A young woman retreats to the Irish countryside with her son in Lee Cronin’s debut feature The Hole in the Ground. Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) is the literally bruised young woman fleeing an abusive relationship into the depths of the Irish woods.
In a large farmhouse full of creaking cellar doors and groaning walls, Sarah tries to establish a safe space with her young son, Chris (James Quinn Markey). It isn’t easy. The boy finds it difficult to make friends at school and is still confused about the disappearance of dad from his life. To make matters worse there’s a crazy neighbour who dresses like a witch and mutters constantly under her breath and a massive metaphor – sorry, sink hole – in the woods that seems on the verge of swallowing the universe.
Still, Sarah has a job, friends and even connects with a gruff neighbour (James Cosmo from Game of Thrones), but her most important resource is the relationship she has with her son. Unfortunately, following the discovery of the Pit of Sarlacc in the neighbourhood, mother and son become estranged as she increasingly suspects that he is no longer the same person. He loses his fear of spiders and even gets a taste for that kind of parmesan cheese that comes in tubs and which he correctly calls “powder cheese”. Something is seriously wrong.
When it premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, comparisons were immediately drawn with Ari Aster’s phenomenal Hereditary, released to such great success last year. The connection is understandable. As with Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and – even though a very different take – Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, both films feature a mother as their protagonist and explore the underbelly, the insecurities, the dark corners, the anxieties and terrors which go with motherhood, like Mumsnet on bad acid.
But whereas Aster’s movie felt like a genuinely surprising – not to mention shocking – departure for horror, a new direction, Cronin’s film treads some very familiar territory. It is sure-footed, but perhaps too much so. The very first shot is one of those aerial tracking shots of a car which feels like an inevitable nod to The Shining – shot-checked in films as diverse as Skyfall and Green Room – but Cronin twists the shot so the landscape and sky swap places. This inversion promises a disturbing topsy-turvy which the rest of the film rarely lives up to. Cinematographer Tom Comerfeld shoots the creepy house with electricity on the fritz and the dank forest atmospherically but though the tension certainly mounts, it is via familiar means.
The script by Cronin and Stephen Shields blends the familiar with the eerie well and never allows silliness to take over. The performances all round are superb and Seána Kerslake creates a credible heroine – a woman on the edge but who is by no means fragile. The Hole in the Ground takes its place in the growing catalogue of Irish horror but with his obvious talent one feels that this is not going to be the best film that Lee Cronin makes.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty