Director Lee Cronin on new Irish horror The Hole In The Ground

David Roy chats to Co Dublin writer/director Lee Cronin about the release of his debut feature The Hole In The Ground, a psychological horror which premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim

Sara (Seána Kerslake) and Chris (James Quinn Markey) in The Hole In The Ground

THIS time last month, writer/director Lee Cronin had just premiered his debut feature The Hole in The Ground at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah to great acclaim with a midnight screening at the Egyptian Theatre.

"'Whirlwind' is the best way of describing it," says Cronin of his week-long festival campaign with the psychological horror starring Dublin actor Seána Kerslake.

"You really don't know what your Sundance experience is going to be until after the film screens and you can see how it went down. And when your film isn't going on until midnight, that whole day is a real long haul.

"But the audience reaction on the night was positive and when the reviews started coming in the next morning they were really positive too. We'd another screening that day which was more local and less 'industry'-focused, and it got an even greater response again.

"After that it was just a press whirlwind and we were soon off to LA for more press work and industry meetings. This business tends to thrive on 'heat' and so we got quite a bit [at Sundance] which we were able to capitalise on.

"So yeah, it was fun – but I still need a little bit of reflection time to pick it apart, because I honestly haven't stopped since. I'm still going a month later!"

The Skerries-born film-maker has had good reason to maintain his promotional hustle: today finds The Hole In The Ground opening in cinemas here in Ireland as well as in the United States, meaning worldwide audiences will soon be alone in the dark with single mother Sarah (Kerslake) and her growing paranoia that son Chris (James Quinn Markey) has somehow been transformed from a sweet little mop-top into a creepy 'Damien out of The Omen' type.

Could it have something to do with the huge hellish-looking sinkhole lurking in the woods near their isolated rural home, or maybe the mad muttery auld doll from up the lane has just put a hex on him?

"When we did the Q&A after the first screening, I said to the audience at the Q&A afterwards 'I'm sure you got scared but you weren't as f***in' terrified as I was!'" Cronin tells me of his first time watching the film in a packed auditorium.

"I used to take pleasure in seeing my short films with an audience, because that was a great mechanism of learning to see how people reacted. But after 15 minutes, which is as long as I'd ever had to sit with an audience with my work before, I started feeling increasingly uncomfortable – because I knew I was in for the long haul and that it would be a much tougher test.

"So that was quite nerve-wracking, but then once it was done and we could kind of feel that the room had responded positively, then the Q&A was really fun. From there on I could kind of enjoy and be humbled a little bit by what was happening."

Impressively for a first feature, The Hole In The Ground is very much a slow-burning affair that's light on cheap scares and irritatingly expositional dialogue. Cronin works hard to have his film burrow under the audience's skin, rather than taking the more obvious – and potentially more commercially appealing – route of attempting to bludgeon them into submission, while also deliberately subverting some common horror movie tropes.

"I was very aware that I didn't want to make a film that had an out-and-out set of 'rules'," the director tells me of the feature he co-wrote with Stephen Shields and which was shot in Kildare, Wicklow and Dublin.

"That's fine for something like Gremlins, which is a classic, but in this particular type of horror story, which has such a singular POV around [Seána's] character, if I throw a rule book in front of you then you kill the tension, you kill the horror, because then there's a 'way out'.

"I never wanted the audience to feel like there was a way out of it. Sarah has to figure it all out on her own and I didn't want to equip her or the audience with too much information. By the end of the story, I needed people not wanting to go into the darkness where she goes."

Seána Kerslake's restrained yet expressive performance in the lead role as a single mother with a troubled past that the script only hints at is the polar opposite of your generic horror 'scream queen' and undoubtedly a huge part of the film's audience appeal, along with its terrifically atmospheric visuals captured by cinematographer Tom Comerford (Michael Inside) and Cronin.

"All the decisions that we made [for the film] came out of character," says the writer/director.

"The reason Sara doesn't scream at all in the film is because she'd done all her screaming and shouting in the past and it had gotten her nowhere. So when she then has to attempt to open up to a relative stranger about what she thinks is going on with Chris – that's a really big deal for somebody who's no longer used to sharing their internal thoughts.

"That's also why she's not knocking on a neighbour's door and saying 'here, can you tell me a little bit about this enormous sinkhole in the forest?'"

Having made his name as an up-and-coming Irish film-making talent with a trilogy of shorts, Through The Night (2010), Billy & Chuck (2011) and Ghost Train (2014) – all of which are referenced within The Hole In The Ground to neat 'universe-building' effect – while also working on TV ad campaigns for the likes of Audi, BMW and 118 118, The Hole in The Ground has now put Cronin firmly on the industry's radar as 'one to watch'.

As a lifelong horror fan whose favourites include The Shining (visually referenced several times in The Hole In The Ground), Evil Dead I and II, Poltergeist and Jaws, Cronin says he wants to avoid becoming known as 'a horror director' but admits that the genre is definitely in his blood.

"I was certainly exposed to a lot of classic cinema-defining horror movies at quite a young age – and you can't really run away from your influences," he tells me.

"My compass doesn't point towards making a ton of horror movies: I'd be much more inclined towards a thriller/mystery kind of space. But you make your decisions [as a director] on instinct and that really does come out of your early influences.

"I think that even if I was doing a much simpler thriller that didn't have any supernatural elements, I'd still be using a lot of the horror 'tools' that are just kind of wired into me now in terms of being a film-maker."

:: The Hole In The Ground is in cinemas now.

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