Larry Fessenden seems to be a guy who is unable to slow down. He keeps plenty busy as creator and host of Tales from Beyond the Pale. But he is also the founder of Glass Eye Pix, a Horror movie studio. He is also an actor, acting among the likes of Ron Perlman and Nicholas Cage in I Sell the Dead and Bringing out the Dead. He also is a writer and director of such films as Wendigo and The Last Winter. Here’s a guy in need of a holiday. But for now, he adds another story to the audio play collection called The Hole Digger. Of all the stories in the first season, this one is the perfect starting point. It is a model of how to take full advantage of the audio form to tell an unforgettable tale of terror.
The Hole Digger begins with young Nicky (Owen Campbell, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) fighting for his life in the water. Lucky for him his older brother Tommy (ironically played by Owen’s younger brother Tobias) was there to save him. “You’d think that would be the biggest thing to happen to us during the summer” reminisces Nicky. “Not by a long shot.”
Tommy warns Nicky he will not always be there to look out for him. Meanwhile, their family has its own problems. Their parents are going through a separation and they seem to be on less than good terms. Now they are living with their mother (Heather Robb, House of the Devil) in a remote cabin. The brothers make the most of their time there, playing cards with their mom and talking between the walls of their rooms. And then “the biggest thing to happen” happens.
In the middle of the night, over the sound of a willow chirp, Nicky hears shoveling in the darkness. Somewhere in the darkness, someone shovels through the night. The next morning, Tommy and Nicky stumble upon the digger’s hole, seven feet deep and “curving into oblivion”. In a more conventional film, this would be the beginning of a Tom Sawyer-like adventure. In Fessenden’s world, it’s unlikely this hole leads to pirate’s treasure.
Throughout the play, Fessenden makes the wise choice of keeping the character of the Hole Digger. His motivation is never really known. He is never truly seen (or heard in this case). Yet, his presence is felt throughout the play, like a force of nature. Somehow, he manages to make the sound of shoveling scary. Plus, Fessenden sneaks a few hints that either serve to give you clues about the man or send you on a wild goose chase. There’s the willow’s chirp, which is often an omen of death. Then there’s the fact that Nicky never hears Tommy snoring when the Hole Digger digs.
Happy endings are not guaranteed in Tales from Beyond the Pale. Most often, they end on grotesque terms. The Hole Digger contains an intense climax, tension built by the most intense cello score since Jaws. The ending is a bit grotesque but not at all gruesome. Here’s one term I never thought I’d use for it: Heartbreaking. We have been so engaged by these people that it is devastating to think one of them will go.
In a way, The Hole Digger is a breath of fresh air for those who love horror but hate the current direction it has taken. The biggest problem is that most filmmakers forget the audience needs a reason to get behind the main characters. They are either under written or most often are horrible people. These filmmakers think they need to make their deaths horrible in order to scare. Unless the audience is engaged in the characters, they will not fear for their safety this kills any potential of being scary. If anything, they’d probably wish them dead for wasting two hours of their lives. The characters in The Hole Digger, in contrast, feel like real, likeable people. Nicky and Tommy feel like real brothers, playing one game after another and yet always looking out for each other. The situation with their parents’ separation feels realistic but, never gets in the way of the plot. Other horror filmmakers could take a lesson from Fessenden.