Deeper You Dig (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (29th December 2020).
The Film

The Deeper You Dig (John Adams, Toby Poser, 2019)

The Deeper You Dig is a true family affair: directors John Adams and Toby Poser are the parents of one of the film’s lead actors, Zelda Adams. (Their other daughter, Lulu Adams, is also an actor, though she doesn’t appear onscreen in The Deeper You Dig.) Including The Deeper You Dig, the ‘Adams family’ have made five features together; their blood-linked filmmaking collective originated when Poser, an actress with many television credits to her name, found that roles began to dry up once she hit the age of 40. In response, John Adams suggested to her that they should make their own features, and the family unit threw themselves into this activity, creating Wonder Wheel Productions – which is the production company under which all of their films have been made.

As an indie feature, The Deeper You Dig invites comparisons with the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984). Adams and Poser’s picture has a similar sense of pace and emphasis on languorous photography as the Coens’ debut feature, and both could be described as a textbook example of modern American Gothic fiction with a very neo-noir visual sensibility.

The Deeper You Dig opens in the derelict house that Kurt Miller (John Adams) is renovating. Outside the house, the landscape is covered with snow. Inside, Kurt is sweeping up. Elsewhere, middle-aged single mother Ivy (Toby Poser) collects her daughter Echo (Zelda Adams) from school. The two make plans to go hunting over the coming weekend. Ivy is a psychic, and reads the Tarot for paying customers. She does this fraudulently, though in the past she had genuine ‘sight’ and somehow lost this as the years went by. However, she mysteriously hears the disembodied voice of her daughter Echo – whose name has a presumably intentional and obvious significance – and after Echo’s death, Ivy continues to be haunted by both visions of Echo and the sound of her voice.

Driving back from town after drinking, Kurt hits Echo with his vehicle. She is killed. In a moment of panic, Kurt takes the body and tries to dig a grave. However, the ground is frozen, and he finds digging impossible. He takes her back to the derelict house and puts her in a free-standing bathtub. But she’s not dead; she comes to. Kurt panics again and places his hand over her mouth, suffocating her; then he conceals the body near his house. When the snow begins to thaw, he finds a spot and digs a shallow grave, burying Echo in it.

Like Blood Simple, The Deeper You Dig places emphasis on its parochial, small town setting. The small scale of the community means that Ivy and Kurt’s paths cross a number of times before each of them realises their connection to one another, through the disappearance of Echo. Soon after he has killed Echo, Kurt sees Ivy handing out flyers at a local store which seems to be a hub for activity within the community. ‘Do you want to spread the word?’, the store clerk asks Kurt, ‘She’s [Echo is] a good kid’. Kurt’s conscience is pricked… but not enough to outweigh his instinct for self-preservation.

The film opens with a fragmented montage of the interior of the house that Kurt is renovating. Houses in fiction, especially Gothic narratives, often function as metaphors for the lives of their inhabitants – in the manner of the House of Usher in Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and its various film adaptations, including, perhaps most iconically, Roger Corman’s 1963 picture starring Vincent Price and Mark Damon. The state of disrepair of the house Kurt is renovating feels symbolic; Kurt, it seems, truly intends on building something through his hard work. (Later, when confronted on his doorstep by Ivy, he tells her that his plan is to ‘fix it and flip it’.) In this way, the filmmakers build sympathy for him. Then, in a moment of stupidity he gets behind the wheel of his vehicle after drinking, which leads him to hit and kill Echo. His initial attempts to cover up the crime afterwards are understandable, if not sympathetic. However, he crosses a line when he intentionally suffocates Echo, after she comes to in the bathtub, and attempts to dispose of her corpse. (The protracted, roundabout method/s by which Kurt gets rid of Echo’s body is another connection between this picture and the Coens’ Blood Simple.)

In The Deeper You Dig, Poser’s role as Ivy is deliberately grungy and unglamorous. Ivy and Echo are introduced when Ivy collects her daughter from school. Echo’s language is… frank. ‘Fuck homework’, she tells her mother. Nevertheless, the two share a deep bond, and after Echo’s death, Ivy hears echoes of her daughter around the family home; and in a notebook, a strange sigil appears – seven circles – that makes her gasp in astonishment. The seven circles, we discover later, are a symbol of what Ivy calls ‘the realm of the wandering dead’: a liminal realm between life and death. To help her communicate with this realm, Ivy enlists the help of Dell (Shawn Wilson), a famous psychic who she mentored. Ivy, it seems, has ‘lost [her] sight’ and asks for Dell’s help in ‘opening the door’ to the realm of the seven circles. He does so, and in a memorable sequence Ivy finds herself in an entirely white, empty space where Dell force-feeds her a rotting snake…

Echo also haunts Kurt, who hears her presence and sees her too. In one scene, Echo appears to Kurt, and a shocked Kurt fires a gun at her. Through a Melies-style jump cut, Echo disappears, and Kurt’s round shatters the new window he has only just installed. With subsequent appearances to Kurt, Echo shows her face as increasingly decayed. She mocks his attempts to conceal her corpse. ‘That’s the deepest you can dig? Lazy bum’, she says; and this provokes Kurt into unearthing her corpse, cutting it into pieces and scattering them throughout the area. However, this doesn’t stop Echo from appearing to Kurt; and when he tells her that she cannot be real, Echo responds by reminding him, ‘I’m as real as I am dead’. She also insists that Kurt must ‘Tell my mother what you’ve done’.

As the narrative progresses, Kurt finds himself possessed by Echo. (‘Get out of my head, kid, or I’ll kill your fucking mother’, he begs angrily at one point.) He begins to drink Echo’s favourite Cinnamon Coffee-Cake Cappuccinos instead of his preferred beer, and sits down to urinate. He also begins to hold conversations with himself – one half expressing his perspective, and the other half expressing Echo’s point of view. In his new dual role, Kurt/Echo makes contact with Ivy and begins to form a relationship with her – to the extent that the two go hunting together. (Ivy begins to suspect something when she hears Kurt/Echo assert ‘Fuck homework’, in response to Ivy’s suggestion that she is going to take a walk for ‘a little mental homework’.)

With its focus on the eerie and the supernatural, The Deeper You Dig differed from the Adams family’s other features. Made in 2018, the supernatural short feature The Hatred (directed by John Adams under the pseudonym ‘John Law’) was in effect a trial run for The Deeper You Dig, with Zelda and Lulu Adams both acting in it and working behind the scenes on the film’s photography. (On The Deeper You Dig, Zelda Adams is credited as both assistant director and with the film’s photography – which owes much to the stately compositions and quiet use of camera movement in The Hatred.) Both The Hatred and The Deeper You Dig were shot in the Catskill Mountains, near to where the Adams family resides, making strong use of this harsh natural environment to create an unsettling effect.

Included in Arrow’s Blu-ray release of The Deeper You Dig, The Hatred takes place in Blackfoot Territory in 1869. A group of soldiers traverse a forest bathed in snow. Discovering a modest home, they kill its occupants – a woman and two of her daughters. One of the daughters (Zelda Adams) survives, however. Taking her father’s guns (her father was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, and was killed in battle), she sets out to enact revenge.

One of the group of soldiers (John Adams) is double-crossed by the others and left for dead, hanging from a noose. The girl finds and rescues him. Because of his injuries (it seems), he is mute. The girl believes him to be the supernatural incarnation of her wrath – which he may or may not be. Together, they track down and kill, in various brutal fashions, the remaining members of the group of soldiers.

The Hatred is anchored by a voiceover narration from Zelda Adams’ character (credited simply as ‘Hatred’). She tells us, as the film opens, that ‘The Devil flies on broken angel wings. Naked; free’, and informs us, as the soldiers are introduced onscreen, ‘Absent any shred of bravery, fear quickly poisoned their shallow words. Fear of the Blackfoot, fear of each other, fear of themselves’. Her adolescent voice, and the almost poetic rhetoric, bring to mind Linda Manz’s opening narration in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) (or, perhaps, Sissy Spacek’s narration in Malick’s Badlands, 1973).

In her narration, ‘Hatred’ goes on to establish some context for the story that follows: her father was a Confederate soldier, she says, who was ‘killed in his first battle’. His guns were given to his family. Believing them to be cursed, symbols of hatred, the girl’s mother concealed them. ‘But hatred was patient’, the girl adds – and after the slaughter of her mother and sister, she takes the guns and uses them, with the aid of the soldier she finds close to death.

The story of the betrayed soldier is a parable warning against paranoia and division. ‘When strong men face catastrophe, they band together. They strengthen their union for survival. Weak men sow division’, the girl narrates. Eventually, this group of gnarly ne’er-do-wells turn on one another and attempt to kill one of their own: this is the soldier that ‘Hatred’ finds hanging. She cuts him down and he accompanies her, silently – fulfilling the vow he made to his comrades that ‘I’ll be back for every one of you’.

The story is narrated from a position in the future, where the girl is interrogated by the military authorities for the slaughter of the soldiers. Given her circumstances, her worldview is understandably nihilistic: ‘As long as there’s a God’, she says, ‘there’s the Devil. And where there is no God, there is the Devil’. This worldview, the film suggests quietly, makes her potentially unreliable as a narrator; given the bulk of what we see is presented as an extended flashback, her intimations of the supernatural nature of the ‘resurrected’ soldier who accompanies her may or may not be accurate. Certainly, she is not believed by the authorities, who find her guilty of the murders of the missing soldiers and hang her.

The Hatreds focus on human cruelty in an unforgiving landscape brings to mind Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). ‘The wilderness casts no judgement’, ‘Hatred’ narrates, ‘All men drift in the Earth as listless shadows’.





Video

Both The Deeper You Dig and The Hatred are presented in 1080p, using the AVC codec. On disc one, The Deeper You Dig fills a little over 25Gb on a dual layered disc; on disc two, The Hatred fills approximately 15Gb.

Shot digitally, The Deeper You Dig’s photograph is distinctive – with much use of quiet camera movements and secondary frames, and frequent employment of longer focal lengths, giving a sense of the camera as omniscient observer to the narrative events. The photography is also very dark, with a clear use of underexposure to protect the highlights. This, combined with the use of chiaroscuro lighting (a number of sequences, in particular, feature memorable compositions which make use of torchlight and car headlights), gives the film an aesthetic that seems allied to the neo-noir pictures of the 1980s and 1990s. There are some particularly beautiful shots of the wet, snow-covered landscape.

This presentation would seem to be true to the digital source. (Onset stills seem to suggest the feature was shot on a Canon 5D and/or a Canon 6D.) Blacks are deep, and sometimes there’s a sharp drop into the toe (which betrays the film’s origins as a picture shot on a digital format) and a steep curve into the shoulder (especially in the compositions featuring snow). As noted above, Zelda Adams’ photography makes this work to the production’s advantage. Detail is pleasing throughout, and there are no noticeable compression artifacts.

The film is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with a running time of 95:31 mins.

Presumably shot on the same kit, The Hatred fares pretty much the same, although the photography in this picture tends towards being much brighter – principally because the film features much more exterior scenes focusing on the snow-covered landscape. (These contrast sharply with the dark interiors of the building in which ‘Hatred’ is interrogated, and then executed, by the soldiers.)

The Hatred is also presented in the 1.78:1 ratio, with a running time of 59:58 mins.



The Deeper You Dig


Full-sized screengrabs from both The Deeper You Dig and The Hatred are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Both The Deeper You Dig and The Hatred are presented with LPCM 2.0 stereo tracks with accompanying optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing. Both tracks are rich and deep, with excellent bass levels – which shine in scenes featuring gunshots, particularly, in The Hatred.

Extras

The disc contents are as follows.
DISC ONE:
- The Deeper You Dig (John Adams & Toby Poser, 2019) (95:31).

- Audio commentary with John Adams and Toby Poser. The couple offer an excellent commentary track, revealing the ingenuity of their approach to independent filmmaking. They reveal that the house that Kurt is renovating in the film was actually the house that Adams was working on at the time of the production – and which partially inspired the film’s narrative. They praise this location as contributing contributed to the film’s neo-noir vibe. They talk at length about the locations and the challenges they faced because of the weather conditions. They also discuss the approaches taken towards characterisation and the special effects work and sound design of the picture. It’s a warm track that is fact-packed and easy to listen to.

