An idiosyncratic piece of supernatural horror, JT Petty's nearly dialogue-less "Soft for Digging" straddles the line between being a commercial movie and one aimed at more rarefied museum and film club screenings.

An idiosyncratic piece of supernatural horror, JT Petty’s nearly dialogue-less “Soft for Digging” straddles the line between being a commercial movie and one aimed at more rarefied museum and film club screenings. It’s both an entry in a popular subgenre — the one that produced “The Sixth Sense,” “Stir of Echoes,” etc. — and, like “The Blair Witch Project” before it, a simultaneous deconstruction of horror conventions and genre effects. Pic, which began life as an NYU thesis film, seems unlikely to reach the same mass viewership as those films. But viewed on its own microcosmic terms, it may be the best use of $6,000 (reportedly pic’s entire production cost) since “El Mariachi.”

Film opens with the amusingly titled “Chapter 1: In Which We Are Introduced to Virgil Manoven,” in which we are indeed introduced to Virgil Manoven (Edmond Mercier), an elderly man living alone in the woods, quietly going about a daily routine that has remained happily unchanged for a great many years. On this particular morning, Virgil wanders out in search of his missing cat and happens upon a man (Andrew Hewitt), accompanied by a girl (Sarah Ingerson), who appear to be burying something large in a deep hole.

We’re not sure what exactly Virgil sees, and neither is he, but when he flags down the local sheriff and persuades him to dig up the suspect area, nothing is found. There is no body, no trace of the man or the girl.

Convinced that something is awry, Virgil continues to investigate, propelled by a series of strange coincidences and sinister clues. And, once it becomes clear where this is all going, pic becomes considerably less interesting, at least on a content level. But pic is primarily an exercise in form, and what makes that exercise compelling is the freedom and skill Petty shows in rearranging genre syntax. He picks up familiar horror elements and remolds them like so much Play-Doh. Best stretches suggest the kind of “waking dream” that was recently explored in “Mulholland Drive” and “Waking Life.”

Petty begins with a still, serene rural setting and then moves on to a chilly, antiseptic asylum, neither of which seem overtly threatening until we filter in our own fears and paranoia, many derived from, well, watching too many horror movies. We’re never sure if what we’re watching is real, or if we’re even supposed to be paying attention to the plot, but Petty’s thick mood and atmosphere are effective.

Pic is never more (and is frequently less) than a cerebral bauble. Particularly in its final third, it devolves into a fairly standard-issue fright night, and it never emerges with a profound or valedictory insight into horror.

Pic’s major success is its ability to relate its slight story almost exclusively through composition, cutting and sound effects. Petty heightens our awareness of the elements that frequently get lost beneath movies’ incessant prattle.

Made on a genuine shoestring, pic’s production values are minimalist but impressive, particularly cinematographer Patrick McGraw’s astonishingly crisp, deep-focus 16mm shooting.

Soft for Digging

Production

Produced by Jeffrey Odell, JT Petty. Directed, written, edited by JT Petty.

Crew

Camera (color, 16mm), Patrick McGraw; editor, Dean Holland; music, James Wolcott, Sophocles Papavasilopoulos; sound, Marc Vives; assistant director, Vives. Reviewed at Sunset Screening Room, W. Hollywood, Dec. 21, 2001. (In Sundance Film Festival -- Frontier.) Running time: 71 MIN.

With

Virgil Manoven - Edmond Mercier
Claire - Sarah Ingerson
Shovelman - Andrew Hewitt
Paperboy - Kate Petty
Shakespeare - Wayne Knickel
Dick - Joshua Billings
Priest - David Huusko
Orange Vested Citizen - Mia Todd
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