When anybody mentions Joe Dante’s name to me, my youth flashes before my eyes as Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins (true classics of their genres) and Twilight Zone: The Movie all came out when I was in college studying film. Being a big film nerd himself, Dante’s best movies are the ones littered with the kind of in-jokes only other film nerds (like me) get… His Amazon Women on the Moon and Matinee remain my all-time favourites.

Yep, spoofing is Dante’s forté and the filmmaker really showed what he’s made of with 1998’s Small Soldiers, his brilliantly twisted version of Toy Story. When I heard that the legendary director was tackling a 3D project entitled The Hole, I started to tingle all over as the synopsis sounded kind of cool – three kids find a trap door to a bottomless pit in the floor of their house, but they unwittingly release a supernatural force when they unlock it. So far, so good. Then I sat down to watch it…

Fresh from his stint as The Vampire’s Assistant, teen actor Chris Massoglia stars as Dane, your typical, pimple-faced, teen – he’s still scared of girls and harbours deep resentment towards his banged up dad. Newcomer Nathan Gamble (who really stands out here) plays Lucas, an overactive 10-year-old who is definitely the smarter, younger brother. Joining these modern-day Hardy Boys is their outgoing neighbour, Nancy Drew – sorry, I mean Julie (very capably played by Marley & Me actress Haley Bennett).

While the brothers’ single mum heads to her day job (what does she do?), Julie and the boys investigate the mysterious hole – but when they unlock it, their darkest fears are unleashed: Little Lucas, who has a fear of clowns, finds himself being stalked by a doll; Julie is haunted by a little girl with a bloody foot; while Dane senses his violent father has returned.

The Hole packs enough scares and chills to keep the story running – the sight of Julie’s ghostly girl crawling into the hole is a real shocker – but it’s missing Dante’s trademark humour: in fact my only chuckle throughout the film came courtesy of the Orlac Glove Factory sign; and as for Dick Miller’s cameo (what cameo?).

But this is darker, more mature Joe Dante here – not surprising given that Guillermo del Toro, that master of dark fantasy, had an uncredited hand in the screenplay. Dante also handles the 3D effects with real care; I especially enjoyed the scenes inside the hole, in which our adventurous trio find themselves trapped in a surreal Salvador Dali-in-Wonderland landscape. Even in conventional 2D, it all looks pretty good.

All-in-all The Hole is a dark, enjoyable ride back into The Twilight Zone.

Released 17 January

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[swf]http://uk.player.filmtrailer.com/v3.1/&mid=4397&channel_user_id=441100180-1&repeat=1&volume=0[/swf]

To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.