Although they don’t get as much attention as tales about zombies or ghosts, body snatcher stories are among the most powerful in horror fiction. And a lot of their strength comes from the way body snatcher stories draw from other genres: the emotional terror of zombies (“That monster looks like someone I know!”), the epistemological disturbance of a haunting (“Am I really seeing what I think I see?”), the paranoia of a conspiracy (“Is everyone in on this but me?”). These narratives transfigure the familiar into some frightening and strange.
That’s particularly true when the snatched body is that of a child, which is why the changeling myth — the idea that fairy would steal a baby and replace it with a shape-shifter — has been told and retold for centuries.
But even though there’s a classic horror movie called The Changeling, and even though parental horror has experienced something of a renaissance since the release of The Babadook, we don’t see too many movies about parents scared of their now unfamiliar kids. (There is a changeling subplot in Neil Marshall’s recent Hellboy reboot, but it was one of the flick’s many, many, many subplots and wasn’t deployed well).
Directed by Lee Cronin and co-written by Cronin and Stephen Shields, The Hole in the Ground tells a body-snatcher/changeling story about a boy acting strangely just after his mom discovers a giant sinkhole in the nearby forest, and tells it with quiet intimacy. Single mother Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) tries to secure a good childhood for her son Christopher (James Quinn Markey) in the Irish countryside, talking through his bully problems and helping him overcome his arachnophobia. But Sarah’s task gets complicated by frequent intrusions from elderly neighbor Noreen (Kati Outinin), who declares “That’s not your son” with more certainty than a senile person usually has.
Unable to shake off the accusation, Sarah begins noticing unusual behavior by Christopher, traits that manifested right after he seemed to disappear into the sinkhole growing in the woods behind her house.
Cronin and Shields fully tighten the tension of Sarah’s no-win situation. If she ignores her suspicions, she’s not only possibly exposing herself to a malevolent creature, but also potentially abandoning her missing real son. But if she acts on her fears, she may be harming an innocent boy by taking away the one safe person in his life. Kerslake plays the part with genuine warmth, and all of her decisions — even third act moves that might otherwise seem reckless — come from a place of genuine concern. Her chemistry with Markey lends both heartbreak and horror to the scenes in which they threaten one another.
Working with cinematographer Tom Comerford, Cronin keeps us locked in Sarah’s perspective, forcing us to peek through keyholes and around corners, giving us only glimpses of what could be malevolent behavior: do we really see Christopher scuttle around his bedroom floor or throw his mother across the room, or they just tricky angles and dream sequences?
When focusing on Sarah and her potentially monstrous son, the movie works as the type of horror/family drama in which distributor A24 excels. But when it ventures out to the titular hole, the movie becomes unremarkable. While it wisely avoids a full explanation of the hole’s relationship to Christopher’s actions, The Hole in the Ground loses focus and character in its last act, playing too much like a rehash of Jordan’s far more successful The Descent.
While those brief shifts into uninspired creature-feature thrills are fine, they aren’t the stuff that sticks with audience, nor are they the focus of the movie. For most of its tight 90-minute runtime, The Hole in the Ground gives us genuine terror from dark places horror films too rarely visit.