Has there ever been a more prolific era for Irish horror films? For the past ten years, more filmmakers from the Emerald Isle than ever have tried their hand at bringing the terrors from the Irish subconscious to cinematic life. Whether it be in an urban or rural setting, centered on the couple, the family or the individual, or focused on Christian or pagan lore – Ireland is, of all Western European countries, perhaps the one where the population’s true original beliefs are still the most vivid even in their latent state – the movement shows no signs of fatigue, and if director Lee Cronin’s (read our interview here) feature debut The Hole in the Ground is any indication, its best days might actually still lie ahead.
The Hole in the Ground tells the story of Sarah, a single mother who moves into a somewhat isolated house with her young son Christopher to start a new life. One day, the boy goes wandering in the woods, where Sarah finds a giant sinkhole. Soon after, Christopher starts exhibiting odd behaviour, which leads his mother to wonder if something happened to him, or worse, if he really is who he pretends to be.
In a mere 15 minutes, Lee Cronin delivers all the exposition we need, all the while establishing a creepy, oppressive atmosphere that will endure for most of the film. It’s a tour-de-force of a first act: with minimal dialogue, the director leverages the most potent tools at his disposal to create a world that needs no explanation. The often colourful, luxuriant Irish landscapes have turned into a grey, sinister version of their former selves; the opening shot shows Christopher looking and laughing at his distorted reflection in a mirror while his mother observes, visibly unsure about her feelings; the title appears as the camera, hovering above the country road, flips 180° to show what the world looks like upside down, hence giving the impression that the driving car “falls” into the filmic reality unraveling before us.
Everything the audience needs to know can be found in these scenes, and all of the film’s main themes (the doubles, the image of the self, the burden of motherhood, the transition to a new world) are presented with a blend of clarity and subtlety. The aforementioned atmosphere emerges from Cronin’s solid direction, enhanced by an effective, discreet score by Stephen McKeon, who often opts for unnerving sounds rather than melodic suites. The rattles, cracks and occasional flashes of ear-piercing music combine in much the same way as in Joseph Bishara or Christopher Young’s work (on Insidious and Sinister, respectively) to keep the viewer in the anticipation of the next scene, always fearing that uncertainty.
The jumpscares, however, never come. Even when used, tired tropes become the centre of attention – think peeping through the keyhole – the film always unfolds in a measured, controlled way that privileges constant uneasiness over ephemeral rushes of adrenaline. Whether you like it or not is a matter of philosophy. In this regard, it’s unlikely you will come out exhausted of The Hole in the Ground (but you might end up with a cramp after clenching your teeth for too long). The film never transforms into an avalanche of cheap thrills and visual shocks, siding rather with the slow-burn psychological branch of the horror genre. At times, it almost looks like Cronin is channeling his inner Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
The Irish director seems to be in a continuous conversation both with other Irish horror movies and with his influences. The former feel omnipresent because the forest plays a central part in Irish folklore and the country’s recent horror productions. The forest makes people go crazy in Without Name (Lorcan Finnegan, 2017) and Shrooms (Paddy Breathnach, 2007), is the dwelling place of ancient creatures in The Hallow (Corin Hardy, 2015), makes it possible to raise the dead in Wake Wood (David Keating, 2009), isolates and oppresses the characters in From The Dark (Conor MacMahon, 2014) and Isolation (Billy O’Brien, 2005), and generally allows for a gothic, oppressing atmosphere in films like The Lodgers (Brian O’Malley, 2017). A good number of these features, like Cronin’s, also foster an ambiguous relationship with pagan forces that have survived centuries of Christian dominance. Almost none of these movies are set in the past, yet they call upon forces from before history started being written in Ireland to better examine, fold and force the present into introspection. Sometimes, it’s the forest itself that becomes the primal force in question, like in Finnegan’s Without Name. Lee Cronin doesn’t lean too heavily on the pagan roots of its fantastical elements, but he doesn’t shy away from them either: as Catholic as Ireland might be, the hole in the ground seems to exist in an area where churches are nowhere to be found. At night, the forest almost takes on a supernatural aura, and beneath the sinkhole lie forces that defy human comprehension.
These supernatural aspects were already found in Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), a film more openly basking in the possibilities of myths and fairy tales, but that presented similar attributes. In both movies, the forest is established as a liminal space where suppressed but potent forces peek out at every turn, and gateways to another, lower level (through a well or a sinkhole) are made accessible to the characters. It might be that Irish horror allows for an exploration of what lies beneath, that the world of the supernatural is always there, ready to burst out, but that certain passageways exist on the map. One need only find them to be drawn to them. In Jordan’s film, young maiden Rosaleen delved into it to attain womanhood. Could it be that Lee Cronin’s Sarah is in search of a way to survive motherhood?
Cronin wears his influences with pride, and it’s hard not to share his taste in good horror films: Kurosawa, whom we’ve already mentioned in reference to the style of horror, but also Kubrick (the wallpaper in the new house comes straight from the Overlook Hotel), Jennifer Kent (the dynamics of the story are very close to that of The Babadook), or Austrian gem Goodnight Mommy. The question, therefore, boils down to this: in spite of those visible influences, does the director manage to offer something refreshing enough to stand out? I assume most naysayers will agree in pointing out that The Hole in the Ground does not reinvent the wheel. They’re right, it doesn’t. But does it need to, and more importantly, does it want to? Probably not, and what it sets out to achieve, it achieves well enough.
The film’s biggest weakness comes, I think, from the script, especially towards the end. Without spoiling it, the characters, who had mostly behaved logically up to that point, start making questionable decisions and fall prey to events that are not always clearly explained, which can considerably weaken the final act by taking the viewer out of the film. A disorienting back-and-forth between the house and the woods, which some audience members might find rather superfluous, takes up a good chunk of the climax.
That being said, The Hole in the Ground is an efficient slow-burn horror film, skillfully directed and acted. James Quinn Markey delivers a satisfactory performance as the eerily ambiguous son, while Seána Kerslake steps out of her comfort zone with a more physical role than she is used to, with good results. If all Irish horror films can aim for this level of technical prowess, then we can legitimately expect to see a masterpiece emerging from the Celtic imagination sooner rather than later. As for Lee Cronin’s career? We’ll be watching with great interest.
THE HOLE IN THE GROUND
Directed by Lee Cronin
With Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, James Cosmo