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This Irish horror film about a strange sinkhole is your next big cinema scare

And it stars Seána Kerslake as the mother of a young boy who starts acting a bit strange…

Source: Movie Trailers Source/YouTube

“I WAS LIKE – ‘Seána I’m really sorry, but I forgot we were actually burying your head in the ground today…’”

This anecdote from director Lee Cronin will give you an idea of what to expect from his debut feature The Hole in the Ground, a new horror which opens in cinemas this weekend. Starring actress Seána Kerslake, it’s a new entry into Ireland’s horror canon, and one that will leave you feeling utterly creeped out.

Though the prospect of spending the day with her head buried in a pile of mud must have seemed rather daunting, one gets the impression when Kerslake and Cronin laugh about the memory that the shoot – for all its darkness – must have been a bit of craic.

Which is a good thing, as the film itself is anything but. With expansive, sepia-toned shots of wild landscape, a old creaky house, things that go bump in the night, a weird old lady, and a rather strange child (played by the unsettlingly good James Quinn Markey), it’s no wonder it’s being compared to last year’s global horror smash Hereditary.

The fact that Cronin’s feature debut has been picked up by A24, which distributed Hereditary as well as Good Time, Lady Bird, and Moonlight, means that it is set to reach audiences far beyond the Emerald Isle.

Losing control

The film made its debut at this year’s Sundance festival in the US, charming audiences with its story about a single mother who stars to get suspicious about her son. In a nutshell, The Hole in the Ground is about, well, a hole in the ground – a sinkhole that’s opened in the woods near where Seána Kerslake’s character Sarah has recently moved with her son Chris (Quinn Markey).

After Sarah and Chris stumble across the sinkhole one afternoon, the young mother notices a change in her offspring. He’s polite, yes, but he’s acting a bit… weird.

The film doesn’t just focus on Chris’s behaviour – it’s Sarah who’s the centre of the plot, as the audience wonders if she’s starting to go a bit mad. “When I first got the script and when I was talking to Lee about where we were going to go from, it was always very character-driven,” agrees Kerslake, when TheJournal.ie meets with the pair in Dublin city centre.

“And that’s what was going to lead the story, he was very much definite that it’s your point of view: A woman that is uncertain of herself in the beginning and trying to reestablish who she is and how she feels about herself, and try to pave a new pathway for herself and her son.”

Sarah goes through periods of feeling like she’s losing control, and that her life is unravelling around her – and as Kerslake puts it, “she pulls it all together and she just gets it done”. 

Was Cronin influenced by anyone in particular when creating the character of Sarah? He doesn’t pinpoint someone specifically, but says he was influenced by the women around him.

“There are definitely some strong females in my life that have influenced me, like my mother and my sister,” he says. “And I certainly saw parts of Sarah’s journey through their eyes – for very different reasons, you always lean on the people that you know to dig in.”

He cast Seána (who you’ll recognise from A Date With Mad Mary and Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope) early on the process, and ended up rewriting the script with her in mind.

‘We didn’t want to have a rulebook’

MV5BNzYyZDlmY2YtMmFjYy00NDk3LWIxMzgtNWIyZWNhYjQ0MDg3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDIzMzcwNjc@._V1_ Seána Kerslake

When you think of horror films, you inevitably think of certain tropes that go hand-in-hand with the genre. The ‘final girl’, the creepy creaking house, a loved one who shows odd behaviour. The moment that has viewers thinking “she’s not going to go in there?”

Tropes can be annoying when they’re used lazily. But when employed well, they help guide the audience through the story. Sometimes, directors will try to subvert the stereotypes altogether, pulling a bait-and-switch and fooling the audience.

“I think we were aware that we wanted to try and subvert the tropes where we could – not always… tropes, stereotypes can be useful,” says Cronin, who is – of course – a big horror fan. He once said in an interview that he was watching films like The Shining and Nightmare on Elm Street before he was 10 years old. “You know it’s part of the tapestry of how you tell a story. I knew we didn’t want to have a rulebook.”

He says The Hole in the Ground was not going to be a story “where it was like ‘don’t go here, don’t go into the woods and if you do, there’s these three things you can do to remedy the problem’”. The story is about the gap between fantasy and reality, about how much you can escape your past, and looks at what happens when you start to doubt your own mind. Like The Babadook, it has a mother wondering if her own child is a danger to her.

“It’s about a character facing something where there is no rulebook, with no idea of how to solve it. She just has to rely on her own instinct and drive,” he explains. “And it’s maternal instinct and just ultimately heroism to carry her through. But at the same time I like horror movies, so I was comfortable using tropes as and when we needed to use them as well.”

The film takes Sarah into some seriously strange situations, and has her behave in ways that would make any parent cringe. “It’s a weird one because then it kind of boils down to her headspace, what is real, what is not,” says Kerslake. “Because certain things, you’re like ‘God, if a mother did that to their son that child should be taken away from her’…”

She never really raises her voice, it was never going to be a screamy kind of movie or like we didn’t play it for jump scares, it was always very much character driven.

Stunt work

The film involved some stunt work for fight scenes, and Kerslake had to rely on oxygen when filming the aforementioned buried in the ground moment. It must have been a very physical shoot, and Cronin says Kerslake was “game for it all”.

The actor describes what the stunt scenes involved. “It’s just bringing all those elements together with the stunt team, with the design team, then with performance,” she says. “Mixed with ‘OK, you have to hit that wall on this side because that’s a soft wall; and that’s actually the cement, and that will bruise and this will not’.

“But then when you’re within it you can only do so much, so you’re doing parts where your character’s not meant to be in control but as an actor you’re being fully in control while also being assisted by other people.”

“It’s very challenging also. Hopefully we were able to pull it off. It was a lot of fun getting down and dirty,” she smiles. But not all the time. “Then when you’re getting back into wet costume the next day, you’re like: this isn’t as fun. But it’s nice to be getting bloody and mucky – just when your hair gets caught in the blood and you have to peel your hair out of all the dried blood… It was so much fun to do. It’s like, this is so much fun.”

With the Irish release this weekend and a rake of European press ahead of them, it’s an exciting time for all involved in the film (whose funders included Screen Ireland, the BAI and the Finnish Film Foundation).

Cronin says it’s nice to mentioned in the same breath as Hereditary. “It’s nice to be compared to work at all. It means you made a film and it’s out there,” he says. But the films are very different. “Obviously Hereditary did great business last year, so it’s flattering, but also I think The Hole in the Ground is its own movie, it’s a very different story.”

I think there is this phrase now which is this ‘prestige horror space’, which I guess means that they’re character driven, it’s not just going after the cheap thrills, it’s trying maybe to get under your skin and build a different narrative. So to be put in that bracket of those types of movies is great – because that’s what our intention was, we wanted to go mix it up with the big boys and make something that was both accessible but scary at the same time.

Does he think The Hole in the Ground will usher in a new phase for Irish horror? Cronin smiles: “That would be very good.”

Hole in the Ground is in cinemas now.

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