Enter the Void, Gaspar Noé, 135 mins (18)<br/>The Hole, Joe Dante, 92 mins,(12A)

An unpretentious horror flick for kids and a French art film that grapples with life, death and spiritual transcendence have more in common than you might think
Click to follow

You probably think I'm being facetious here, but apart from the fact that they were released last week, and the titles happen to chime, what earthly connection could there be between Enter the Void and The Hole?

One is an ambitious French art film that grapples with matters of life, death and spiritual transcendence; the other is a 3D horror flick for kids. In fact, they have much in common. They're two very different approaches to the question of how to make a film not just a story but an experience – what Hollywood likes to call an "immersive thrill ride".

Both films are made by cult directors. The Hole comes from under-rated Hollywood oddball Joe Dante, the genre specialist best known for the gleefully perverse Gremlins; while Enter the Void is by French provocateur Gaspar Noé, whose brutally confrontational films include the backwards-narrated rape drama Irreversible.

Both directors have essentially come up with novelty pictures. Dante has done it classically, with a 3D entertainment – hardly a novelty these days, except that he does it slightly differently. As for Enter the Void, it's shot in D, but I suspect that Noé would like us to think of it as a film that goes beyond two, three, even four dimensions into a fifth – that of consciousness itself. Enter the Void is a trip, in the sense once aspired to by the more lysergic strand of Sixties cinema. Its narrative recounts the journey of a soul – from life to death to disembodied state, and finally to reincarnation. Hold on, you're thinking, that's no movie pitch, that's The Tibetan Book of the Dead – and indeed, that's exactly what Noé's story is modelled on. The film is seen through the eyes of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown, barely seen face on), a young American in Tokyo, who is shot dead by police during a drugs raid.

This causes his life to flash before our eyes – after which his soul, unyoked from the flesh, goes on a karmic joyride. Off it goes, cruising over streets and through walls, diving in and out of every imaginable light source or dark hole (ashtrays, toilets, assorted human orifices).

Hyper-vividly shot in neon hues, this extreme case of point-of-view cinema kicks off at high intensity. First there's a bludgeoning credit sequence – a flash-fire of typefaces for which a strobe warning seems barely adequate. That's soon followed by a spacey CGI approximation of an acid hallucination – all fractals and shimmying tendrils. Once Oscar is shot, however, the film becomes a repetitive wallow in the earthly domain at its basest – embodied by strip joints, drug dens and graphically bloody car wreckage. There's also much dwelling on the hero's part-sentimental, part-incestuous obsession with his stripper sister (Paz de la Huerta, preposterously kittenish). Throughout, Oscar's disembodied gaze hovers over the Tokyo streets like a JAL flight on a long-term holding pattern.

Give Noé his due. Enter the Void pushes the language of narrative film beyond normal parameters, making for a kinetic sensory onslaught. A bizarre mix of mysticism and heavy-handed street-hip sleaze, the piece is both a full-blown avant-garde abstraction, and a wham-bam funhouse ride. This is a hybrid position occupied by only a handful of films, most notably Kubrick's 2001, an avowed Noé reference. The result is innovative – and yet it's also oppressive, self-important and sometimes gruellingly crass.

By contrast, The Hole is without pretension. It's a spooky tale, and a simple one. Two young brothers (Chris Massoglia, Nathan Gamble) move to a new suburban house and discover a mysterious trap door in the basement. Beneath it is a fathomless hole that contains who knows what – the deepest nothing, or perhaps every conceivable horror in the world? Together with the personable girl next door (Haley Bennett), the brothers confront all that the hole can unleash – demon dolls, hollow-eyed ghosts and worse.

At first sight, Dante's film seems old-fashioned compared to the sophisticated 3D that we're seeing so much at present. In fact, we seem already to have become so used to the new-generation 3D that we barely notice it any more. But the simplicity of The Hole, with its flat comic-strip planes, is such that we always notice the effect. What's effective here is the pregnant emptiness of a basement, a door handle turning in close-up, or the hole itself, equally ominous whether the camera is peering into or out of it. Dante is getting back to the Fifties roots of 3D, and the technique's unnerving capacity to transform space – as in Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder, with its notorious close-up of a gigantic finger. Reinventing the basics, Dante comes up with an entertainment that's honest, no-frills and surprisingly eerie (it has some good gags too, and the great Bruce Dern).

Both Dante and Noé are out to reinvent cinematic space and the way we experience it. They've also both made films about cinema itself, about the strange things that happen to your mind when you gaze into the screen – that rectangular hole, or void, of seemingly infinite depth. And both these films require that you be there. So whichever of the two takes your fancy, don't wait for the DVD – make sure you see it in the black hole of an actual three-dimensional cinema.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney investigates the Romanian cop drama Police, Adjective