Except for the 3D of course, which is used both sparingly and with a lot of wit.
Teenager Dane (Massoglia) is seriously annoyed that his mother (Polo) has uprooted him and his little brother Lucas (Gamble) yet again. But at least there's a cute girl, Julie (Bennett), living next door to their new house. Then Dane and Lucas discover a seemingly bottomless hole in the basement, and enlist Julie to figure out what it is. Soon all manner of scary things start happening, so they consult the house's creepy former resident (Dern), but he's no help at all.
The story feels like a children's book that taps into the dark corners of the human psyche to both entertain kids and help them deal with their fears. In other words, it's quite a clever premise, even if it ultimately seems a little simplistic. And Dante resists the temptation to ramp things up with whizzy editing and effects, keeping the film naturalistic and relaxed from the start, then slowly building tension while delivering sharp jolts and striking visual flourishes.
When we finally enter the hole with the kids, there's both a surge of tension and an exhilarating sense of discovery, a mix that younger filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to achieve. Visually, this segment of the story is pretty outrageous, but Dante never over-eggs it, keeping things grounded both in classic movie imagery (it resembles Dali's work with Hitchcock) and our own nightmares. Through the whole film, Dante balances humour, horror and insinuating black comedy, rather like an old-style monster movie.
Meanwhile, the fine cast deliver their performances without annoying overacting or corny sentimentality. These kids are as fascinated by the unknown as we are, and watching them band together to face their fears is both engaging and deeply satisfying. That everything is linked into their back-stories makes the plot perhaps a little too tidy for grown-ups who have learned that the world is actually a very messy place. But even that's somehow endearing. And of course comforting.
Run time: 102 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th April 2001
Distributed by: Miramax
Production compaines: Pathé Pictures International, Canal+, Cowboy Films, Film Council, Granada Film Productions, Impact Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
Fresh: 8 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 6.2 / 10
Director: Joe Dante
Screenwriter: Mark L. Smith
Starring: Thora Birch as Liz Dunn, Desmond Harrington as Mike Steel, Keira Knightley as Frances 'Frankie' Almond Smith, Laurence Fox as Geoff Bingham, Daniel Brocklebank as Martyn Taylor, Embeth Davidtz as Dr. Philippa Horwood, Steven Waddington as DCS Tom Howard, Emma Griffiths Malin as Daisy, Jemma Powell as Minnie (as Gemma Powell), Gemma Craven as Mrs. Dunn, Anastasia Hille as Gillian, Kelly Hunter as DI Chapman, Maria Pastel as Policewoman
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