Things That Podunk in the Night

Apologies for the title of this post, which makes no sense even to me, but it slipped into my head last night as I was falling asleep, and this morning I had failed to forget it. That’s often the way of it, Coleridge forgets the ending of Xanadu, I remember the nonsensical pun. In mitigation, we’d just seen Joe Dante’s “family horror film” THE HOLE, and I’d been reading interviews with the director where he described the film’s setting as a “podunk town”. We don’t really have that word in Scotland, perhaps because you could apply it to just about any town here, so I was charmed by the sound — pebble into bucket of water — and it must’ve lodged somewhere.

In this small town there is a house, and the new residents of said house are a single mom and her sons, one teenage and one younger (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble, both potential future stars). Also in this house, in the basement, is a supernatural bottomless pit, its presence gratifyingly unexplained. And what Nietszche said about the abyss goes double for this one. Like inhabitants of a domestic SOLARIS or EVENT HORIZON, the two kids and their neighbour (Haley Bennett, likewise terrific) are soon being persecuted by their worst fears, a selection of creepiness carrying various echoes of other, more adult scary movies — THE SIXTH SENSE, STIR OF ECHOES, THE GRUDGE, POLTERGEIST, and the director’s own GREMLINS. The closest movie overall might be THE GATE. It was fun to think of these horror tropes being inflicted on a generation of kids who haven’t seen the originals and have no defenses. In fact, we were scared enough to jump several times, and feel the pleasing tingle of anxiety, especially at the jittery movements of the little dead girl with one shoe.

And it’s in 3D. Really good 3D. Annoying to think that this has been waiting for release a year, while faked-up post-production 3D hack jobs like CLASH OF THE TITANS and THE LAST AIRBENDER lobbed their digital scorpions and fireballs at an insulted world. The falling nail that drops straight towards the lens made Fiona flinch, the first time that effect has EVER worked on her, and the use of stereographic space in conjunction with lovely sound design to create a real feeling of deep, scary space, was beautifully judged. There’s also a spectacular tunnel shot in an abandoned glove factory (“Gloves By Orlac”) followed by a forest of light fittings amid which squats local recluse with scary insider knowledge Bruce Dern looking like Coppelius from THE TALES OF HOFFMAN (he even has clusters of plastic eyeballs on stalks — he just does). All absolutely thrilling in 3D.

There’s a strong sense of “welcome back” as Dante serves up cameos by Hollywood old-timers (only a couple, as the film was shot in Canada); amusing reading material (the heroine reads that other Dante’s Inferno); monster movies on TV (and I am just not sure what that dinosaur flick is! Most frustrating) and a chattering little attack creature, pint-sized malevolence in motley.

The kids are all great, with the youngest, Nathan Gamble, particularly impressive. Just because we’ve come to expect impressive kids in this kind of movie, since Haley Joel Osment, that shouldn’t stop us being amazed by him.

Approach with caution if you are particularly afraid of the following things: heights, depths, clowns, the dark, Bruce Dern, scary dead kids, giant abusive fathers. Approach with glee if you want to see what Dante does with a cartoon-expressionist city somewhat in the vein of the toon-house in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE.

As the end credits rolled (and it’s worth staying through them…) a wee boy approached us tentatively and asked “Eh that was quite scary?” (In Scotland we put the “eh” at the front of the sentence so you know in advance it’s a question.) My guess is his friends were acting tough and denying they’d been frightened and he wanted to get some confirmation from responsible adults that he wasn’t silly to find the movie pretty frightening in places. We assured him: he wasn’t!


25 Responses to “Things That Podunk in the Night”

  1. Definitely looking forward to this. Nathan Gamble was quite impressive in The Mist – playing a genuinely terrified little boy very convincingly. Surely Dick Miller has to turn up in this? I may try a double hander of this and Back to the Future this weekend. Ah, sweet regression.

    Welcome back, Mr Dante. It’s been too long.

  2. I don’t want to spoil the “surprise” about the film’s other guest spot, but you can always check IMDb if you want to know beforehand.

    Nathan G is indeed superb in The Mist. Didn’t realise it was him until I looked him up. His terror in this movie is equally real, although more underplayed as befits the less sombre tone.

  3. To say I’m looking forward to this is putting it mildly.

    From your description it seems not at all unrelated to Joe’s highly underrated The Burbs’ — which also eatures the great Bruce Dern in its cast.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Also: “one-horse town”
    “jerkwater town”

    Bruce Dern did scary-with-kids so well at the beginning of his career (MARNIE).

