While much of the discussion of recent horror tropes has been focused on the nonsense idea of “elevated horror”, several of the most effective modern genre movies have explored trauma and mental health through a story of a mother struggling with her feelings towards her young child such as The Babadook, Under The Shadow, and, to some extent, Hereditary.
Lee Cronin’s feature debut will inevitably draw comparisons to these films as its heroine begins to question whether there’s something sinister behind her son’s recent odd behaviour, but its cinematic touchstones go far beyond the last five years. Figuring out which of these provides the key to unlocking its secret is part of the fun and part of the problem.
Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) move to a house on the edge of the woods, leaving their old life and her husband behind. Chris isn’t thrilled with the new situation and Sarah is still struggling with whatever drove them out here, but they’re making the best of it…until Chris runs off into the woods one night. When he reappears, Sarah notices he’s not quite himself and as her suspicion grows, she begins to believe that it might not really be him at all.
The film is visually striking from the off with Cronin paying an inverted homage to The Shining before stirring in plenty of atmospheric folk horror and nods to everything from del Toro to Shyamalan. When you’re working with so many influences, a strong identity of your own is essential and the local urban legend about “Walkie Talkie”, a woman who murdered her son after suffering the same fear as Sarah, gives the story a good start. Kerslake is superb in the lead, hitting each point on Sarah’s journey perfectly and giving a believable and affecting performance as she struggles with her feelings towards what may or may not be her son.
However, Cronin’s reluctance to pin down the exact subject he’s exploring with the giant metaphor in the woods often feels more like a cheat than a light touch, meaning that A Hole In The Ground frequently recalls other films without coming into its own with enough vigour, and the overtly sombre mood doesn’t gel with the chills like it needs too. It’s creepy in places, with striking cinematography, an excellent score and strong performances, but this is a promising debut rather than a home run.