Hard to believe, but there was once a time when Thora Birch was a bigger star than Scarlett Johansson. That time, sadly, is long gone now, but her portrayal of ‘Enid’ in Ghost World will live on forever in my heart. Her portrayal of ‘Liz’ in The Hole (2001), not so much. Apparently she scored a “seven figure salary” for the gig, so yay for her… but hopefully she invested that money wisely, because this flick marked the beginning of her slide towards obscurity. It also gave Keira Knightley her first major screen role, before her stock rose considerably via Bend it Like Beckham.
The premise of the movie is quite an intriguing one: Liz, the sole survivor of a deadly party-gone-awry in a bomb-shelter under an exclusive English boarding school, is placed in the care of a police psychologist, who then has to unravel the truth, while negotiating Liz’s trauma and denial. Is the girl delusional, or is she more culpable than she wants to let on? There’s plenty of potential there for some good old fashioned “unreliable narrator” fun, perhaps leaving a shocking twist for the final scene’s reveal… but that isn’t how things play out. I am loathe to give away any spoilers, but basically the first half of the film allows Liz to spin a tail that clearly can’t be true, because in her version everyone lived happily ever after. So the second half is concerned with depicting (via flashbacks) what really happened, and who was ultimately responsible for all the icky carnage, while in the present day the police chase after the supposed culprit fingered in Liz’s first story. And it all kind of hangs together until the end credits role, and you reflect back on what you’ve just watched. It’s one of those movies that seems worse and worse the more you think about it, as the plot holes grow bigger and bigger the more you pick at them. Ultimately it left me feeling sour and unsatisfied… like I’d bitten into a nice shiny apple, only to discover that it was made from painted sand.
Hell Night (1981) has a similar setting, but more modest ambitions, and a much more pleasing aftertaste. In this flick, the legendary Linda Blair stars as ‘Marti’, a young sorority “pledge”, who agrees to sleep over in a haunted mansion, along with three other pledges, as part of their “hazing”. They run, they scream, they fight, yadda, yadda. In both Hole and Hell, we find two attractive young couples allowing themselves to be locked into dark, scary places, and deciding to have a little party, presuming that they’ll be released, all safe and sound in the morning… in both cases, of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong. The main difference between the two movies is that Hell has no pretensions about what it is: a decent slasher flick with a lot of intentional laughs and plenty of good scares. Curiously, Hell is also less exploitative than its bigger-budgeted successor, with nary a nipple in sight… a lot of cleavage and (rather chaste) underwear, yes, but that’s nothing compared to Hole’s barely-legal boob flash from a teenaged Knightley. Again, I don’t want to get too pretentious about it, but I really think Hell is the superior piece from a critical, feminist perspective. Early on we learn that Marti is an able mechanic, and while not much of a fighter, she proves herself to be a brave and determined survivor. There are no equivalent heroines in Hole, where all the women are either weak and easily manipulated, or scheming and psychotic. How’s that for progress? To be fair, the men aren’t much cop either, so I guess the writers just have a very low opinion of humanity in general. I hate it when people mistake cynicism for intelligence.
At the time of writing, Hole has a 38% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, while Hell is ahead by a nose at 50%… I realise that doesn’t count for much, but I find it amusing that a cheap and cheerful B-movie from back in the day can still outclass (both artistically and critically) a flashy, pseudo-smart studio flick.