- ‘At Home with the Adams Family’ (49:48). Toby Poser, John Adams and Zelda Adams talk to-camera, answering some of the questions they are asked most frequently. They discuss their work and how they came to become involved in independent film production. They also talk about some of the origins of The Deeper You Dig’s narrative – seemingly in a recurring nightmare experienced by John Adams, and his experiences of renovating a mid-Nineteenth Century house. They also discuss the production of The Deeper You Dig in detail, including some excellent detail regarding the locations used in the production.

- ‘It’s in the Blood’ (26:21). Critic Anton Bitel narrates a video essay which takes a look at the Adams family’s productions’ focus on the theme of family – and considers the concept of family as a central element of horror films. Bitel contextualises this theme by exploring the origins of the Adams’ productions in their status as a family unit. He considers The Hatred as a transitional film in the career trajectory of its filmmakers, carrying them into the horror genre where their themes of family coalesce with a broader focus on the concept of family in American horror cinema.

- Special Effects Breakdown (12:24). Trey Lindsay, who worked on the film’s SFX, offers a commentary over footage from the picture. Lindsay reflects on how some of the special effects in the film were achieved – both practical effects and digital effects, with a number of scenes featuring a combination of both – and talks about his working relationship with John Adams and Toby Poser.

- Frightfest 2019 TV Interview (8:10). John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser speak about the film at the 2019 Frightfest event. They discuss their approach to working together, but most of the interview focuses on the horror genre – and the irony that Zelda Adams, being under 18, was unable to watch most of the films at the festival.

- Hellbender music videos: ‘Black Sky’ (2:25); ‘Falling in Love’ (1:49). These are two music videos for tracks by Hellbender, one of the Adams family’s bands.

- Theatrical Trailer (2:15).

- Image Gallery (1:10).

DISC TWO:
- The Hatred (John Law, 2018) (59:58). This is John Adams’ 2018 film (not quite a short film – more a picture of ‘B’ feature length) The Hatred. (Adams wrote, produced and directed this under the pseudonym ‘John Law’.) The story focuses on a young woman (played by Zelda Adams, who essays the role of Echo in The Deeper You Dig) whose family are massacred by a wayward group of Union soldiers who have travelled deep into Blackfoot territory. In a quest for revenge, she teams up with one of these soldiers (played by director John Adams), who is double-crossed and left for dead by the others. (She believes him to have been resurrected from the dead as the embodiment of vengeance – which may or may not be true, as the film neither confirms nor denies this.)

- Kid Kalifornia music videos: ‘Psycho Static Lover’ (2:17); ‘Fix’ (2:39); ‘The One’ (2:24). These are three music videos for tracks by Kid Kalifornia (a band which features all four members of the Adams family crew). The first, ‘Psych Static Lover’, makes much use of the costumes and some of the imagery of The Hatred.

Overall

With five features to their credit, The Deeper You Dig represents something of a shift within the body of work of Wonder Wheel Productions. It’s a modern Gothic story with a neo-noir approach to photography – all chiaroscuro lighting and secondary frames. As such, it invites comparisons with the Coens’ iconic Blood Simple – especially in both films’ extended focus on the disposal of a corpse. Like that picture, The Deeper You Dig is a confident, assured feature – very much a film with a pleasingly independent sensibility. If anything, The Hatred is even more effective, with its snowbound landscape and period setting. (That said, The Deeper You Dig makes equally effective use of its locations and regional flavour.

Arrow’s Blu-ray release of The Deeper You Dig contains an excellent presentation of its digitally shot main feature, and an equally pleasing presentation of The Hatred as a bonus. Though more a ‘B’ feature owing to its length, The Hatred is just as impressive as the main feature on this presentation – so really, you’re getting a ‘twofer’ with an excellent array of contextual material.

Full-sized screengrabs. Please click to enlarge.

The Deeper You Dig
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The Hatred
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