latest theatrical release -- shot in 3D in 2009 but only given very scant release this year -- is much like what BARON BLOOD was to Mario Bava: a welcome opportunity to revisit some old haunts in a new way. Mark L. Smith's storyline has a marked resemblance to the 1987 Canadian film THE GATE: two brothers (Chris Massoglia as Dane, Nathan Gamble as Lucas) move with their single mom Susan (Teri Polo) into a new house in a new town and, with the pretty girl next door (Julie, played by Haley Bennett), they decide to see what's under that heavily locked panel on their basement floor. What's behind it is what appears to be the proverbial hole to China and time is spent testing its depth and even lowering a digital movie camera into its beckoning darkness to film glimpses of its possible depths. But we not only peer into the abyss, it peers into us, and soon enough things begin to emerge from the hole: a sinister clown doll, a little girl who walks in jerky stop-mo-like movements.
But because this is Joe Dante, the film isn't going to stop at a scary fantastical premise, even if this is primarily a spooky film for the PG set, a level on which it works exceptionally well. As the story unfolds, we realize there is more to the grumpiness of the two boys than moving to a new place, being taken away from their old group of friends, and seeing their mother going out on dates. Susan, who is shown having a somewhat adversarial adult rapport with Dane, has moved to protect her kids from her ex, who is presently incarcerated on a domestic violence charge. A letter soon arrives to prove that he still knows where to find them and, after the kids learn from the previous tenant, Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), that the hole manifests our own fears, reality overrides fantasy with the psycho father's escape from prison. (This movie doesn't tell us anything so obvious, but other movies about prison life have referred to jail as "the hole." There might even be a Freudian dimension to the object, since Dane also seems to be dealing with some adolescent fears where Julie is concerned, but I'd have to watch the film again with this in mind to see if this approach held any water.)
I first saw THE HOLE last year in a flat home video presentation via a Taiwanese DVD, but I had the good fortune to see it in 3D at this year's St. Louis International Film Festival, where Dante was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Dante's mastery of the technology is such that every shot feels meticulously designed to evoke dimension (not just exploit it), and yet there isn't a moment in the picture that feels less like it was set up out of technical necessity. You can look at this movie in its flat version and tell, every step of the way, by the way the camera moves, by the objects that are shown special attention, that this is a Joe Dante picture. Some of my favorite 3D moments in the picture had less to do with the main elements of three-dimensional display than the little grace notes he thought to include: the dust motes dancing in the darkness of the Hole, the blade of grass floating in the pool when someone gets thrown in. Working here on an estimated $12,000,000 budget (his last major studio release came in for $80,000,000), the personality Dante invests in the storytelling is absolutely intact, and -- in the midst of a story about being young and embarking on one's own life -- he pulls off one of the screen's greatest metaphors for the panic of growing old as he shows Dern, sitting in a room illuminated by dangling overhead bulbs, striving to complete a modular set of drawings (which will be helpful to Dane) as the bulbs explode one by one, clearly panicked about whether he'll complete his work before the last bulb blows.
Not a major work, obviously, but perfectly entertaining -- and, for those young people who weren't around for GREMLINS when it first premiered, a solid introduction to one of America's great movie fantasists, and a film that will grow with them and speak to them differently as they progress through life.
Viewed in a theater -- but also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Big Air Studios. This domestic release does not include the 3D version, but the British import release from Entertainment One.