'The Hole in the Ground' director Lee Cronin says his film is about more than just a creepy kid
The new Irish chiller looks set to be the latest low-budget horror commercial hit
If deftly constructed psychological horror is your thing, then The Hole in the Ground, a low-budget, high-tension, Sundance Festival hit could be the movie for you this weekend.
The film sits firmly within the “creepy, demonic kid” zone pioneered by the likes of The Omen and seen more recently in films like The Babadook and The Sixth Sense. Surprisingly, however, Irish director Lee Cronin insists that these weren’t really the films he was looking to for inspiration when he wrote, or shot, his movie.
“I never thought of it as a creepy kid movie at any point,” the director insists. “It was only when I started showing it to people that I thought ‘wow, it really is a creepy kid movie, isn’t it?’”
For Cronin, the film was more about the central relationship between Sarah (Seana Kerslake) and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) as they flee to the Irish countryside from Sarah’s abusive marriage. Once there, Sarah becomes increasingly convinced that the child she is living with is not her son, as spooky events become commonplace and he begins to behave in a strange way, perhaps influenced by a mysterious sinkhole in the forest behind their house. “I was trying to make something that was about a mother and a son, and put that through the prism of horror. That was my focus. I haven’t watched The Omen in years, and I certainly wasn’t trying to ‘do one for the genre’.”
Nonetheless, the film is not without its nods to horror classics – the opening aerial shot of Sarah’s car winding through the Irish mountains is almost a reconstruction of the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and under closer interrogation, Cronin does concede some horror influences: “The Shining was a big influence and I’m not ashamed of that,” the director admits. “[Roman] Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, too, but I wouldn’t say Rosemary’s Baby [the second film in the trilogy] specifically. The Tenant [the third film in the trilogy] was an influence just for that level of paranoia you see, and I rewatched Repulsion [the first film in the series], too. That was where I was kind of leaning into, but also I think you just have to trust your own instincts.”
Ultimately, however, Cronin says his film is about a more general sense of doubt, fear and mistrust. “I’m always looking for the universal, and beyond the idea of that mistrust between a mother and her son, I wanted to look at that idea of someone you know intimately, and what happens when you start to doubt that person; when you start to wonder if you truly know who they are,” he says. “I don’t think you need to be a parent to engage with the fear in the movie. That first time you have a major argument with someone close to you and they just lose it, you look in their eyes and see a person you’ve never seen before. That really scares me. And that’s what I’m looking at here.”
Finding a young talent
Cronin may be seeking to open a window on more universal aspects of familial, friendly, or romantic distrust, but there’s no doubting that 10-year-old Markey has given us a sublimely creepy kid to rival the best of them. So how can a child actor, who seems so sweet and innocent at the beginning of the movie, flip things so successfully? And how did he go about directing his protege for some of the film’s more terrifying scenes without scaring the youngster to death?
“What he does is actually very subtle,” Cronin says. “If you burst in after 20 minutes and say, ‘Check out how creepy this kid is,’ you’ll lose the audience. So it’s a really gentle change. If you watch his performance closely, right up until about 80 minutes, it’s very minor changes, just a little more stiff. It’s how Sarah is viewing the changes; that’s where the tension comes from.”
He just found the horror bits funny for the most part, and even for the scariest bits of his performance towards the end, we didn’t use any effects or edits. It’s all just him.
Director Lee Cronin
Once Markey’s role does become somewhat more visceral in the film’s closing scenes, Cronin says it was not a problem for the youngster. “He just found the horror bits funny for the most part, and even for the scariest bits of his performance towards the end, we didn’t use any effects or edits. It’s all just him. He’s an amazing performer, and he just found it really fun.”
The film, which hit UAE screens last weekend, can already claim to be a success. It was picked up for US distribution by indie giant A24 before it was completed in 2017, on the back of a three-minute sample and a read through of the screenplay. It picked up rave reviews on its world premiere at Sundance in January, and it opened in Cronin’s native Ireland earlier this month on a whopping 98 screens – the director proudly points out that a typical Hollywood studio horror would normally open on about 70 screens in his homeland.
There won't be a sequel
Cronin looks set to repeat the success of a number of recent surprise horror break-out hits, from the Oscar-nominated social commentary Get Out to the box office smash It, and predictably the attention the film has already garnered has made Cronin something of a director to watch with his feature debut. So what can we expect from Ireland’s new master of suspense?
“It’s been amazing how well the film has done, even before it was released, and I do have a few things on the table,” Cronin says. “I’ve already written a couple of new screenplays, one by myself and one with my writing partner. I have a psychological horror that I’d like to be my next film I think, but there’s a couple of new opportunities coming up, too.
“I think because this film has punched above its weight, there’s a lot of interest coming from the US from people who have really championed this film, and think I could potentially do some cool stuff in the future. But I haven’t had time to properly sit down and think about it. It’s been so hectic since we premiered at Sundance – I’ve been like a travelling salesman.”
One place Cronin insists he won’t be going next, despite Hole in the Ground’s ambiguous ending that leaves many unanswered questions, is a sequel. “I left the ambiguity at the end of the film for very good reasons, and I don’t see a sequel is necessary,” he says. “I wanted to make a film about someone in a terrifying situation where you’re not handed a rule book, so if I gave Sarah too much information, that ambiguity would vanish. That’s the nature of the story I was trying to tell – you don’t get all the answers in life.”
On the ambiguity of Sarah’s situation in the movie, Cronin admits that he wanted to tease audiences by giving them something to question after the house lights go up. “I like it when I leave a movie with things to discuss. Not too much, but with questions still remaining,” he says.
“I guess it’s both the nature of the story, and the way I wanted to leave people feeling. Sarah is never going to lose her scars, and her doubt, so I guess the audience shouldn’t, either.”
The Hole in the Ground is in cinemas across the UAE now
Updated: March 17, 2019 08:33 PM