★★★ out of ★★★★★
Sweeping cosmic weirdness has been achieved in The Hill and the Hole, an adaptation of a 1942 Fritz Leiber short story. Buoyed by stellar cinematography but burdened by an inscrutable plot, this film might be best understood under heavy hallucinogens.
It is wholly appropriate for a movie at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival to be both powerful and incomprehensible. Cosmic Horror is not something that is easily digested. Ideas that are meant to be mind expansive and beyond the imagination of mere mortals are a staple of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber, a near-contemporary of Lovecraft, who is best known for his fantasy tales of Fafrd and the Grey Mouser. Leiber penned “The Hill and the Hole” for the pulp publication Unknown Worlds in 1942.
Tom Digby (Liam Kelly) is an archaeologist working for the Bureau of Land Management, surveying a stretch of rural New Mexico, and is stumped by the presence of an anomalous rocky hill, where all of the previous land surveys indicates a deep hole in the ground should be. A young girl (Xochi Harrop) is playing in the farmland where Tom is surveying His survey is interrupted by a trio of men who have deep concerns about his presence on the land. Tempers flare, and Tom is assaulted and tied to a tree, where he is warned by the girl that her father intends to kill him. The girl, it seems, might be a ghost (or an imaginary friend.)
Tom breaks free and evades his captors, and heads to town, looking for shelter. He hides in a motel, where he has chaotic visions and hallucinations that seem to be connected to the hill he was puzzling over. The following morning, he heads for the library to research the anomaly, (a very Lovecraftian move) and befriends the librarian Layne (Kristen Brody) who assists him with his research and helps to try and get him back to the hill.
The locals are on to him though, and through a series of chases and escapes, he searches out a lead that Layne tells him about, a former BLM surveyor names Roger Person (real-life crypto-philosopher and self-proclaimed “crackpot historian” Adam Gorightly) who currently runs a funnel cake cart at the local ballfield. Roger informs Tom that the whole town is a cult, and invites him to a meeting with a secret society who can tell him more about the lore of the hill.
When Tom finds the truth of the meaning of the hill, he finds himself entangled even deeper in the dark secrets of the town. Ritual sacrifices and cosmic forces are at work, and Tom is compelled to uncover the truths of the hill for himself.
The Hill and the Hole an unbalanced achievement. It is visually stunning, with each shot highly composed by cinematographer and co-director Christopher Ernst. The sweeping vistas of New Mexico are gloriously captured as if it were a photographic lesson. The camera guides you through the story with color blocking, visual symmetries, vanishing points, alignments, and the push and pull of the depth of field all used to exercise the flow of the narrative. I do think this film might have been achievable without dialogue.
In contrast, co-director Bill Darmon’s script couldn’t be more confusing. Even with multiple viewings, I have a hard time understanding the character motivations and rationale for the big story beats. There is plenty of dialogue, but the exposition comes out like philosophical musings and many thoughts just seem to be left hanging out there. This is the second film by Darmon that I’ve struggled with. Corpse, which also played at HPLFF in 2018 was similarly narratively difficult to navigate, though by comparison The Hill and the Hole is admittedly more understandable.
The story seems like a fever dream concocted out of a bad acid trip at times. And, I suspect that in order to really comprehend this story some hallucinogens may be required to grasp the deeper meanings here. The Fortean mysteries are akin to the cryptozoological conundrums from the archives The X-Files or In Search Of, but whereas these shows play to a mass audience, The Hill and the Hole plays to a more narrow group of crypto-fans who like a deep dive into cosmic conspiracies.
The acting can be stiff at times. This is the first feature film for both Kelly and Gorightly, and it shows. They both have a dead-pan affectation to their performances, which limits their performances to a degree. I think sometimes when the tone switches to humorous, the contrast is a bit jarring, and takes you out of what is otherwise a somber feature. The movie actually plays it dead-straight for the entire film up until Roger shows up, and then the film takes a goofier tone for the second act, only to return to the serious themes in the third act. The supporting cast actually had more natural performances. I think Ricardo Burgos who plays Joel, the local sheriff, and Kristen Brody have some very good moments in small roles. Brandt Adams and Matthew O’Donnell are effective antagonists as the suspicious local farmers.
The Hill and the Hole is not rated, and though is not particularly violent, would probably garner a mild-R rating for language and some ritual sacrifice.