The myth of the changeling – of the child taken by the faeries, exchanged for one of their enchanted kind, a sinister cuckoo in the nest – took root in the mythology of the British Isles because of its hideous simplicity. What could be more plausible about the little creature in front of you, at your dinner table and in your heart, that changes so fast, than that it's not really yours at all? That the elves took your real child in the night, and replaced it with a sour-hearted duplicate?
Irish horror The Hole in the Ground strips the legend back to its simplest components. Single mother Sarah (Kerslake) has packed up her son Chris (Markey) and a few bags of clothes, and has fled from an abusive relationship to a fixer-upper somewhere in the countryside, far from anyone. It's a place to start over, until her seemingly senile neighbor Noreen (Outinen) screams that Chris isn't her child; but it's more of a warning than a threat. Even when Noreen's husband Des (Cosmo at his most tragic and sympathetic) attempts to explain his wife's ramblings as those of a mother who lost her own child, Sarah can't get over her increasing suspicions about Chris. His changing behavior, his increasingly unnerving smile, and then there's the huge, growing, and uncannily perfectly circular chasm in the woods, a hole to nowhere that is always shifting and expanding and swallowing everything that surrounds it.
Cronin understands that there's nothing glamorous about a fairy glamour, and that these are creatures of the wilds, never to be trusted. Mostly sidestepping any suspicions that Sarah could simply be transferring her own stresses onto Chris, she is instead burdened with the terrifying certainty that a mother knows her own son – changing the story from a tale of parental paranoia to one of cat and mouse, as Sarah must deal with the thing that has stolen her beloved child's shape.
Kerslake imbues Sarah with a sense of damaged duty; a young mother faced with the old ways, she is lost but determined. Meanwhile Markey is extraordinary as the sinister presence in the infant's skin, letting the malice and the coldness flicker across his face.
The Hole in the Ground is filled with all the tropes of the "sinister child" subgenre, but first-time feature director Cronin (best known in horror circles for his 2013 award-winning short "Ghost Train") deftly weds it with the same rural Gothic sensibilities that have made Irish horror such a vibrant and unsettling scene for the last few years. Melding the quiet claustrophobia of bog vampire chiller From the Dark with the maternal phobias of A Dark Song, and the Gaelic supernatural twists of The Hallow, it's a nightmare that, first and foremost, makes you feel for Sarah and Chris.
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