The past few years have seen a fair few fine Irish horrors grace our cinema screens (The Little Stranger, A Dark Song, The Cured and The Autopsy of Jane Doe to name a few). Despite not quite setting the box office on fire, some favoured well enough with critics and genre fans to shake the Leprechaun franchise's shackles. Given the brilliance of co-writer / director Lee Cronin’s rustic frightener The Hole in the Ground, we may soon see a greater Irish upsurge to rival the likes of J-horror. Due to screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in London, Cronin’s game-changing debut is as potent and frightening as one would have hoped, given horror mavens A24 picked it up for North America distribution, with Vertigo Releasing doing UK honours.
The story sees twenty-something single mum Sarah O’Neill (Séana Kerslake) move into a semi-dilapidated house in a remote Irish village with young son Chris (James Quinn Markey). Sarah’s peace is shattered by strange happenings that she believes could be connected to a gargantuan sinkhole in a nearby forest. While Sarah’s grip on reality wanes, she grows increasingly more paranoid, starts distrusting those around her and suspects a paranormal presence could be to blame for the events.
THITG unravels with an instant foreboding that gradually buds into heart-pummelling dread. Haunted landscapes and collapsing edifices, coupled with fractured sound design, contribute to an unsettling air to make the perfect backdrop for the subgenre-warping story. Cronin naps facets to defy expectations; deflecting clichés, stereotypes and eluding tent poles to misdirect. The plot adopts novel cogs which haven’t featured, in this context, within a horror film for some time, suggesting the director and co-writer Stephen Shields have immense genre savvy as well as a natural, general knack for film-making. Industrial growling and forest rustling make for a multi-layered soundscape that bleeds into the score by Stephen McKeon, amplifying frights and trepidation to petrify more than predictable jump scares or excessive flesh flaying / bloodshed could manage.
Creepy faces peep around corners while cloaked characters dot the backdrop and cackle incoherent whispers into frozen lobes. Meanwhile, themes of alienation, isolation and detachment are augmented by a tetchy mother / son rapport and an absent father who’s the cause of their relocation and (possibly) present dilemma. The notion of the “other” adorns a riveting surface story which stagnates slightly after the set up due to a couple of dallying scenes, before gliding fine for the better part then juddering via cacophonously clumped together (yet brilliant as standalones) set-pieces in the latter half. But this is a measly quibble next to Cronin’s incredible craft for a debut director. Exquisite cinematography by Tom Comerford, outstanding performances from Kerslake and McKeon, and Cronin’s proficient fright fashioning strengthens THITG immensely and goes some way to compensate for the slight structural blemishes.
The Hole in the Ground is not a stone’s throw from Paper House, The Shining, Symptoms and The Descent, while also recalling the more recent likes of Hereditary and The Hallow. Despite these comparisons, it stands strong on its own as a suspense mining masterclass with a proclivity to slink under the skin, boost goose bumps, erect neck hairs and rattle the soul. Cronin’s film has the strength to strike fear in the heart of hardened horror fans. Coupled with incredible performances, this makes his debut feature by far the best horror film of the year so far and one of the greatest Irish horror films ever.
THE HOLE IN THE GROUND / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: LEE CRONIN / SCREENPLAY: LEE CRONIN, STEPHEN SHIELDS / STARRING: SEANA KERSLAKE, JAMES QUINN MARKEY, SIMONE KIRBY / RELEASE DATE: 1ST MARCH