She had thought she would see herself reflected in her son, hoped that she would not see his father reflected in him, but instead when Sarah O’Neill and her son Christopher moved to start their new life in rural Ireland, to the deep forest under the grey sky which held the hole in the ground, she realised that the child she was raising was a stranger.
Is it the sleepless nights, the anxiety of her broken relationship and their new start, Christopher struggling to make friends at his new school, or the medication she is taking to calm herself, the blue pills which seep into her sleep in blue-tinted nightmares in the pre-dawn light of a stranger in the house in the shape of her son?
Is it the influence of the woman down the road who mumbles to herself, Noreen Brady, who they say went mad and killed her own child, convinced he wasn’t her son? Is it the isolation of a place where a body can lie and be pecked by crows before anyone finds it lying face down in the earth?
Or is it the hole in the ground, a great scoop out of the earth, no road or path leading to it to explain how it might have been made, nature torn open to reveal layers of dirt and deep roots, an endless trickle of debris downwards, swallowed into the world below? Did something crawl out that hole one night and take Sarah’s son, leaving a changeling to taunt and torture her?
The debut feature of director Lee Cronin, co-written with Stephen Shields and screened at the Glasgow Film Festival, The Hole in the Ground is a low-key Irish folk horror of claustrophobia, paranoia and uncertainty following in the wake of such as The Hallow and Without Name, tied to the land and the trees and the ancient unknowable things which may still hide in the shadows and the cracks between the worlds.
The creaks and groans of the empty farmhouse and the oppressive trees as they sway in the wind expressing Sarah’s tortured state of mind, Seána Kerslake is blown from tenuous confidence to doubt to a different and terrible certainty as she becomes persuaded that the child she loved may be a monster, while James Quinn Markey’s plain-faced innocence always keeps it plausible he is nothing more than a child adapting to a new situation with only one parent.
As Sarah’s neighbours Noreen and Des Brady, Kati Outinen is both menacing and tragic while James Cosmo provides a weary emotional perspective which fails to reassure Sarah, spying on her own son even as she becomes more afraid of him, the hole in the ground which she skirts around without questioning its monstrous existence possibly symbolising another unnamed but hinted at trauma in her past.
The final act suffering from a disconnect as though unsure where to go or how to resolve the atmosphere which has been crafted, The Hole in the Ground is not as powerful or accomplished as the thematically similar Babadook but for the most part it is an engaging calling card for Cronin and a fine showcase for his lead performers.
The Hole in the Ground is on general release from Friday 1st March