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!