John and the Hole seems to have a good concept on paper, albeit it fails to provide any depth leaving you scratching your head with its weird mix of horror and dark comedy that makes it hard to take seriously.
Comedy and horror have been blended forever; it doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s a great feeling because most end up disappointing you. Recent examples that have done it are The Cabin in the Woods (2011), Ready or Not (2019), and last year’s Freaky. Now, Pascual Sisto adapts The Water of Life to make John and the Hole, a claustrophobic piece based on Nicolás Giacobone’s El Pozo. Even though it has a good central idea in its core that could go in different ways, stylistically and narratively, it never gels, and it is executed poorly.
This “coming-of-age thriller” focuses on 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell) who doesn’t talk much with his family and actually thinks he is being mistreated by them. Then, for no reason other than him being really pissed off, he traps them all (Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall, & Taissa Farmiga) in a hole, more specifically, an unfinished bunker. While John is out doing whatever he wants in the house, his family is trying to survive with the small rations that he gives them while also racking their brains to figure out the reason why.
On a positive note, it is nicely shot, there are some well-placed sequences, and the cast is likable. There are also good concepts of the inner angst of growing up and feeling lonely in an open world. You understand what John goes through and that is the reason why you stick with the film, to get that analysis of “why” or “what” drove him to take such actions. Interest is at a high level during its strong first act.
However, when that core idea that was boiling during the first act starts developing into a horror-dark-comedy during the next two acts, you end up feeling quite disappointed. There is no reason why this narrative needed to be a comedy. You see John spending his mother’s money on chicken nuggets, driving his father’s car, inviting his friend over to play virtual tennis, etc. Meanwhile his family is stuck in a hole! It tries to be comedic, but the jokes never land.
The problem with a lot of the horror films that have been released this year is the poor execution of their great ideas, like M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent feature, Old. John and the Hole is no exception. As a big horror fan, you try and see the good in every flick that comes by. The ones that let you down the most are these; the ones that seem to have a truly gripping concept but fail to effectively put it on the screen. Instead of asking yourself the main question of why all is happening, you question how he managed to carry three bodies into the bunker and how many chicken nuggets did he order. Pascual Sisto has a lot of room to grow as a director, and I want to see what he does next, but his debut feature lacks identity.