Dante’s Old-School 3D Fun

With “The Hole,” Dante brings an added dimensionality to his conventional live action feature.

Joe Dante's "The Hole" made headlines this week when it beat out frontrunners "Up" and "Coraline" for the Persol 3D award at the Venice Film Festival. While the latter two films were met with critical and commercial success when they hit U.S. theaters earlier this year, "The Hole" has yet to land domestic distribution.

Like Dante, it has limited appeal. The "Gremlins" director generally makes pop culture-friendly movies with intelligent ideas and a keen awareness of film history. His latest movie, which is also a part of TIFF's program, is no exception.

The story, about a couple of kids who discover a dark void in their basement that brings their fears to life, feels like a throwback to 1980s-era PG horror, a time before the onslaught of CGI-addled action movies threatened the role of imagination in the blockbuster formula.

Although only moderately scary and noticeably uneven, the movie's principle strength comes from its old-school 3D fun, which may account for its surprise win.

Both "Up" and "Coraline" represent the new age of 3D, given the dominance of the technology in the animation field (James Cameron's upcoming "Avatar" may signal the climax of this trend). With "The Hole," Dante brings an added dimensionality to his conventional live action feature.

He taps into the simplistically charming thrill of making objects drift through the air: Soon after discovering the hole, the trio of young characters drop nails down it to see where it leads — and a cutaway to a shot from inside the hole shows the nails flying straight into viewers' faces.

Beyond these gimmicky moments, the movie also benefits from 3D due to its cautious composition. Dante creates a deeper sense of space even during perfunctory dialogue scenes, drawing us into the environment and heightening the anticipation and dread.

On a storytelling level, "The Hole" is moderately compelling. The main supernatural plot device provides a perfect mystery for generating ongoing curiosity and suspense. In its spookiest sequences, the movie recalls "Poltergeist" or even the carefully devised frights of classic horror movies produced by the great Val Lewton ("Cat People," "I Walked with a Zombie").

Still, the script only occasionally rises above the quality of a Nickelodeon-style adventure story, limiting its complexity — until the finale, which contains an intriguing element of psychological insight as one of the character's latent fears turns into a physical beast.

The scene itself feels a little half-baked, but there's no question that Dante beats out the market standard for this sort of thing — in other words, Robert Rodriguez's execrable "Spy Kids" franchise.

While breaking no new ground, Dante's movie does a fine job of reminding people of 3D's underlying (and long-lasting) virtues.