Strong performances and atmosphere elevate an intriguing suspense tale somewhat let down by its resolution in “Dig Two Graves.” Hunter Adams’ low-key thriller is likely to reward discriminating horror fans — while triggering the usual “Borrrrrrring” whines from others — for its emphasis on character and mystery over action (let alone gore). Unfolding in a small town in the American heartland in dual 20th-century eras, as the crimes of one generation come back to haunt its descendants, the film has been sitting around since a late 2014 festival debut. A limited March 24 theatrical launch, simultaneous with an on-demand release, should help raise the profile for a movie likely to accrue appreciative viewers primarily via home formats.
In 1947 Southern Illinois, two policemen drive to a rural body of water in the middle of the night, dumping two bodies into the drink. The younger, more guilt-wracked of the pair aims a gun at his elder, and says, “You are no longer sheriff of this town,” then throws the latter’s badge in after the two corpses.
Thirty years later, Sean (Ben Schneider) dares younger sister Jake (Samantha Isler) to jump into that same body of water off a high quarry ledge, though the teens have no inkling of the area’s history. She hesitates at the last second, leaving him to leap alone. But he never surfaces, apparently drowning in the murky depths. It’s a tragedy from which Jake and family struggle to recover — her parents (Kara Zediker, Riley Kittley) perhaps more successfully than she, since Jake feels somehow at fault.
Providing some solace is Jake’s close relationship with her grandfather, Sheriff Waterhouse (Ted Levine) — the man who stripped that badge from his superior decades earlier. Ex-sheriff Proctor (Danny Goldring) is now an ornery recluse raising a grandchild (Gabriel Cain) who gets bullied at school and pitied by classmate Jake, though she finds him off-putting enough to dodge his obvious pleas for friendship.
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Walking home one night down a lonely wooded lane, Jake is unpleasantly surprised by a stranger in a ragged top hat and great coat named Wyeth (Troy Ruptash), who’s flanked by two equally unsavory-looking characters. Wyeth seems to know a lot about Jake. “Your brother’s not dead, he’s just hard to find,” he says, offering to “bring him back” if she’ll perform a service for them in turn.
Whether these creepy figures are ghosts or not is a question left dangling until the end. But it’s clear they’re exacting some kind of revenge connected to the events of 1947, which we grow to understand more fully in flashbacks from the mid-’70s-set main story. Gypsies, transient laborers, some kind of snake-handling cult, sexual assault, and a request for human sacrifice are among the factors that emerge from past secrets to push their way into the increasingly perilous present.
It’s all quite nicely handled by Adams’ direction and his script (co-written with Jeremy Phillips), though the latter ultimately somewhat disappoints: When we finally learn whether the goings-on here are supernatural, the explanation leaves too many prior episodes looking like a bit of a cheat. Still, if you don’t think too hard about it afterward, “Dig Two Graves” impresses on the whole, its general flavor closer to something like a spookier “To Kill a Mockingbird” than it is to Stephen King territory or most body-count-oriented contemporary horror films.
The reliable Levine provides considerable warmth and authenticity that helps ground a film whose lesser adult characters (though well-cast and played) often border on small-town melodramatic archetypes. Isler, who was also fine in last year’s “Captain Fantastic” (which was shot after this film), provides a strong protagonist in the mode of classic American literary adolescents like Carson McCullers.
Wearing its period trappings lightly but convincingly enough, “Graves” is handsomely accomplished in all departments. Particularly noteworthy are the somber prettiness of DP Eric Maddison’s primarily outdoor widescreen images and a range of subtly ominous scoring credited to three composers.