  5. Both The ‘Burbs and The Hole take place during those long summers between school semesters when people have too much time and it’s too darned hot.

  6. And who can forget Brother Theodore?

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    My first commissioned work of film criticism is online. Much thanks to Both Davids for their valuable correspondence.

  8. John Seal Says:

    Doesn’t seem to have a release date set for the US. I’d guess if it’s not going to open in the Halloween season, it’s going straight to video.

  9. The problem has been waiting on 3D screens to show it on. I think it’s just played Toronto and NYC, though, so release may be approaching. The fact that it opened here so far in advance of Halloween indicates they may not be thinking along those lines. Halloween would indeed be the obvious time to show it, but maybe big studio pictures have the screens tied up then.

  10. Joe Dante Says:

    Thanks, David.
    It’s always nice to know there’s someone out there watching these things.

  11. JOE’S DA MAN!!!!

  12. Thanks for this review. It’s playing the New York Film Festival next Saturday, and I was waffling on whether to try to see it. You’ve decisively tipped me towards yes. I’m not aware of any other screenings in NYC, so I’m not sure if it can be said to have “played” here, or be “playing” in the future. Sounds like it will be a crying shame if it goes straight to video.

  13. It’s really MADE for the 3D big screen and surround sound experience, it would be a shame to miss it. I know most all films are made with the cinema in mind, and good films usually stand up well on home vid, but I’d say there’s a lot of added value in catching this one on the big screen.

    Hey Joe!

  14. Your description immediately got me thinking about The Gate too! It has been years since I last saw that film but remember really enjoying it at the time:

  15. Been meaning to write about The Gate – need to check with Shadowplayer Randy Cook (who did the FX) how many of its secrets I can reveal – I suspect not many!

  16. Christopher Says:

    ha ha..Reckless Youth!..I love it.
    (Ned Sparks voice)..”why-don’t-people-act-like-that NOWadays!?

  17. And speaking of Gates there’s this wildly underrated gem:

  18. I remember being a bit disappointed at the end of The Ninth Gate. It’s got really neat stuff, a nice cinematic joke every ten minutes or so, but it doesn’t seem to add up to anything. I was relieved to see Polanski getting his teeth into juicier material with his last three films.

    But I really like the wheelchair gag, and the other moment when Depp gets knocked out and he briefly appears to have two sets of eyes…

  19. One day after I’d watched The Gate for about the ninth time, I gave a full synopsis (as detailed as possible, making up bits I couldn’t clearly remember) to a friend on our half-hour walk home from school, because he was interested in the movie but refused to watch any horror. He had Gate-related nightmares for months – never having seen so much as the poster for the film itself. I was proud.

  20. An impressive feat of proto-criticism! Describing the experience so vividly others can see it as if through your eyes.

  21. Just seen this. The kids were brilliant and the initlal scares fantastic. But there was some dissapointingly hoary stuff there as well. I love Joe Dante to pieces and I have loved his love of the hoary before, because it fizzed with oddness and imagination. But I really thought I’d seen the back of that terrible, late eighties cliche of setting the subconscious in a wonky house. In fact the final set piece was lifted straight out of “Drop Dead Fred”, the backwards walking form Coppolla’s Dracula and the kid pursued by a tiny, murderous jester was lifted from “Cat’s Eye”. Are these really the films Dante’s paying homage to now? (And is he scared of clowns or dolls?)
    But the main rankle for me was that apart from the swimming pool sequences (not because of the bikinis but because of the refraction) none of the 3D worked for me. When you stared down the hole, there was no light, so no image, so no 3D. All darkness in a 3D film is flat which is surely a problem in a film whose central feature is a bottomless pit. And it was blurry. The kids were great, and Joe Dante is GREAT, but this film was a likeable let-down.
    Wasn’t the film Gorgo? Or maybe Dante’s own creation?

  22. Didn’t get any blurriness at our screening.

    Sort of agree that the hole itself isn’t a great vehicle for 3D most of the time, but since the effect is a constant presence, I was more interested in the house, the perspectives in general, and the way it added to the eeriness of empty spaces.

    The referencing of more recent, non-classical horrors didn’t bother me: it seemed kind of neat to introduce kids to this imagery.

    I *think* you’re probably right and it is Gorgo, but on first sight I didn’t recognize him, which is odd, since I’ve seen him A LOT.

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