waiting for his cue.
The kid can’t be criticized too harshly, of course, since he’s only working with what he’s given. But where Kerslake adds wrinkles to her desperate single mom, suggesting an inner life that absolutely did not exist on the page, Markey is left stranded without a life jacket. The moments when he acts properly weird, such as when Chris is caught eating bugs, are fleeting and glimpsed through peepholes or on shaky-cam footage. We know he’s an imposter, but only because his mother keeps reiterating that point and also because, well, there’s no story otherwise.
The Hole in the Ground bears such a striking resemblance to The Hallow it’s borderline depressing. Where Hardy’s film trafficked in suspense, shocks, and well-built tension surrounding characters in whom we were heavily invested (as well as a super-cute, near constantly gurgling baby), Cronin’s lumbers Kerslake and her young charge with an old, crumbling house so creepy you wouldn’t be paid to live in it, the clichéd local crazy woman who rants and raves about who Chris “really” is even before he’s been taken(!?) — she’s also responsible for the only good scare in the movie — and a forest barely visited.
The Hallow ventured into the trees often, the camera winding around to give us an idea of how isolated or lost the characters were. Its property sat right on the edge of the forest, so it seemed like trees were encroaching on it. Here, although the expansive woodlands are clearly visible, there’s no sense of where the house is located in relation to them. The sinkhole, meanwhile, is only visited a couple of times before Kerslake, naturally, finds herself venturing down it. The result of said trip isn’t as claustrophobic as it was in Hallow or even Blair Witch. There should be some sense of impending doom, but even a creepy kids’ chorus can’t make the threat seem real.
Cronin’s pacing is way off, too, causing The Hole in the Ground to feel much longer than it actually is. Scenes stretch on interminably, characters appear and disappear for no discernible reason (a dinner party scene is excruciating, and adds absolutely nothing of value), Sarah has a job and then just…doesn’t. The focus should have been narrowed to take in just Sarah and Chris, even if it meant limiting their plight to the confines of the house, but the writer-director is intent on establishing the area itself as odd (it isn’t) rather than the situation.
Annoyingly, aside from relying on the usual overdone horror tropes and dull exposition (one character quite literally tells Sarah exactly what’s going on, based on his wife’s experience), the thing never manages to be scary and wraps itself up so neatly it feels like a false ending at first, a nasty rug-pull about to be revealed. But sadly not. The Hole in the Ground is here and then it’s gone. The overwhelming feeling is of shrugged shoulders. What was the point of any of it? And why the obsession with Parmesan cheese?
Steer clear and watch The Hallow instead. It may not be 100 per cent Irish, but it’s close enough.
Wicked Rating: 2/10
Director(s): Lee Cronin
Writer(s): Lee Cronin
Stars: Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Simone Kirby, James Cosmo
Release date: April 30, 2019 (DVD)
Studio/Production Company: Savage Productions
Run Time: 90 minutes