Behind The Hole In The Ground’s unremarkable title and familiar set-up hides a taut and chilling horror folktale. It follows single mother Sarah (Seána Kerslake), who relocates to rural Ireland with her son Chris (James Quinn Markey). However, in leaving behind the trauma of her recent past, she puts herself in the firing line of an even greater horror.
Confidently helmed by Irish writer-director Lee Cronin, whose debut short Ghost Train won the Méliès d’Argent Award in 2014, this under-the-radar gem stands as a strong counterpoint to uninspired horror fare that insultingly reduces the genre to lazy jump scares, such as the recently released Conjuring spin-off, The Curse Of La Llorona.
We talked to the first-time feature filmmaker about Celtic mythology, misleading artwork and the sinister joy of nursery rhymes.
The Hole in the Ground feels like a companion piece to your debut short film, Ghost Train, which also deals with the disappearance and reappearance of a child…
Thematically, I’m always interested in exploring similar things, and both films share the theme of something in the past affecting characters in the present. And much like in Ghost Train, I don’t show you what happened in the past, I just imply and give you the sense of what that is.
The film is a story about a mother and her son, but also draws on Celtic mythology and the changeling figure.
I’ve always maintained a strong interest in folklore but I wasn’t trying to make the changeling story – I was trying to lean into the mythology and use it in a contemporary context to create a universal horror idea. I’m always looking for “What if’s?”, so even though it’s a film about a mother and a son, what I was trying to look at, the primal thing I could attack people with, is that idea that if you knew somebody intimately – you know how they move, how they sound, how they are – and then something in you doubts whether it’s that person anymore. The changeling myth suited that idea, so it was a convergence of those thoughts.
There are echoes of Jordan Peele’s recently released Us, but the lore feels more satisfying in your film, in the sense that you don’t feel the need to spell it out…
Thanks. Yeah, I don’t have a character that says “Don’t go into the woods, there’s monsters in the woods and this is why they are the way they are…”. I was never trying to define the mythology, rather have a character face a piece of mythology that they don’t necessarily understand.
And it doesn’t necessarily have to be about parenthood either…
Absolutely. I wanted to use that to lean into that bigger dramatic question that I was trying to ask, which is: What would I do? You don’t even have to be a parent – it could be a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a best friend… Because I think everybody has had a moment in time when someone they’ve known for a long time does something or says something or behaves in a way when you suddenly see them as a stranger, and that can be quite terrifying.
With regards to the character of Sarah, you imply domestic abuse in her past. Was it a tough balancing act to not reveal too much about her past?
I like to treat the audience with as much respect as possible. And there’s also that idea that you should enter the story as late as you can… I didn’t feel like anything more than what we gave was necessary in order to understand her and what she’s going through. We did toy with the idea of a prologue of a woman leaving somewhere in a hurry or making an escape, but I just didn’t feel like that was going to make the story any better. I was also trying to make a horror movie, not a social issues drama.
I was really happy that it wasn’t spelt out, and by the fact that we never saw a father figure…
I just didn’t feel we needed to in this case. Had it been necessary to tell the story, it’s something I would’ve done. But because I was interested in this set of characters, and the fact that it’s a mother and a son finding their feet after trauma, it was always more about their response to trauma than what actually happened.
Where you at all apprehensive about tackling certain hallowed tropes within the horror genre, like the woods or the “evil child” staples?
I wasn’t so much, but it’s been a funny education for me seeing the way people respond to the film. My writing partner and producers and I never once talked about an evil kid. It was always a mother and a son story. The moment it became obvious that that was the way it was going to be was when I saw the artwork for the posters coming from the distributors. I thought “Ah, right – they’re putting it out there as a creepy kid movie”. I knew that the kid in the film was creepy, but I was always thinking about the mother’s response.
A lot of the shots are more about her reactions than his behaviour…
Yes! We don’t do a cut to him on his own as he’s sharpening a knife – it’s not like we’re playing it that way. But when he brings his mother flowers, it may as well be a knife because of her reaction. And we didn’t go back and look at The Omen or Village of the Damned… We didn’t go there. The only “kid film” we were referencing at times was The Sixth Sense, and that was more to do with the relationship values.
Can you tell me about the casting process? Both Seána Kerslake and James Quinn Markey are fantastic.
