Dig Two Graves (2014)

dig-2-graves-header“After her brother’s tragic death a young girl meets three men who claim they can bring her brother back to life.” — IMDb

Director Hunter Adams’s first feature film, Dig Two Graves, impresses with its ability to utilize strong acting and subtly unsettling atmosphere to elevate the story well beyond what is implied by the simple genre of “horror”. It was shot on a small budget, but with the help of horror actor/director Larry Fessenden in the role of executive producer as well as their selection by the Independent Filmmaker Project, this film winds up being even greater than the sum of its parts.

The film follows young teen Jacqueline (Samantha Isler), known as Jake, as she grieves the sudden and mysterious loss of her brother, Sean (Ben Schneider), who disappeared after jumping into the nearby quarry while the two of them were playing. After being approached by a gang of gypsies, led by a man named Wyeth (Troy Ruptash), Jake finds out there may be a way to bring Sean back from the dead, but she finds herself struggling with what she must do to make it happen…

** SPOILERS! **

I think, above all else, this movie just felt like it was made with care. It took me a while, scrolling impatiently through Netflix, before I found something that really felt right, and this was the one. The overarching theme of grief seemed like something that would really resonate with me — and it did — but this film was about more than that.

The main aspect that would have propelled this from a dark drama into more stereotypical horror — the supernatural aspect of bringing Jake’s brother back from the dead — was glossed over a bit, but I think it was stronger without it. Instead, we are faced with the more human horror of what a person could be willing to do, to sacrifice, to achieve what they ultimately desire. Jake’s reasoning might be sound — she wants to lessen her pain and the pain of those around her — but she struggles with sacrificing Willie, an innocent bystander, to bring her brother back into the world of the living, and she almost succeeds in doing so, to her own disbelief.

I thought the acting was strong all around, particularly from Samantha Isler (who played Jake), Troy Ruptash (Wyeth), and especially Ted Levine, who played the town sheriff and Jake’s gruff but loving grandfather. You might also fondly remember Levine as Jame Gumb from The Silence of the Lambs (there’s no naked dancing this time around). He’s the perfect strong patriarch of the family, struggling with demons of his own as he tries to instill morals and comfort in his granddaughter.

I also loved how visually impressive the movie was. They filmed in southern Illinois for a majority of the production, and during one of the worst winters on record, but director and producers agreed that it was necessary to achieve the authenticity they needed with such a low budget. Not only did it work well visually, but the area had lots of relevant (and bloody) history of its own that mirrored some themes in the film, such as gang wars between local moonshiners and the Bloody Vendetta of the 1800s. There were many beautifully done low light and nighttime shots, relying heavily on lanterns and twilight, and using silhouette and shadow to enhance the atmosphere, already rife with secrets and memories hoped to be forgotten.

Really, the ultimate lesson of the movie — “when you go on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” — is nicely paralleled between grandfather and granddaughter, and I loved the reflection on people existing in shades of gray. “… no man’s all good, no man’s all bad, there are no cowards, there are no heroes, there’s only the living and the dead… it’s hard to know what’s right and wrong unless you’re sitting on the outside looking in”. The grandfather’s story may not have circled around to such a pleasant ending, but at least he was able to impart the wisdom he gleaned from a life of regret and grief to save his granddaughter in the end, both from sacrifice and self-sacrifice.

A deeply reflective, atmospheric story — worth a watch, and worth keeping up with Adams to see what he comes up with next.

Rating: 7/10 | Director: Hunter Adams | Writer: Hunter Adams, Jeremy Phillips | Music: Brian Deming, Ryan Kattner, Joseph Plummer | Cinematography: Eric Maddison | Starring: Ted Levine, Samantha Isler, Danny Goldring, Troy Ruptash, Rachael Drummond, Dean Evans, Bradley Grant Smith

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