Back when most of my friends were geeking out over their Mike Schmidt baseball cards or Spider-Man comic books, I was cataloging my own list of favorites. Sure, me and all my neighborhood friends loved baseball, comic books, and video games, but I'm pretty sure I was the only one who knew that Cujo and Cat's Eye were directed by the same guy; that the guy who directed Red Dawn also did Conan the Barbarian; and that Joe Dante was the man to thank for Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins, Explorers, and Innerspace. Obviously none of my pals really cared about this stuff, which is why they're all bankers and doctors whereas I'm a film critic and, um, the manager of a movie blog.
It was with no small dose of enthusiasm that I sat down at the Toronto Film Festival to see Mr. Dante's first theatrical feature in six years: the family-friendly and three-dimensional horror flick The Hole. But I make no mystery of my affection for the works of Mr. Joe Dante. The guy's been with me since the day I was old enough to rent a movie all by myself (I think I was 11), and it's been a lot of fun following his career over the past (ahem) several years. Granted, he's not nearly as prolific as I'd prefer, but the man always seems to have a few treats in store for the serious movie nuts. His Matinee is a seriously underrated piece of movie geek nostalgia; flicks like The Burbs, Small Soldiers, and (yes) even Looney Tunes: Back in Action have their own distinct charms; and he's even done a few solid episodes of Masters of Horror.
The Hole, Sort of a feature-length Twilight Zone episode that's both geared for and populated by smart youths, it's about a Mom and two sons who move into a big, new house in a tiny, old town ... and the brothers quickly discover a bottomless hole beneath a trap-door in the cellar. Dane (Chris Massoglia) is the moody 15-year-old who is tired of moving from town to town, and Lucas (Nathan Gamble) is the wise-assed but amusing 10-year-old. Along with a pretty young love interest from next door (a charming Haley Bennett), the boys intend on getting to the bottom of The Hole ... although, and a bit unfortunately, I don't mean that literally.
The screenplay by Mark L. Smith (Vacancy) feels like a cross between old-school Stephen King and very some basic Goosebumps stories: The boys' mom (a solid if underused Teri Polo) exists only to assure the audience that there is some sort of authority figure -- because, for the most part, The Hole is a Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew sort of thriller, although not nearly as corny as that description makes the flick sound. It's basically a half-funny, half-(slightly)-scary mixture of "kids save the day all by themselves" and "whoops, we may actually be in way over our heads here" material. With, of course a (muted but still evident) playful streak that Joe Dante loves, and (naturally) a small handful of life-lessons wedged in amongst the monsters. Slight, breezy, creepy fun ... if hardly among Mr. Dante's most maniacally satisfying movies.
How strongly the hardcore horror fans will be able to embrace such a low-key, gore-free, and ardently nostalgic little thriller remains to be seen, but those of us old enough (or young enough) to remember The Gate, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and (yes) Gremlins will probably find something to enjoy in The Hole. Aside from some minor pacing issues in the mid-section, the flick breezes by at a quick clip, it's really quite pretty to look at (well done, cinematographer Theo van de Sande), and the scary bits are delivered quite playfully. The screening I witnessed was presented in 3-D, which I found virtually unnecessary, as the flick is fun enough without the gimmick, but hey, if that's what it takes to get today's youthful movie geeks in touch with Joe Dante, then I'll make that sacrifice.
The three young leads help a whole lot, considering they're the focal point of virtually every scene, and it's their quick-witted and casual banter that lends a few welcome touches to the character development and the talkier bits. Massoglia, Bennett, and Gamble keep the plates spinning early on, but Dante starts to take over once The Hole kicks into third gear. Suffice to say it's a slightly scary, consistently funny, and (sure, I'll say it) sort of "cute" little horror flick. The Hole isn't likely to give anyone outside of toddler range any nightmares, but it's still a smooth, smart, and eminently likable "rainy night" family film.