I’ve just had the pleasure of seeing one of the strangest ghost stories out there at Fantasia 2019, and that film is The Deeper You Dig…
…A spiritual commentary on morality and consequence, John Adams & Toby Poser, splitting the writing/directing duties, have unleashed something unique in the familial horror effort, The Deeper You Dig. The film follows Kurt (John Adams), a guy who accidentally runs over and kills a young teen named Echo (Zelda Adams). Fearing the consequences, he buries the body and tells no one. With the girl’s mother, a clairvoyant named Ivy (Poser), searching for him, and Echo’s spirit unwilling to let him forget his misdeed, Kurt soon discovers there are consequences to trying to bury your problems.
The Deeper You Dig starts off slow, and largely stays that way, introducing us to a lonely, snowy world where the few characters we meet seem just as cold and unsatisfied with their lives. Ivy and Echo share a nice though somewhat distant relationship, where Ivy is more concerned with conning old women out of money than spending the night sledding with her rebellious daughter. Meanwhile, Kurt is a sad drunk, restoring houses for a living in the way he probably wishes he could restore his own life. All three cast-members are great in what are ultimately three incredibly personal roles, dealing with grief, regret, and anger that they can’t escape. John and Zelda particularly stand out in their scenes together, and it’s no wonder, since I’m assuming Zelda is John’s daughter in real-life. Either way, the emotions of the two together feel deeply genuine, making it especially hard to watch while Kurt deals with the body of Echo.
Adams and Poser want us to feel as dug into these characters as they can throughout The Deeper You Dig. The cinematography (done by John and Zelda), incorporates various POV shots through the character’s eyes during some of their more stressful moments, and often gets up close and personal with their features. It’s an uncomfortable experience, especially because these aren’t happy people. The filmmakers emphasize the dreary mood of the film by constantly framing Ivy and Kurt with a backdrop of pure darkness that seems ready to swallow them up. Though lacking in traditional violence, The Deeper You Dig is a grim experience that explores the psychological torment we put ourselves through when faced with grief. This isn’t your traditional, fun, things jumping out at you ghost story.
In fact, The Deeper You Dig is about as slow as it gets, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a methodical film that takes it’s time to work under your skin, so that when it does shock you, the moment is visceral and frightening. The Deeper You Dig rarely aims to scare the hell out of you, but when it tries, holy hell is it effective. Images like live-snake deep-throating, bloody-maggot vomit and clowns with papier-mache faces talking in the voice of a child are the stuff of nightmares. The horror in The Deeper You Dig has a deep-seeded, primal nature about it that is in tune with the world around us. This is a deadly quiet film, and so the subtle wind and the creaking of branches take on the presence of Echo, as if these sounds of nature are her reaching out to Ivy and Kurt. The Deeper You Dig buries you with a dread that is impossible to climb out of.
I just wish that the film instilled the same sort of suspense between Ivy and Kurt. With Ivy being a clairvoyant and Kurt gradually taking on attributes of Echo, it can get a little frustrating to watch Ivy study Kurt, when the answer should be so obvious, and it doesn’t help that the two rarely share screen time together to build the conflict between them. To be fair, The Deeper You Dig is less about their relationship, and more about the way Echo refuses to disappear from each of their lives. Though Echo isn’t in the film much, she never feels gone, always haunting the frame in one way or another, like when Ivy and Kurt have coffee together, and we see a drawing of Echo between them. There’s nothing outwardly creepy about the image, but it gets our stomachs twisting with an uneasy feeling that never goes away.
What’s strange is that, for such a meaningful, thoughtful film, there are also elements that remain far too vague and left me frustrated because of it. In trying to learn what happened to Echo, Ivy searches out another psychic who introduces her to a box containing “the seven circles”, which seems to be some kind of spiritual Pandora’s Box that she uses to connect to that world in the hopes of finding Echo. It’s an interesting idea that plays off of Ivy’s regret by throwing some otherworldly torment her way, because this is, after all, a film about consequence, and had Ivy not been conning old ladies, Echo may never have died. But this storyline ultimately never really goes anywhere, and I have to imagine The Deeper You Dig would’ve benefited by showing more of Kurt’s own decline, considering he’s dealing with literally trying to bury his secret, and finding that Echo refuses to stay buried.
The Deeper You Dig walks a fine line between atmospheric discomfort and tongue-in-cheek laughter as Echo, despite her ghastly appearance, mocks Kurt more than she terrifies. It isn’t a perfect film, but what it doesn’t do well, it makes up for with masterfully crafted dread and gut-wrenching performances from its cast that make this odd little haunting film one that will stay buried in your sub-conscious no matter how much you dig.
By Matt Konopka