Hole in the Ground review: Seana Kerslake shines as desperate mother in Lee Cronin's assured and creepy debut
Horror, a much maligned genre, can achieve moments of pure cinema, and while its aims are simple, their ripples can run deep. As there are only so many ways to scare the sh*t out of people, a certain amount of plagiarism is inevitable, but in Hole In The Ground, writer/director Lee Cronin wears his influences proudly.
The 37-year-old's debut feature went down very well at the Sundance Film Festival and is being simultaneously released on Friday in the UK, US and other territories. It's an assured beginning, full of promise.
Not so promising are the prospects of Sarah O'Neill (Seana Kerslake) and her young son, Chris (James Quinn Markey) when they move into a creepy old house on the edge of a forest in the depths of the Irish countryside. When we first see them, it's from far above, as their car inches through a rugged landscape to the soaring strains of a bombastically ominous soundtrack. It reminds one of the opening sequence in The Shining: their rural relocation, one suspects, will not go swimmingly.
Though we're given few details, they're clearly on the run from someone violent: Sarah has a recent scar on her forehead, and prevaricates whenever the boy inquires after his dad. Initially, though, things don't seem so bad in the countryside. Here, at least, they will be safe, Sarah reckons (LoL), as she gives the old place a lick of paint and heroically strips away half a century's worth of dodgy wallpaper. Though he's nervous about starting in a new school, Chris quickly makes friends and seems content.
The neighbours are pretty friendly in the main, but Sarah is troubled by a dishevelled old woman who wanders the back roads muttering to herself and screaming at passing children.
Worrying, too, is the discovery of a massive hole in the forest floor just a few hundred metres from the house, which seems to suck in all the air around it and is mired in an ominous silence. Then Sarah begins to notice that her son is acting differently.
Though she can't put her finger on it, she becomes convinced that something has changed. Chris no longer responds to a joke rhyme she's played with him since he was a baby: he stares at her in a funny way and seems emotionally aloof. At first she thinks she's imagining things, but soon Sarah has installed a hidden camera in the boy's room and watches for something that might confirm her worst fears.
The sure way to ruin a horror film is to explain too much, because no matter how clever your supernatural scenario, it will sound silly if you break it down. Cronin does not make that mistake, and spends most of his time establishing and maintaining an atmosphere of dread.
He uses light and the lack of it, sparse dialogue, stillness, silence, magnified sound effects and, most especially, music to construct his paranoiac mood.
That music can be overbearing, promising more than any lowish budget horror could ever deliver, but Stephen McKeon's soundtrack is stylishly effective at times, and its overt style is thoroughly deliberate, a reference perhaps to the stylised soundscapes of classic 70s films like The Exorcist.
Hole In The Ground's biggest asset, though, is Kerslake. Since breaking through in spectacular fashion in Darren Thornton's 2016 tragicomedy A Date For Mad Mary, and showcasing her talents in Stefanie Preissner's Can't Cope, Won't Cope, Kerslake has established herself as one of the most exciting actors of her generation.
She has charisma, presence, stillness that belies her years, a face the camera loves, and Cronin has recently said that he pared back his dialogue once Seana came on board, because he knew she'd be able to convey most of what he needed without words.
Her character's dilemma is a parental nightmare: she's convinced her son is somehow no longer himself, but who on earth is going to believe her?
As long as the story's mystery is maintained, Cronin's film purrs along very nicely, but as is so often the case with horror films, it loses some lustre once the source of all the dread becomes clear. But for the most part, Hole In The Ground is a clever, lean, well-made and nicely photographed chiller, its tone and direction remarkably assured.
Cronin is ambitious, no question about it, and his vision will surely find a larger canvas.
Also releasing this week:Fighting With My Family review: 'Delightful, and enlightening, dramatisation of WWE wrestler Paige's path to stardom' The Aftermath review: 'Throws away its historic potential, but Jason Clarke is excellent' Foxtrot review: 'A clever, funny, unsettling film' Sauvage review: 'Never succumbs to sentiment, and retains a fierce focus'