It was two very different processes. With Seána, we had put a list together of actors we wanted to speak to, and she wasn’t on that list. It was my producer who suggested her. I knew of Seána but I didn’t think she was the right person for it. Then I watched some of her films and I called my producer, saying “Let’s go get her right away!” Seána was actually the only person who got the script for the role. She challenged me and it drove me back to the script to make some changes, because if I’m being honest here, I’d originally written a bit more of a clichéd horror mother.
What changes did you make?
One of the main ones was removing quite a lot of dialogue, because Seána has a great ability to express internal emotion without the use of dialogue. It allowed the film to take on a quieter sense, and thus the character of Sarah becomes a more quiet hero. And with the casting of James, there was this terrifying sense of “Oh my God, what if we don’t get the right kid?” So, we cast the net very wide and saw a lot of young performers. James offered an incredible amount of flexibility as a performer and the greatest compliment I can give him is that you can direct him like a grown up, in the sense that he offered so many combinations of performance detail.
He’s great, especially in the way his performance plays with the fear that children can provoke.
It’s not easy, because he had to play the regular kid and what I like to call one-tick-on-the-clock-to-the-right. It’s not as if we wanted him to be wildly sinister… And that’s why I thought it was funny when I saw some artwork for the film where he’s been made to be out-and-out creepy!
One thing I was wondering about was the design of the titular hole, because if you get the sinkhole wrong, then that can have a detrimental effect on the film as a whole…
(Laughs) Yeah, that was another one of those things that was haunting my dreams as we were making the film. We really needed to get the hole right… Because it’s in the title of the movie! There was a lot of developmental work and I wanted it to feel as organic as possible. We obviously had to use digital effects, but I’m also proud that we used some real elements as well. That would include shooting plates of earth texture, trees and creating the right atmosphere around the hole. And then beyond all of that was the desire to give it a personality, because it needed to have a sense of activity and life. We did that through sound design, as it was important that it had a presence.
It’s not actually in the film a whole lot…
You’re right, but it was important to keep its presence there visually through other things in the film, through reminders. But in the end, I decided to go quite big with the design, because there is a big, dark unknown in Sarah’s life in terms of her future.
You mentioned The Sixth Sense earlier on, and there are also a few hat tips to The Shining, especially with the addition of a certain wallpaper…
I am a fan of The Shining and I’m never afraid to use my references because horror is built on foundations we keep building on, and part of creating a horror movie is how you lean into those references. But the wallpaper wasn’t something I actually asked for! The wallpaper was a pain in the arse from a scheduling point of view, and the art department gave me six choices. When I saw the one we use in the film, I just couldn’t say no! I never tasked the art department to go find me The Shining motif… And I knew I was tipping my hat in a few other places too, but I couldn’t resist. For good or bad!
What led you to include that wonderful nursery rhyme at the end of the film, sung by Lisa Hannigan?
That’s a traditional song called ‘Weile Weile Waile’, but I think the proper title is ‘The River Saile’. What I love about it is that it was a song traditionally sung in fairgrounds or bashed out on a guitar with everyone singing along. It’s usually done in a fun way, but it’s actually a very dark song about killing a child.
A lot of lullabies are quite sinister. ‘Rock-a-bye-baby’ springs to mind…
Yes, very much so. Myself and my producers were fans of Lisa Hannigan and we wanted a song for the end credits that would make people pay attention. I think it worked, because I was recently at a screening and nobody budged. Everyone sat and stared at the screen. I think that the film ends on a slightly hopeful note, although there’s still eeriness and it leaves you in a quiet way. And I wanted the song to make people reflect and, in its own way, I almost see it like if Sarah had lost her mind and gone about things in the wrong way, ‘The River Saile’ is the alternate version of her story, an alternate pathway.
Lastly, what’s next for you? More horror?
Yeah, I’m working on one called Box Of Bones at the moment. It’s an idea I’ve had for 10 years and my writing partner and I are just dipping our toes into the second draft at the moment. It’s a supernatural thriller about a young couple trying to piece together their relationship after a traumatic accident. It questions whether or not you can put together broken things.
You’ll have to wait and see! That project is something I’d like to shoot next. I’ve also written a feature version of Ghost Train, and there are early days attachments to some projects on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s been a real exciting time and I’ve been offered a lot of stuff to read, and there’s been some stuff that made me feel like I can do it with my voice. It’s a little bit ‘watch this space’ at the moment! (Laughs)