Joe Dante almost didn't accept the gig directing "The Hole." The "Gremlins" director tells me this after I asked him how he became involved with the all-ages horror movie, which is going into limited theatrical release this week before hitting DVD and Blu-ray on October 2nd. But he was impressed with the maturity of the script, which sees brothers Dane and Lucas move into a new house, only to discover it's home to a bottomless pit filled with very personal supernatural horror.
"It didn't go where I thought it was going to go. And when they go down into the hole, and find out what's in there, it wasn't what I expected."
Part of the appeal was his own essential love of horror and being scared which goes back to his childhood, even when it was considered a "junk genre." And he recognizes that these films are basically generational--what scares the latest batch of kids might not grab the next. "In recent years, there are a lot of violent pictures, a lot of gory pictures that are unacceptable for kids, and kids love these pictures. I felt that I could make a picture that was scary for kids and be compelling for adults."
Part of grabbing those younger audience members comes from exploiting the feeling of powerlessness that comes with being a kid. "They feel kind of ostracized, and there's things going on with their bodies, and it's like 'Oh my god, I'm turning into a werewolf.'" It's a tradition that stretches back all the way back to creature features like "The Blob" where small town teens were unable to convince the adults that a flesh-eating monster was on the loose, to more recent movies like "The Gate" or "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" where the young leads are forced to face off against not only the new and unexpected but their first brushes with mortality. "In the 80's there were a lot of pictures that [dealt with this], so this is a little bit of a retro horror film. Although I do feel it's a little darker than most of those."
In assembling his cast, he says he was lucky to find leads Chris Massoglia (Dane), Haley Bennett (Julie), and Nathan Gamble (Lucas), in what he feels like are cyclical waves of waxing and waning talent among child actors. For Dante, there's nothing worse than a kid mugging at the camera and "The Hole" required performers who could sell the somewhat psychological horror to both kids and adults alike. "The trick is to find people who are natural. And I like to read them in groups to see what kind of connection they have. And in this case, I was really lucky, becasue with Haley and Chris hit it right off."
Massoglia's role as the surly teen Dane was one of the more challenging ones to to nail given that the character is mostly unsympathetic early in the movie. Bitter about yet another move to a new town, frustrated at having to mind his younger brother, and resentful of his mom's efforts to get them all to make nice and settle in, Dane isn't exactly a nice guy to start. Dante says that Chris' character is true to life--based on the director's own experiences: "I remember being that age and I had brothers and we had as acrimonious a relationship as you could imagine. But when the chips are down, you're there for each other."
When I ask him what got him scared as a kid, he tells me that growing up during the age of the atom bomb, most of his fears centered on the end of the the world. "It was the age of giant insect movies which was a metaphor for what we were afraid was going to be the end of the world. So I've always been kind of an apocalyptic kind of kid, and looking back at the movies I've done, there's some kind of apocalypse in them. So that must be what scares me... besides Republicans. [laughs]"
With "The Hole" completed and getting in front of wider audiences, he's currently juggling several different projects, doing the usual dance of scouting for locations and searching out funding. He jokes that as he enters his later years, he's working harder now than when he was a younger filmmaker.
"The Hole" will be in theaters September 28th, and on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, and VOD on October 2nd.