When it comes to paranormal mysteries Hollywood has a very short and defined set of predilections, with aliens being at the top of the pyramid thanks to their summer blockbuster potential, followed by ghosts on a closed second since those films are now very cheap to make and satisfy our ancient need for a good fright. Perhaps the reason Cryptozoology lags waaay behind on a third place is because the studios never found the proper formula to turn Bigfoot and Nessie into cash cows –even though both of them have had some few but memorable moments on the silver screen. But a Fortean movie in the true sense of the word is as rare and precious as a rain of frogs on a climatic scene.
The movie The Hill and the Hole –directed by Bill Darmon and Christopher Ernst, and produced by the independent film studio Bright Rectangle— can proudly claim its place among the annals of true Fortean films. It’s a loose adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s short story of the same name, which was published in the pulp magazine “Unknown Worlds” in 1942, and although it struggles at times with mixing together a lot of strange ideas and tantalizing concepts into a coherent plotline, the end result would leave any follower of the venerable Fort very satisfied and has the potential to attain cult status outside the paranormal community.
[Mild Spoilers Ahead]
Fritz Leiber Jr. (1910-1992) was an American fiction writer who had a very long and prolific career. Nowadays he’s mostly remembered as one of the founders of the “sword-and-sorcery” literary genre with his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, but in his early years he wrote horror stories for the pulp magazines of the time, and “The Hill and the Hole” seems to be greatly influenced by his friendship with none other than the legendary HP Lovecraft: a topographer by the name of Tom Digby who is surveying the lands of some indeterminate midwestern region of the United States, is stumped by the barometric readings he’s getting from an unusual mound located inside a little farm –his altimeter registers the promontory below his benchmark level, which means the ‘hill’ is technically a ‘hole’. The mystery deepens when a strange little girl warns Digby of the dangers of getting too close to the hill/hole, and when he later finds out from his colleague Ben Shelley that a couple of years prior another geologist by the name of Wolfcratson had died on that very spot under very unusual circumstances.
In this modern adaptation, Director and writer Darmon takes Leiber’s straightforward and good ole-fashioned ghost story, and turns it into a deep dive of American Esoterica by borrowing heavily from the pages of Jim Brandon’s Rebirth of Pan. Just like Lovecraft, Brandon and this book have also acquired something of a legendary status among circles of paranormal enthusiasts –Lovecraft and Brandon have, incidentally enough, other commonalities which we won’t get into, but suffice it to say there’s a reason why Rebirth of Pan is out-of-print and extremely hard to find– because Brandon was among the first to try to connect the dots between UFO sightings, ghost apparitions, cryptid activity and their links to the mysterious mounds dotting the American landscape, which continue to this day to be the subject of heavy speculation among alternative historians –the web series Hellier helped to bring attention to a whole series of obscure books, including Brandon’s
In the movie, the hill is now located in New Mexico instead of the Midwest, and instead of a geologist Tom Digby is now an archeologist working for the Bureau of Land Management; also the friendliness in which he’s received in Leiber’s original story –due to the farmer’s hope that his presence might indicate a deposit of oil in his land– is turned into uncalled hostility when Gabriel (the owner) and his friends Joel and Michael make Tom know in no uncertain terms that his presence and interest in the hill on their land are not welcome.
The movie script is deliberately ambiguous and inserts dreamlike sequences which doesn’t make it an easy story to grasp. But what I had the hardest time understanding, though, were the motives of pretty much most of the characters in this movie: why are Gabriel and his thugs willing to go to such lengths to guard the secret of the hill is that the reason the three of them were given the names of angels?) that they end up kidnapping Tom and are planning to kill him? Why doesn’t Tom get the hell away as far as he can once he manages to escape? Why instead of seeking help at the nearest police station he goes to the town’s library instead(!)? Why instead of calling his employers or the State police or the FBI, he ends up calling his friend Ben Shelley who he hasn’t talked to in years(!!)? And what does Layne, the attractive librarian and local stargazing instructor, know or doesn’t know about all of it, that she decides all of the sudden to help this complete stranger –or does she??
The first part of the movie left me the impression the directors wanted to make this film in the manner of a “monster of the week” X-Files episode –a small town with a terrible secret, trying to keep strangers away– but Chris Carter and his writers knew the conspiracy had to be revealed before the credits roll; with The Hill and the Hole I never felt that sense of closure, despite watching the movie three times in a row.
But the second half of the movie is far more interesting once you stop trying to explain the rationale behind the characters’ actions –OK so Tom is stupid enough to risk his life to get to the bottom of the hill’s mystery, so be it– and also because the most colorful character in the story is finally introduced: Roger Person (played by ‘crackpot historian’ and author Adam Gorightly) who was once Digby’s predecessor in the surveying of the ominous hill and is now selling fried dough during little league baseball games with the help of his assistant Tiny (Tim Binnall).
It is thanks to Person that the movie can explore yet another fascinating aspect of American Esoterica: That of secret societies and the ‘forbidden’ knowledge they claim to possess –even though most of them probably amount to little more than old boys’ clubs looking for excuses to drink and hang out, as it seems to be the veiled social comment of the filmmakers. As some of the mystery begins to finally unravel, Pearson delivers this fascinating monologue (which was written by Gorightly himself):
“Where the hell’s anything going? Just ’round and ’round and back to the ground. We all come from the earth and like fools reach out to the stars…for what? Eternal life? A stairway to Heaven? But when it’s all said and done we end up right back where we started, in good ol’ Mother Earth, ten feet under. Just more food for the gods to take in and spit out and start this whole fucked up cycle all over again.”
By now things start to speed up quite a bit, until we get to the climactic scene in which Person again steals the show –and I’m not saying that just because Gorightly happens to be a colleague and personal friend)– with an open-ended finale in the best Kubrickian tradition, which will no doubt spur countless forum debates among paranormal fans for years and years to come.
Despite leaving a few loose threads which I feel the filmmakers tried their hardest to weave together into a parsimonious tapestry –a funny cameo with famous cryptozoologist Loren Coleman which was left as a post-credit scene is evidence of this– The Hill and the Hole is a beautiful film that is well worth a view, and deserves a recognition for turning an old ghost story from the 1940’s into a road trip across the heartland of Weird America.
The Hill and the Hole will be available on Prime Video in August. In the meantime, you can rent it on Vimeo: