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Accidental Villains and Unreliable Narrators in
by Kim Morrison
2001 was a great year for horror movies. Jason X (USA, Jim Isaac, 2001) saw our favourite camp killer head into space, films like Thirteen Ghosts (USA, Steve Beck, 2001) proved that remakes could kick ass, one of my personal favourite slasher movies, Valentine (USA, Jamie Blanks, 2001), was dividing horror fans everywhere.
It was also the year The Hole (UK, Nick Hamm, 2001) was released. A psychological horror set in an elite British boarding school, the movie was based on the novel After the Hole (Guy Burt, 1993). The story follows Liz (Thora Birch) after escaping being held captive in an underground bunker in the woods surrounding her school. We join Liz seconds after her escape, as she stumbles along the empty road that leads up to the school buildings. She’s covered in blood and dirt, wearing an oversized jacket with no shoes on as she shambles through the empty buildings. When she finally reaches the school’s payphone, she dials for help and then screams into the receiver.
She hasn’t said a word yet, but already we’re on Liz’s side. She’s clearly been through something terrible which she managed to escape from. Instantly, we want to know her story. Soon, we find out that Liz and three of her fellow pupils have been missing for 18 days, and her appearance is a break in the case. The school is swarmed by police and crime scene investigators, as Liz is whisked off to the hospital to check on her wellbeing.
Liz is assigned a psychiatrist by the police to help get to the bottom of her story. Through her meetings with Dr. Phillipa Horwood (Embeth Davidtz), we learn about the series of events that lead to Liz and her friends heading into the hole in the first place, and how they spent their time down there. However, we soon find out that Liz may not be telling the full version of events, and is perhaps twisting things to suit herself and remove any guilt that she’s dealing with.
In Liz’s original story, she’s an outcast at high school. Computer whizz Martin (Daniel Brocklebank) is her only friend, and popular girl Frankie (Keira Knightley) tolerates her friendship because Liz has been doing her homework for years. Martin is desperately in love with Liz, but Liz only has eyes for American exchange student Mike (Desmond Harrington).
Martin arranges for Mike, Frankie, and her love interest, Geoff (Laurence Fox), to party in the abandoned shelter for the weekend to avoid a school camping trip, and Martin insists they bring Liz along with them. It seems Martin will do anything to get Liz on his good side, and she’s happy with the chance to spend some alone time with Mike.
After three days of hanging out in the hole, Martin fails to turn up and let them out. The teens start to panic as they slowly run out of supplies. They even think Martin has bugged the bunker, and after banding together to pretend Frankie is terribly sick, the door on the hole magically pops open, and the gang are free. However, we’re only a short way into the movie at this point, so we know this isn’t the full story.
Martin is arrested by the police and is visibly confused by Liz’s version of events. According to him, Frankie and Liz are best friends and are as vapid and popular as each other. Martin makes efforts to form a friendship with Liz, and so she asks him to hook them up with access to the hole for the weekend. But aside from showing them the location, Martin claims no knowledge of the events that followed.
We soon find out that Liz was a little more involved in the events of the hole than she let on. She was given a key to the door of the hole, and when after three days of partying, drinking, and drugs Mike still wants to run back to his ex-girlfriend rather than Liz, she locks them all in so she can spend more time with him. After running out of food and water, and the power being cut off, things are looking bleak for the teens. In a desperate attempt for some comfort, and to forget that he is on the brink of death, Mike makes a move on Liz and the two end up sleeping together. Unfortunately, when Liz happily goes to tell Frankie, she finds her best friend dead in the bathroom.
Unable to admit that she has the key now that Frankie is dead, Liz decides to keep up the illusion until Mike ends up killing Geoff when he discovers he’s been hoarding cans of juice. Liz eventually decides to tell Mike the truth, hoping that the time and trauma they’ve shared will be enough to keep them together in the real world. However, Mike attempts to attack Liz and dies when the bunker’s ladder breaks under his weight.
Finding out that Liz was involved in the whole thing is a terrible blow to the audience, as up until this point we’ve been on her side. Even when we first find out she was the reason they were locked in, it’s almost understandable. Everyone has been a teenager who no doubt had a crush on someone who wouldn’t look at them. At first, locking them in and pretending the door won’t open seems like a harmless prank to get more time with Mike. After all, she can let them out at any time, so she knows they’re not really in danger.
However, Liz pushes things further than expected, desperate to achieve the outcome she’s envisioned before she gives up on her only chance at making Mike fall in love with her. She knows that Frankie is on the verge of death, but because she and Mike were passionately kissing just moments before, she doesn’t want to risk wrecking the moment. She leaves her friend to die alone on the floor so she can seal the deal.
We find out Frankie died on day 10, meaning that Liz kept them locked up for a week after they were originally meant to leave. Considering Liz isn’t found until day 18, she is willing to spend another week just to get the alone time with Mike she craves, even if it means sharing sleeping space with the body of her best friend. This is where any sympathy the audience has for Liz fades away. It’s easy to think that she perhaps didn’t understand the full implications of locking them in together for a little bit longer. How much difference would another day or two make? However, her willingness to put her own feelings above the health of her friend is inexcusable.
The story Liz tells the first time around when chatting with Dr. Horwood is very telling of how Liz feels about the whole situation. While painting herself as the victim is mostly a vehicle to take any suspicion off herself and place it firmly on Martin, it also gives us insight into her character.
The fact that the flashback version of her is quiet, meek, and dressed in a nightdress a granny would favour shows that she still feels like an outcast in the school even if she is part of the popular gang in real life. These specific details are not shared with Dr. Horwood, but the audience sees them as we step inside Liz’s mind. This is how she views herself on the inside, even if she manages to hide it on a daily basis.
She paints Frankie as the queen of the school and feels lucky to be in her presence. Even when she’s really best friends with Frankie, it’s clear she’s jealous of her. Frankie is confident and has an ease with the teenage boys that Liz will just never be able to achieve. They seem like equals in the true version of events, but Liz obviously feels second best compared to Frankie. This is only exacerbated in real life when Liz finds out that Frankie has already slept with Mike.
Perhaps she chooses to portray herself as a geek because it makes her stand out against the type of women Mike is usually attracted to. We know his American girlfriend is a popular blonde girl, and yet Liz depicts herself as the nerd who would show up for a partying weekend with pans clipped to a massive backpack and enough food for everyone. This allows her to be Mike’s saviour, and they bond as she makes him dinner.
Describing herself like this to Dr. Horwood not only allows her to rid herself of her guilt but also allows her to describe an idealised version of how she wishes things had gone. I’m sure she would rather have strengthened her bond with Mike as they chatted over cooking sausages rather than the real version of events, which saw them having sex for the first time as Frankie died in the next room. Some part of her must recognise that even if Mike had made it out of the hole alive, there’s no way they would have started a healthy relationship together. Her fantasy version gives them a better start and the chance to develop their feelings into something more.
This isn’t the first hint of regret we see from Liz. Even though she is mostly able to cooly lie to Dr. Horwood and the police, hints of the trauma she experienced, that she isn’t able to completely block out, surface from time to time. Before we find out the full story, we see her experiencing flashbacks of her time in the hole, and she hallucinates seeing Mike. These look like scary exaggerations, but we soon realise that’s really what happened during Liz’s last days of captivity. She’s lucky to have escaped alive for a number of reasons, and even if she is good at lying, this is having a massive effect on her mental health.
Despite her guilt, she has no problem pinning the whole thing on Martin because it is so easy for those on the outside to believe he’s to blame. She manages to do it quite cleverly without painting him as an obvious villain right from the start. Martin starts off as Liz’s best friend, lurking on the periphery of her story. He has the knowledge needed to mess with the computer systems so that the school thinks the teens have gone home for the weekend, and it seems he was the first one to discover the bunker’s existence, so it all seems plausible.
The way Liz tells the story suggests that Martin involves her in the bunker party plan in order to be a good friend and keep her happy, but then uses his control over the situation to punish Liz and Mike. It’s as though he wants to show that he is in charge, and if Liz isn’t going to love him, then he’s willing to make her life a misery. Liz peppers her flashbacks with conversations about Martin which paint him as a bit of a weirdo who is obsessed with her. With that, the police refuse to look anywhere else, thinking Martin’s motive is watertight.
