Expectations are generally best kept low for an enterprise like “The Deeper You Dig,” which was crafted almost entirely by the members of an upstate New York family who’ve made several under-the-radar indie features before. But this latest from marital duo Toby Poser and John Adams is neither amateurish nor self-indulgent, even if it does have other flaws. Instead, it’s a nicely economical tale of supernatural vengeance that benefits from its small scale and lived-in atmospherics. The result may be a little modest for significant commercial breakout, but is sure to win over some discerning horror fans, particularly elsewhere along the genre-fest circuit following its opening-night Fantasia slot.
Living on the outskirts of a small town (identified in the closing credits as Roscoe and Livingston Manor, two legally defined “hamlets” in New York’s Sullivan County) is Ivy Allen (Poser), who supports Goth-styled 14-year-old daughter Echo (Zelda Adams) by working as a tarot-reading fake psychic. The teen’s father is nowhere in sight, and does not appear to be missed. These women both seem a bit outsider-ish, but there’s no question they get along just fine, behaving more like best friends than mother and child.
Kurt (John Adams), a newcomer in this sparsely populated community, is another loner, who has moved into a decrepit, long-empty house down the road from the Allens’ in order to “fix it and flip it.” One blizzardy night he has maybe a couple more drinks than he ought at the local bar, then drives home. He’s carefully avoiding some deer when he hears a thunk under his truck’s rear wheels — something that turns out to be Echo, who’d gone out sledding after dark without mom to watch for passing traffic.
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We know nothing of Kurt’s backstory. He doesn’t seem like a bad person, per se — but he does seem like the kind who might have past reasons to expect zero leniency for an accidental crime. Ergo he decides not to call police or ambulance, instead loading the apparently dead girl’s body in his truck and covering up all evidence. We can understand (if not approve of) his choices, even when he realizes he’s made a terrible mistake, and in a panic makes it all very much worse.
Needless to say, Ivy is distraught when she returns from seeing a client to find her daughter missing. The police shrug it off as a probable runaway scenario. They also shrug off mom’s later insistence that she just wants to know who the killer is — because the genuine psychic abilities she thought she’d lost have now returned, leaving no doubt that her daughter is no longer alive.
While she receives discreet otherworldly signs, guilt-plagued Kurt gets increasingly blunt, alarming visitations from Echo, whose cheerfully tormenting spirit is hardly at rest. As subsequent seasons pass, Ivy closes in on the erratic-acting neighbor she already suspects, with a little help from a perilous occult pact undertaken to guarantee her maternal revenge.
That last element occasions some surreal imagery, as reality, dreams, and hallucinatory visions begin to blur for the adult protagonists. But despite that, as well as Trey Lindsay’s special visual/makeup effects, “Deeper” mostly works because of its unfussy simplicity of style and content, which recalls some early-1970s indie drive-in horror favorites without being self-consciously retro about it.
Another major plus are strong performances from the directors. Their vaguely nonconformist, middle-aged characters may not be fully explicated in the screenplay, but both thesps provide the kind of interesting shading that suggests they’ve thought these roles through and then some. Real-life daughter Zelda, also effective onscreen, gets a separate credit as co-director (her sibling Lulu sat out this Adams family joint after contributing to prior ones).
“The Deeper You Dig” — a title derived from hapless Kurt’s failure to keep Echo’s corpse out of sight, let alone mind — doesn’t quite make the leap from a pleasant minor surprise to something truly memorable. It reaches a point where narrative payoff or heightening of tension feel overdue, before abruptly going a little overboard with climactic gore and action. There are also smaller missteps, like the rather pat use of an old-timey “Ain’t We Got Fun?” rendition as creepy recurrent motif. (More successfully unsettling is John Adams’ own mostly-electronic original score.)
But if its sum impact is perhaps less than one might initially hope, “The Deeper You Dig” still has an offbeat atmosphere and integrity all its own — something that can’t be said for the vast majority of horror movies with plenty of rote jump scares but scant individual personality.