Elizabeth Dunn makes her way to a payphone, dirty, battered and bruised, dials the emergency services but can only scream down the line when they answer. So begins The Hole, a story of four teenagers who get trapped in a military bunker near their exclusive private school.
It’s an odd sort of film, the kind of thing that should have been much better than it turned out to be. All the right ingredients are there, the story is interesting enough, the performances are adequate, and the mood is effective.
At the time, it had the right amount of edge and style to appeal to a 2001 audience, and its target demographic (i.e. teens looking for a brief diversion from their angst-riddled lives) would never have demanded too much anyway, but the final result is just…sort of meh.
As mentioned above, the film opens with Liz (Thora Birch) making her way to the first phone she can find in an empty school. She picks up the phone and screams, and soon the place is swarming with policemen and other generic emergency services. She’s taken to a hospital where she’s examined, cleaned up and assigned a psychiatrist, Phillipa (Embeth Davidtz).
Liz soon recounts her story, of how she’s the wallflower of the school, not fitting in with the elite, only to find company with her friend Martin (Daniel Brocklebank). Martin is the schemer, manipulator and grease-the-wheels sort of guy in the school, who carries a torch for Liz, but is overlooked in favour of the studly, American, and recently-single Mike (Desmond Harrington).
Liz is madly, deeply and passionately in high-school love with Mike and wants a chance to get to know him better, so Martin organises an escape for Liz, Mike and two other popular students, Mike’s friend Geoff (Laurence Fox) who happens to be going out with Frankie (Keira Knightley), queen bee and occasional friend to Liz.
They ditch a mandatory field-trip to Wales and instead bunk for a few days in an old WWII bunker to which Martin has the keys (the titular hole). There, they have innocent play-fights, tell ghost stories and have an all round fun time.
But things go wrong.
Martin doesn’t come back to get them. They get trapped in the hole with their supplies of food and water gradually going low. But then one day, Liz and Mike realise the hole has been bugged and that Martin waiting for Liz and Mike to hate each other, out of jealousy. They put on a mock-show of a vicious fight, Martin is appeased and unlocks the door. They make their way out of the hole, jumping for joy at Liz’s brilliance.
…and at this point you realise the movie’s only been going for a bit over half an hour and that it’s a shitty copout that doesn’t match Liz’s state at the beginning of the film. Fortunately Phillipa picks up on it too (“she thinks she’s spent the last week in fucking Disneyland!”). However, the only lead the police have to work with is Liz’s accusation of Martin as a kidnapper so they arrest him.
Then the film is re-told and we learn the truth:
Rather than being a quiet wallflower who has to seek advice from the glamorous Frankie, Liz is as much a queen-bee herself. She and Frankie are “two sides of the same coin” according to Martin. But she does still have the hots for Mike, and wants to swoop in on his single loins, so she and Frankie devise a plan whereby Geoff and Mike will join them in the bunker rather than attend the fieldtrip.
This time, rather than innocent games of chasings and ghost stories at night, the teens drink, smoke, take drugs and party. Geoff and Frankie get a bit too intimate in such close surroundings for Liz and Mike’s comfort (including a shot of Keira Knightley flashing the camera – prefame, 15-year-old Keira Knightley, at that) and Mike decides he’s going to leave. Liz, in desperation, says she’s leaving too and tries to organise a later date with Mike, except he tells her he’s going to patch things up with his recent ex, only the door is locked.
It soon comes to light that, actually, Liz locked the door to the hole, to better her chances with Mike. And that it’s not a crush, it’s actually an obsession with him. So much so that once the water supply has dropped down, and paranoia and hunger is setting in, Liz still keeps the door locked. But it works, and she and Mike start with the kissing and the heavy petting and eventually the sex.
But even as Frankie (who, by the way, is bulimic) gets sick and vomits herself to death, Liz keeps the door locked. When Geoff tries to sneak in a can of Coke, and Mike flies into a rage and beats his head in, she keeps the door locked. But after a while, Mike tells her he loves her (convinced they’re both going to die) and she decides that that will mean a happily ever after and goes to unlock the door. Mike realises she’s to blame, flies into another rage, tries to climb the rickety ladder to the door to kill her, but the ladder breaks and he falls to his death.
Then there’s a quick wrap-up scene where Phillipa tries to make Liz confess to this on tape with the police, but she’s already framed Martin for the crime (and killed him with incriminating evidence on his body) and it’s implied she’ll get away with it all, even closing on a shot that really tries to oversell the PSYCHO TEENAGE GIRL aspect of Liz.
All in all, it’s a mildly entertaining film that could have been better than it was. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but the 6.2 rating on IMDb is pretty much it. There are some things to like. Firstly, the set for the titular hole is pretty nifty – there’s no reason to have this giant pit in the ground, but it’s cool, there’s no logic to the school having it on their grounds and not having anyone go looking in it once the teens were reported missing.
Also, and this is something I only picked up on rewatching the movie, but I like the way that a whole bunch of stuff that happens in the second version of events makes it into Liz’s earlier version of events. For the audience, it acts as some genuinely subtle foreshadowing, but in the film itself, it’s Liz re-crafting things that happened to suggest her own innocence.
Across the performances, no one’s particularly bad as such, it’s just that everyone’s a bit bland. Believable as teenagers? Yes. Particularly interesting characters? No. The best work is done by Embeth Davidtz, but I have to admit I still see her as, essentially, Miss Honey with a bit of an edge.
You begin to suspect that everyone involved with the movie was there for the salary, but even if that is what happened, they didn’t completely phone it in. These days, the film is largely forgettable, except for those curious about Keira Knightley’s early performances. The American distributors clearly realised this, because here’s the original movie poster:
And here’s the US release from 2003, once Pirates of the Caribbean had hit the world in the blockbuster face:
And that pretty much sums up the appeal of the movie. It’s an adequate movie, don’t get me wrong, but you’re not missing out on anything groundbreaking if you don’t see it. If you want to see Keira Knightley before she was famous, or Thora Birch doing a shifty British accent, by all means, track it down – it’s entertaining, if not earth shattering.
What I would recommend is the novel the films is based on, After The Hole by Guy Burt which is a much better narrative. It’s essentially first person from Liz’s perspective, the hole itself is now an abandoned cellar, and there’s even a fifth character the film cuts out entirely. It’s a much creepier version of events, because it’s essentially Liz’s first story of events and the only real clue we get about what ended up as the second half of the film is when the book ends with the psychiatrist reporting to her superior, saying that there’s been progress but still a long way to go, as they already know that Mike “died on the sixteenth day” which becomes a big shock given that he’s been a much larger character in the book.
It’s a more effective way of telling the story, but at the same time would have been harder to adapt into a film. But still, either version of the story is entertaining. It won’t change your world but it won’t waste your time.