A funny thing happened on my way to this year's Toronto International Film Festival: I detoured through Venice, where the world's oldest film festival, the Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica di Venezia, had invited me to serve on the jury for its inaugural Persol 3D award. The competition consisted of seven stereoscopic feature films released in Italia cinemas since January (including such Hollywood heavyweights as Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Monsters vs Aliens and, yes, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience), plus an eighth film, Joe Dante's The Hole, premiering at the Mostra itself. In the end, it was Dante's Grand Guignol children's film that emerged as the unanimous choice of our jury, which also included New York Times DVD critic Dave Kehr and Italian experimental filmmaker Nadia Ranocchi, who works in 3D herself.
Here in Toronto, where The Hole makes its North American debut this week, Dante's film seems much more likely to get lost in the shuffle, simply because it doesn't feature any name stars (unless you count Dante's longtime good luck charm, B-movie sideman extraordinaire Dick Miller); doesn't have a U.S. distributor shilling for it; isn't about some au courant, ripped-from-the-headlines subject; and wasn't directed by a well-known fashion designer. Which, regrettably, is par for the course for Dante, who has been one of the most consistently underrated American filmmakers of the past 25 years and who, until The Hole, hadn't directed a big-screen feature since 2003. More to the point, The Hole is Dante working close to the top of his game — smart, scary and full of the perverse dark humor that runs through all of his best work.
Like Dante's earlier Gremlins, Explorers and Small Soldiers, The Hole (which was written by Vacancy
author Mark L. Smith) unfolds in one of those placid, Midwestern
anytowns that, in the sci-fi and horror classics of the 1950s,
regularly played host to intergalactic blobs, body snatchers and other
strange invaders. Here, the aberrations come from below rather than
above — specifically, from the titular pit in the basement of an
ordinary suburban home. Heavily padlocked and camouflaged by a previous
owner, the hole is reopened when a single mother and her two sons —
one a moody teenager, the other a bright-eyed tyke — move into the
house and, together with the comely Pandora next door, start to get curious.
While the hole doesn't exactly unleash all of the world's evils, it does give rise to the deepest fears of those who peer into it — a bottomless id of sorts that allows Dante to manifest all manner of real and imagined horrors, from the purely abstract (fear of the dark) to the terrifyingly physical (an abusive father who looms like a mythological giant). That last bit could have seemed a tasteless provocation in the hands of a lesser director (see: Richard Donner's forlorn Radio Flyer), but Dante navigates the shifts in tone deftly, with the sure hand of a storyteller who knows that the monsters lurking in children's closets aren't always of the make-believe variety.
He brings much the same nuance to the 3D technology itself, using it for subtle enhancements of perspective rather than ostentatious, pop-up-book effects. And when, in the film's final act, we finally plunge down the hole itself, the result is some of the most expressionistically beautiful filmmaking of Dante's career — a Caligarian funhouse of long shadows, exaggerated perspectives and things that go bump in the night (all, it should be noted, accomplished on a budget a fraction of the size of the Hollywood norm). Where The Hole goes from here is up to the marketing and distribution gurus to decide, but whatever the fates have in store, it has been one of the unadulterated pleasures of the fall festival season to see Joe Dante once more rip the lid off of his wild and woolly imagination.