'The Hole In The Ground' Review: A Supremely Scary Irish Horror Film About One Creepy Kid [Sundance]

Why do people have children? I suppose there's a case to be made in favor of procreation, but if horror movies have taught us anything, it's that kids are creepy. We'd all be wise to cut our losses just stop having them, lest we want to wake up in the night and find them lurking around with mischievous smiles. The Hole in the Ground belongs to the long tradition of creepy kid movies, featuring one of the creepiest movie kids of all time. If you're thinking of having children, maybe watch this movie first. You might have second thoughts.

Things go bump in the night, and then some, in Lee Cronin's clanking, crashing, screeching Irish horror flick The Hole in the Ground. Perhaps relying a bit too heavily on extreme sound design, Cronin's film nonetheless manages to scare the s*** out of you, building at atmosphere of dread so thick it might suffocate you. Before a single frame of the film has flashed before our eyes, Stephen McKeon's score blasts out like the trumpets of hell – and it doesn't let up. It's clear from the start that Cronin is not f****** around. He has one thing on his mind: he wants to scare you, no matter what it takes. Some of his decisions may be cheap, but hey, they work. You will be scared. Hell, before anything even scary happens, you'll get the creeps as Cronin gives us an establishing shot of a car driving through a landscape gone crazy with trees. The camera hovers above like a killing vulture, and then tips madly upside-down. The effect is jarring, and only a taste of things to come.

Sarah (Seána Kerslake) and her son Chris (James Quinn Markey) are relocating to a new house in the Irish countryside. Sarah is fleeing a potentially abusive relationship with her husband, and Chris isn't very happy about starting a new life. He's a sullen, withdrawn child, and he has trouble making new friends. Sarah tries her best, and it's clear she loves her son, and that the two have a loving relationship. But since this movie begins with music that sounds like it was composed by Satan on a cocaine bender, we know this idyllic mother-son relationship won't last.

There's an old woman living nearby, prone to wandering out into the middle of roads and mumbling incoherently. Sarah learns that years ago, the old woman claimed her son was replaced by an identical imposter. Obviously, everyone thought this woman was crazy – and the entire scenario resulted in the tragic death of the boy. Sarah is understandably chilled by this story, but doesn't think much of it...at first.

Then she discovers a huge, gaping hole in the woods by the new house. Although calling it a "hole" is a bit of an understatement – it's more like a crater, as if a meteorite had smashed into this patch of woods undetected. After Chris vanishes from the house late one night, Sarah panics, worried he might have wandered into the woods and fallen into the hole. But Chris turns up back in the house, and claims he never left. From there on out, Sarah begins noticing subtle changes in her son. He seems...off.

Cronin plays up this strangeness brilliantly. Chris isn't immediately creepy, but the way the camera zooms in on his mouth slurping spaghetti, and the way the lad stares blankly at his mother sometimes, has a chilling effect. An outsider might not even notice anything different, but Sarah does. Or does she? For a while, The Hole in the Ground seems to be cut from the same cloth as The Babadook, wherein we're meant to wonder if there's really anything supernatural going on here, or if it's all the work of a sick mind. Real or not, it's plenty scary. Sarah grows more and more frantic, and Chris grows more and more weird. In one of the film's most hair-raising scenes, Sarah peeps through a keyhole to watch the boy munching on a spider.

Through all of this, McKeon's score goes into overdrive. I'm often turned off by horror films that let loud stinging music do most of the heavy-lifting, and The Hole in the Ground's soundtrack can often be overbearing. And yet, Cronin knows how to back it up with nerve-wracking imagery. The look of the film is awash in pale blues and inky blacks; the wind always seems to be howling; and even when its daytime, darkness lingers. By combining all of this with Sarah's increasingly frantic mindset, and Chris' increasingly weird behavior, Cronin has crafted a formidable work of horror. It helps that both Kerslake and Markey are wonderful as the mother-son duo. Kerslake's terror feels natural and real, and Markey's eeriness is just subtle enough to keep you guessing.

Unfortunately, the center cannot hold. When The Hole in the Ground is simply concerned with presenting strange occurrences designed to make you jump, it's wonderful. But as the movie draws towards its conclusion, and Cronin is forced to start providing answers, the movie begins to suffer. The explanation is never as rewarding as the mystery, and while this by no means ruins the film, it hampers it.

And yet, so much of The Hole in the Ground does what it sets out to do – make you squirm and shudder – that you'll probably be willing to forgive the slightly underwhelming wrap-up. And you'll definitely think twice about having kids anytime soon.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10