It says a lot, both about the audience and the studio, that the A24 logo at the beginning of BUFF’s secret midnight screening last night elicited an awed, appreciated murmur. While they’ve been responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed “straight” indie films of the past decade (Moonlight, Ladybird, Eighth Grade), A24 has become synonymous in recent years with a particular strain of cerebral, deliberately paced arthouse horror, including Hereditary, The Witch, It Comes at Night, and more (First Reformed falls somewhere in between those two poles). So while the audience at the Brattle had no idea what they were in for as the lights went down, that logo served as immediate proof that they were in good hands.
That secret title, as it turns out, was The Hole in the Ground, the much-anticipated feature debut from award-winning Irish director Lee Cronin. Sure enough, Hole bears all the hallmarks of what has come to be known as “A24 horror”: spooky atmospherics, familial strife, some stellar performances, and a gorgeous, lived-in aesthetic. In other words, catnip for horror fans.
Seána Kerslake plays Sarah, a young, newly single mother making a fresh start in a rural Irish village with her son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). Chris is obsessed with his toys, reluctant to make new friends, and has weirdly specific food preferences– in other words, a normal little kid. Nevertheless, their new existence is reasonably idyllic, save for “Walkie Talkie,” a creepy old woman with a worrying habit of standing in the middle of the road in a cloak talking to herself, and the gaping, Sarlaac-like pit in the woods behind the house. One night, Sarah wakes up to find Chris out of his bed; he turns up just a few minutes later, but Sarah slowly realizes that something is… off. Slowly but surely, Chris starts acting increasingly out-of-character, ranging from the benign (sitting like an old man while watching TV, saying “thank you” just a little too much) to the slightly more worrying (scuttling across the floor and devouring live spiders). Or is she just an overprotective mother whose son is growing up?
As in many of the best horror movies of the past decade, the heart of The Hole in the Woods lies in the nuanced performance of its protagonist. As Sarah, Seána Kerslake does a tremendous amount of work with little more than her eyes– which is doubly impressive, as one eye is frequently obscured by her asymmetrical bangs. Through little dialogue (much of which pointedly sidesteps direct statement), Kerslake plays a woman who is 95% certain what she’s sensing is the truth, but who is so haunted by past trauma and mental illness– as well as obviously fantastical nature of her situation– that she’s afraid to speak her fears out loud. There are no flashbacks, and the issue is never 100% broached, but it soon becomes clear through cues and other physical signs that Sarah’s marriage ended about as poorly as it possibly could have. This past abuse, and the insecurity that comes with it, makes her doubly afraid of losing Chris— and of what her friends will think if she speaks her mind— and of what it will do to Chris if she’s wrong. Still: she’s his mother, and she knows she’s not wrong.
And we know it, too. As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (to which Hole owes an obvious debt), we can tell precisely when Chris has been replaced— a nifty trick, given that we’ve only spent about fifteen minutes with him at that point. This is thanks partly to young Markey, whose spooky, controlled performance recalls vintage Haley Joel Osment, and partly to Cronin, who frames his subject in such a way that something as potentially benign as a too-loud laugh raises instant red flags. There are hints at times of a narrative of Sarah’s unreliability— a bottle of medication here, a hyper-real nightmare there— but thankfully Cronin never asks us to take these too seriously, nor does he lean too heavily on a “Nobody believes me!” angle. This is a creepy-kid folk-horror movie, and it rarely pretends to be anything else.
In other words, those looking for the sprawling, textual richness of a Hereditary or a Witch may come away slightly disappointed. At a lean 90 minutes, Hole is one of the most compact and straightforward horrors in the A24 canon; unlike, say, It Comes at Night, there will be no arguments over whether or not it’s a horror movie (particularly once it reaches its practical effects-heavy climax). But I found this refreshing. Cronin has a very specific story to tell, and every aspect of the film works toward telling that story, with very little extraneously left in. And even if the story doesn’t work for you (and it absolutely did for me), you can still get lost in its beautifully shot Irish forests. Just be careful not to fall in.
The Hole in the Ground
dir. Lee Cronin
Screened Saturday, 3/23 @ Brattle Theatre
Part of the 21st annual Boston Underground Film Festival— keep watching this space for the Hassle’s continuing BUFF coverage!