The Hole in the Ground review – superbly scary country horror

Mounting weirdness descends as a mother and young son set up home in the middle of a dark and sinister forest

Here’s an Irish folk-horror that clearly drew the right conclusions from the midnight-movie pairing of The Babadook and Under the Shadow: a film operating at a suspenseful, spider-like creep that allows it to skirt your defences and get some distance under the skin.

It opens with a broadly familiar set-up. Recently separated, subtly scarred Sarah (Seána Kerslake) installs herself and young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) in the kind of countryside fixer-upper-type property that conventionally serves as a magnet for trouble. Yet its foundations are undermined in unexpected fashion, first by the discovery of a vast sinkhole in the surrounding forest, then by the neighbourhood crone (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen) who pauses her catatonic murmuring to insist that Chris isn’t who he seems. As Sarah briefs one confidante: “It’s been a funny few days.”

The bathos in that aside testifies to the care director Lee Cronin and co-writer Stephen Shields take to describe a semi-functional household against which the mounting weirdness can be more starkly defined. It’s there in the way Sarah strips wallpaper with a kitchen spatula, and Chris’s rejection of parmesan as “dust cheese”; it’s there again in the appearance of James Cosmo, bringing his usual stout Celtic solidity to bear in the role of Outinen’s desperate-distraught spouse.

For a good, enthralling hour, we’re uncertain whether the real threat facing this household comes from within or without. The sinkhole is a nifty feat of VFX that exerts a strange pull, but there’s also the curious cuckoo-in-the-nest business – and young Markey was surely cast for his uncanny resemblances to Sixth Sense-era Haley Joel Osment and The Shining’s Danny Lloyd.

Cronin sometimes leans a little heavily on the Kubrickisms – Sarah tempts fate on repapering the hall with a pattern recalling the Overlook’s carpets – but transcends mere homage by providing us with the resources to invest in these characters.

The terrific Kerslake gives an anchoring performance, suggesting a slightly young-seeming mother beginning to question the evidence of her own tranquilliser-heavy eyes and having to trust her instincts anew. It’s a film in animated conversation with genre history – even a casual survey of that sinkhole might discern traces of Carrie White’s corpse, The Descent’s doomed spelunkers and the victims of The Vanishing. Yet it always finds new, invariably cinematic ways to nudge us towards its final leap into the abyss. Cronin feels like a real find for our especially insecure moment.

Contributor

Mike McCahill

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Good Manners review – superbly strange nanny horror
São Paulo is transformed into a spooky fairytale landscape in this elegant, unsettling tale of a pregnant woman and her prospective employee

Ellen E Jones

16, Jul, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
Phoenix review – horror comes home in chilly Scandi drama
Daily dread infuses the raw, claustrophobic story of a teenage carer looking after her troubled mother and little brother

Cath Clarke

11, Sep, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Under the Shadow review – supremely scary horror from Iran
Babak Anvari’s disturbing ghost story, set in Tehran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, is a brilliant parable of supernatural invasion

Peter Bradshaw

29, Sep, 2016 @9:30 PM

Article image
Lamb review – Noomi Rapace outstanding in wild horror-comedy of Icelandic loneliness
This outrageous story of a bereaved couple’s surrogate child ropes in a wild bestiary of creatures great and digital

Peter Bradshaw

07, Dec, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
The Ringmaster review – petrol-station horror pumps up the nastiness
A creepy clown turns torturer in a Danish shocker that’s deeply unpleasant but a cut above the usual slasher fare

Leslie Felperin

25, Nov, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
To Tokyo review – thrilling, chilling horror in the wilderness
Caspar Seale Jones’s drama about a young woman afraid of her past is a masterclass in engrossing, show-don’t-tell film-making

Mike McCahill

25, Sep, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
The Queen of Black Magic review – derivative gross-out horror
An Indonesian family’s trip to the orphanage where dad grew up turns into an unrelenting stream of nastiness as vengeful spirits emerge

Leslie Felperin

27, Jan, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Possessor review – terrifying sci-fi horror freak-out | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week
The director’s thrillingly ingenious tale of mind-invasion technology, starring Andrea Riseborough, barrels towards the most outrageous final twist imaginable

Peter Bradshaw

26, Nov, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Unearth review – fracking horror finds something nasty under the cornfield
When hard-pressed farmers do a deal with the energy industry, full-on eco terror ensues, undoing this movie’s careful groundwork

Phil Hoad

21, Jun, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Bleed With Me review – three’s a crowd in taut bloodsucking horror
Amelia Moses’ feature debut keeps us guessing as to who is the hunter and who is the prey as a holiday in the woods turns sour

Leslie Felperin

09, Aug, 2021 @3:00 PM