Of course, the first thing Martin does is visit Liz to discuss why she’s trying to pin three murders on him, and she does her best to manipulate him as well. Liz was hoping that Martin would instantly be arrested and she wouldn’t have to deal with this fallout, but she manages to recover quite well. She lures Martin to the river by looking like she’s trying to run away from him, claiming that she knew they wouldn’t have enough evidence to hold him. As Martin’s anger dissolves into fear and tears, Liz uses this moment of weakness to plant the bunker key on him and throw him into the river. After planting the final piece of evidence that she knows will seal Martin’s fate, she finally feels safe enough to tell Dr. Horwood the whole truth of what happened.
Liz has been cleverly manipulating Dr. Horwood the whole time as well, ensuring that she can tell her the real story in order to rid herself of the guilt which threatens to overcome her but still walk free at the end of it all. She builds a strong relationship with Dr. Horwood right from the get-go, hoping that she can use it to her advantage, but also knowing that it will be her word against Dr. Horwood’s if things go wrong.
Liz gets anxious when Dr. Horwood probes too much into what happened in the hole or about specific events, and it’s unclear if this is due to her lying, reliving the trauma, or a mixture of the two. Either way, Liz is able to use her vulnerable position to guilt Dr. Horwood into not probing any further when she needs to. She also uses Dr. Horwood’s intense interest in the case and needs to know what happened to manipulate her into taking Liz back to the hole. There, and off the record, she tells Dr. Horwood the whole truth. At this point, she knows Martin is likely to have been discovered, and that any guilt that may have been pointing at Liz will have disappeared. She even manages to convince the police that Dr. Horwood forced her into the hole, traumatising her even further. From this point on, nothing Dr. Horwood says will be believed, and Liz knows she’s finally in the clear. Liz knows exactly how to play the victim card to get people on-side and escape any punishment.
In the end, it’s hard to know how much we even really knew Liz at all. The two different versions of her we see are told through flashbacks, but we never get to see the real her before she heads into the hole. Liz is obviously lying about what happened because she wants to paint herself as a better person, both to herself and to Dr. Horwood. She needs to change the narrative so that she seems innocent to others and to help herself deal with her own guilt. While Martin tells a closer to real-life version of events, who’s to say he isn’t exaggerating as well to make Liz, Frankie, Geoff, and Mike seem like terrible people? Much like Liz, he’s trying to paint himself in the best light, so it makes sense that he would bend the truth about Liz slightly
The realest look we get at Liz is the first few moments of the movie as she escapes the hole and makes her way back to safety. After we find out she’s behind the whole thing, thinking back to this scene it’s easy to question Liz’s motives. However, once you realise this scene was set mere moments after she had to watch Mike die, her actions make complete sense. Everything she did in the hole was for him and to try and forge a relationship with him. With all that gone forever, she is heartbroken and realises it was all for nothing.
Through The Hole’s use of flashbacks, lies, delusions, and telling the story backwards, it’s easy for the audience to side with Liz, only to have the rug pulled out from under us when we realise she is the real villain. This method of storytelling keeps you guessing, and even at the end of the film, you can’t be sure you’ve definitely been shown the real version of events.
Liz is the perfect unreliable narrator because she’s lying to the audience and herself. She very rarely shows her true self or reveals her true intentions. Even in the real version of the events in the bunker, she can never just tell Mike she likes him or attempt a serious conversation about her feelings. Instead, she manipulates him and wears him down. Liz is so believable in her lies because she makes herself believe them as well. She needs to believe her make-believe version of events otherwise she won’t be able to cope.
Liz never sets out with villainous intentions at the beginning of the film, and she shows how just a few wrong decisions can spiral into something far darker. Liz isn’t happy with her decisions in the end and has to deal with the path she took that led to her friends ending up dead. As the movie closes, Liz looks happy that she’s managed to avoid any kind of punishment, but it’s unclear if she’ll be able to live with herself. The ghosts of her friends are still likely to haunt her, and now that she’s backed herself into a corner of lies, who will she reach out to for help in the future?
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