One of the best parts of covering an international genre festival like Fantasia, which kicked off this week in Montreal, is that it brings us a slew of passionate films yet unsupported by things like big name recognition or production houses’ fat wallets. There are plenty of films screened at Fantasia that do have those qualifications, of course, but a fair number of them don’t, giving credence to the oft-repeated claim that today, most anyone with enough gumption can get the gear to make a movie.
Often, though, these films leave something to be desired, whether the writing’s flat or the acting is amateurish or the vision isn’t quite realized due to budgetary constraints or inexperience or whatever else. There are redemptive and even excellent pieces and parts of these projects to be sure, but you might have to do some work to parse them out.
But then, sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes you’re hit with a truly remarkable indie production that doesn’t need any of your presupposed benefit of the doubt, that simply works in every single way without it. That’s the case with The Deeper You Dig, which made its world premiere at Fantasia last night. It’s a film that exemplifies what’s so magical about living in a time when filmmaking is so accessible and deftly demonstrates just how much can be accomplished as long as the creators commit to taking full advantage.
The Deeper You Dig’s story surrounds three central characters, who also make up the vast majority of the production and creative team: Ivy (Toby Poser), her daughter Echo (Zelda Adams), and Kurt (John Adams). The basic premise is that in a remote part of upstate New York, Kurt accidentally kills Echo—his 14-year-old neighbor—and then tries to keep it covered up while mentally and supernaturally unraveling in the aftermath. Meanwhile, Ivy—a performative psychic by trade—is confident Echo is dead, despite the police’s tepid insistence that she’s only missing, and sets out on a mission to discover what truly happened to her by dusting off her real “second sight” for guidance.
When I say that these characters made up the vast majority of the creative team, I mean that they made up essentially all of it. The film was written by married creative partners John Adams and Toby Poser and was co-directed by them and their daughter Zelda. The three of them star, Toby produces, John and Zelda split cinematography credits, and all three are listed (along with one other person) as camera operators, among other things. Oh, and John edited the movie and also composed its original (and important) score.
That’s incredible and should be more than enough to intrigue anyone, but I’ll entice you further by promising that those willing to invest in The Deeper You Dig‘s perfect hour and 35-minute runtime will be rewarded throughout every second.
Confident that this film will get the distribution it really deserves, I’m going to keep the plot cards fairly close to my chest and refrain from betraying any key points—you’ll have to see for yourself. But I will single out a few of the most remarkable aspects of Dig, starting with the acting.
It’s not often that I get to praise a low-budget indie horror film for objectively solid and qualified acting across the board, but here we are. And while I don’t want to minimize a single one of the few but mighty performances, I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out John Adams in the role of Kurt.
From the moment he takes the screen, everything Kurt does is compelling. He doesn’t speak much—not even a word in his first appearance on camera—but his presence is all-consuming and unavoidable. I locked into Kurt immediately, and my commitment to his story never wavered. It’s not because he was inherently good or inherently evil, not because of an expressive nature or an absorbing backstory, or because he’s even particularly mysterious. What I locked into, rather, was Kurt’s normalcy—his total averageness. The fact that he’s so pedestrian is the thing that, somewhat ironically, makes him so magnetic.
I don’t mean to insinuate that we’re necessarily on Kurt’s team at any point—he takes a messy, unintentional accident and turns it into a vile, reprehensible decision. He’s not backable, nor redeemable. And yet, Adams plays him in such a conscientious way that it’s impossible to actively root against him. You want to know what he’s going to do next, need to know, and you don’t really judge him too harshly when the route he chooses isn’t great. His character trajectory is the most transformative of the film, leaving him a very different person at the end of the story than he was when it started, and Adams does a superb job of subtly and seamlessly reflecting those character changes organically and at the perfect pace.
Complementary to these astute performances is the consistently well-imagined, well-executed cinematography and effects work. As joint directors of photography, John and Zelda deserve a lot of praise for their shot compositions. Atmospheric exteriors took full advantage of the snowy, mountainous environment, while interior shots perfectly framed high-quality spooks and cleverly signaled repeating themes. There were also a few very surreal, psychic-ish dreamscape sequences that could’ve easily been misses instead of hits if left to less discerning eyes.
While not expansive, the effects work (by Trey Lindsay) was solid, and everything that they chose to execute was done effectively. That bleeds into a complimentary summation that applies to the whole production: The Adams family didn’t try and do anything that they couldn’t afford to do. As a result, their project feels complete and actualized—exactly the kind of butterfly that makes me love a festival like Fantasia.
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