I suppose Dimension Films and Buena Vista were hoping for some viewer recognition with the Black Hole of Calcutta when they picked up the distribution rights to the 2001 British-made dramatic-thriller "The Hole" for a U.S. première on DVD. But I'm afraid what they may have gotten is a degree of viewer confusion with two of their other releases, "Holes" and "The Black Hole." To further complicate matters, "The Hole" has also gone under the titles "After the Hole" and "Secluded Empty Space." Nothing helps.
In any case, while there are very few dramatic thrills in "The Hole," there are two young actresses whose popularity may be figured on to lend the picture some credence, Thora Birch ("Ghost World," "American Beauty") and Keira Knightley ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "King Arthur"). Struggle as they will with their characters, however, the clichéd screenplay does them in faster than any of the fictional dangers in the story line. And director Nick Hamm, whose previous work has mainly been in made-for-British-television movies, doesn't help the situation much. His most-pronounced big-screen disappointment so far was the 2004 bomb "Godsend," so he's not yet exactly on the track to cinematic immortality.
The plot involves four young people from a posh British private school trapped in an old, WWII, underground bunker for ten days, with terrible consequences. The gimmick is that the story is told from three successive points of view. But because they are the viewpoints of those people who have survived to tell the tale, it rather lessens the tension about their well-being. Thus, the movie is not so much a suspense thriller as it is a whodunnit. Why were the young people down in the bunker, how did they get trapped there, what exactly happened to them during their ordeal, and were there sinister people and sinister motives involved?
The first story is the longest, told by Elizabeth Dunn (Birch) to a psychologist after Liz's escape, bloody and bedraggled. She explains that she and three friends--Mike Steel (Desmond Harrington), Geoff Bingham (Laurence Fox), and Francis "Frankie" Almond Smith (Knightley)--were planning to hide out in the bunker for several days during Easter break in order to cut out of their family's vacation plans for them and go off on their on for the remaining days. The instigator of the idea is another friend, Martin Taylor (Daniel Brocklebank). Martin, who closes and locks the door on them, is supposed to come back at an appointed time and release them. He doesn't and disaster results. Is he responsible for the consequences? Did he plan for this circumstance to occur, and why? Or is Elizabeth completely delusional?
But then in the second half of the story, Martin tells his side of the story, followed by another account of the happenings by Elizabeth. These twists and turns might have worked to some advantage if we had even the least interest or sympathy in the characters involved, but, alas, it is not to be. No matter whose story you believe, the characters come off as empty stereotypes. Elizabeth is pictured either as the bright, shy, outsider science nerd or the conniving, manipulative schemer. Mike is the campus hot shot, the school's star athlete, the handsome son of an American rock star, and every girl's dream. Geoff is Mike's true-blue best friend. Frankie is the glamorous campus queen, slender and beautiful and "in" with the right people. And Martin is the amoral, intellectual snob who looks down on and takes advantage of the students around him.
It's the kind of script that seems typically written by adults (Guy Burt's novel; Ben Court and Caroline Ip's screenplay) to emulate what they have seen in other teen movies or what they think people of all ages want to see in today's young people. For instance, no matter whose story you believe, the teens all come off as profane, sex-crazed, cigarette-addicted alcoholics. OK, that's a little harsh, but it's the general impression one gets from their stories, and its representative of the kind of teenage world the writers try to convey in order to spice up their plot. Naturally, all the other expected clichés of a teen thriller are found in the movie as well: The actors, whose real ages range from about eighteen to twenty-five, look too old for their roles; the group spend the first night in the dark telling scary tales; cell phones mysteriously fail to work when they're needed; loud rock music greets them at every other turn; and so on.
Worse, as the movie goes on, the circumstances become more exaggerated and absurd. When we finally come to hear and understand what probably did happen down in the hole, it's more elaborately ridiculous than the first story we heard. It's as if the writers couldn't be happy with creating a plausible story line for their mystery but felt they had to turn into something totally melodramatic to keep their audience's attention. Like the movie's musical soundtrack, which becomes more hectic and annoying as the action heats up, the movie itself comes off as hectic and annoying. The whole thing is more frantic than terrifying, with drama that is forced and thrills that are nonexistent.
Incidentally, the keep case says the film is presented by Dimension Home Video, but the movie itself is preceded by a Miramax logo with no mention of Dimension. Well, they're all under the Disney-Buena Vista umbrella, so I guess it doesn't matter. Also, the disc case says the movie is rated R "For Prevasive Language, Some Violence, Sexuality/Nudity and Drug Use." I don't believe "prevasive" is a word; it's probably a typo for "pervasive." And I have no idea where the drug use comes in. There's plenty of profanity, drinking, and sex, but I must have missed the drugs. Anyway, it would all seem to indicate a movie pushed into DVD production with little care for keep-case details. But at the same time we get an outstanding video transfer (see below). So go figure.
The picture reproduction is excellent and indicates what can be done if the engineers make an enhanced, anamorphic transfer at a fairly high bit rate. The widescreen image measures a ratio approximately 2.13:1 across my standard-screen HD television. The colors are vivid and natural. The definition is crisp. And the screen is remarkably clean and grain-free. Jittery lines are nowhere in evidence, nor are any other digital artifacts. Except for a touch of muddiness in the very darkest scenes, the picture is as good as anything I've seen in a live-action movie.
The sound is conveyed via common Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Unlike the picture quality, there is nothing particularly remarkable about it. The audio works nicely in the front channels, communicating a wide stereo spread, although it is without much in the way of deep bass or highest treble. Any surround information is left to one's own audio processor (Pro Logic, for instance) to produce. So don't expect anything spectacular, just clear, noise-free sound, with a perfectly acceptable midrange delivering the dialogue that takes up most of the soundtrack.
We get an ordinary assortment of bonus items on the disc, welcome but nothing in and of themselves that might sell the disc. There is, of course, the expected audio commentary with the director, Nick Hamm. There are nine minutes' worth of deleted scenes, including an alternative beginning and ending. There is an animated image gallery that lasts a little over a minute. And there are a few cast and crew profiles. Beyond those items, there are twenty-four scene selections; a fullscreen, pan-and-scan theatrical trailer; English and French spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
There are some nice touches in "The Hole," notably the acting of the five principal leads and a dark, cynical tone that almost qualify it as a success. But then we have a script that tries to incorporate so many twists, using so many stereotyped situations, that the whole thing falls apart at the seams. In the end, it all seems a rather silly and inflated affair that BV was probably right in marketing straight to video in the U.S. I can't imagine my ever wanting to watch it again, but as a onetime rental, who knows?