The Hole in the Ground Movie Review

Written by Ren Zelen

Released by Vertigo Releasing

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Directed by Lee Cronin
Written by Lee Cronin and Stephen Shields
2019, 90 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Released on 1st March 2019

Seána Kerslake as Sarah O'Neill
James Quinn Markey as Chris O'Neill
Simone Kirby as Louise Caul
Steve Wall as Rob Caul
Eoin Macken as Jay Caul


Most human beings share the same primal fears, chief among them is the loss of a loved one, especially a child. The idea of the ‘changeling’ - a child stolen away leaving an altered substitute in its place - is one of the most widespread and sinister superstitions found among all cultures.

The Hole in the Ground is the first full feature from Irish director Lee Cronin, the filmmaker behind the much acclaimed short, Ghost Train, (which earned accolades on the festival circuit in 2014). The story concerns single mother Sarah (Seána Kerslake) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) who escape a troubled past to start a new life in rural Ireland. They take up residence in an isolated, old farmhouse which has no name or number. It is shabby, creaky and run-down, complete with a dimly-lit hallway and stairs and a basement with flickering strip-lights. The house and garden are overshadowed by a massive, ancient forest which, within its depths, hides an enormous, unstable sinkhole.

From the outset the film dives into the action – after taking Chris on a trip to a lonely funfair, Sarah’s car is forced off the road by a hooded figure. It turns out to be a pale old woman standing in the road muttering incoherently. It is their first encounter with their unbalanced and mysterious neighbour Noreen Brady (Kati Outinen).

Young Chris is shy at school and a picky eater at home. He is close to his mum but angry and resentful of her reluctance to explain why they have moved and why his dad is absent. Then, one night, Chris disappears from the house. Even though he has been forbidden from entering, Sarah is sure that he must have got lost roaming in the woods but is relieved when he reappears just as she is frantically calling the police.

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The effect is subtle at first, but soon Sarah becomes uneasy and suspects that her son is no longer the same. Chris becomes uncharacteristically outgoing and confident at school, begins to eat ravenously at home and never again asks about his father. He also gets over his fear of spiders.

Cronin and Stephen Shields' script indicates the confusion we might feel if we observe disturbing alterations in those close and familiar to us. From the outset there are clues in visual motifs featuring mirrors and distortions - the film begins with Chris grimacing at his face warped by the trick mirrors at the funfair and we learn that Sarah and Chris’s favourite game involves pulling silly, twisted faces at each other. All prepares us for Sarah’s nightmare, in which she won’t be able to recognise her own son in the face of the child before her.

Mother and child relationships are a feature of horror films at the moment in the wake of Jennifer Kent’s success with The Babadook. For some, The Hole in the Ground will recall some aspects of that movie. Both films focus almost exclusively on a single mother and her troubled son. Both films eschew gore and overt violence and rely on a sense of impending dread and both have pretty intense soundtracks. The Hole in the Ground has a score by Stephen McKeon who uses ominously discordant strings which build to a deafening climax, augmenting the sense of an imminent confrontation.

The Hole in the Ground is also reminiscent of The Babadook in that initially, we can’t be sure whether the events Sarah imagines might not be a figment of her own imagination. Is Chris really an imposter and how might that relate to the huge, shifting crater in the nearby woods? Sarah isn’t sure about this herself and visits her doctor, suspecting that her feelings of alienation may be a manifestation of the trauma she experienced from an abusive relationship.

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The film rests on the compelling performance of Seána Kerslake as Sarah, mother of the troubled Chris. At the outset she seems vulnerable - tentatively finding her feet in a new community after having gained enough strength to remove herself and her child from a painful and possibly dangerous situation, only to find herself faced with something so confusing and enigmatic it will make her doubt her own sanity.

However, when the situation finally comes to a head she doesn’t crumble. She becomes a determined, avenging lioness. She wastes no time in self-pity or lamentation but takes action, (fortunately maintaining the impetus and pace of the movie). James Quinn Markey, the young boy who plays Chris, succeeds in being truly unsettling. He effectively changes personality from a normal, idiosyncratic, shy boy, to one who seems disconcertingly calculating, with a creepily watchful expression.

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Despite opting for a bit of a copout at the end, The Hole in the Ground is a confident first feature from Cronin and much of its success comes from its restraint. Cronin subtly interjects a sense of menace and foreboding using subtle symbolism and unusual composition to create a growing sense of dread, while telling the story of a single mother struggling to make a life for herself and her son in the face of the most terrifying horror a parent can imagine.


Movie: 3.5 Star Rating Cover

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Ren Zelen
Staff Reviewer
REN ZELEN is a writer, movie critic, reviewer, academic editor, pop-culture junkie and Sandra Bullock lookalike. Her post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel ‘THE HATHOR DIARIES’ is available on Amazon in the UK and USA and worldwide.
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