Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

The US dollar won’t buy a lot nowadays so it’s quite remarkable that J. T. Petty’s 16mm directorial feature debut SOFT FOR DIGGING manages to chalk up 72 minutes running time and still came in with production costs under $6,000. Obviously, every cent is up there on the screen with camera lenses having been improvised out of the tops of plastic drink cups, the crew and cast fed free by Baltimore restaurants, free location shooting and the cast agreeing to be paid when the movie finally gets distributed. Despite being unfairly touted as ’the next BLAIR WITCH PROJECT’ - an optimistic statement if ever there was one, Petty’s movie has a couple of aces of its own when it comes to rejuvenating the horror scene. The first is the fact that the film contains less than a handful of spoken pieces of dialogue, the second is some fine cinematography by Patrick McGraw whose deep lens penetrates the pervasive woodland scenery to give the film an ever present sense of unease. Together these elements convey some of the inventiveness that surrounded the classic horrors of silent cinema. Without a reliance on special effects and clever dialogue SOFT FOR DIGGING raises few laughs from its audience and instead injects a subtle sense of dread into every day objects that include a whistling kettle, festive decorations, and a well trained cat that would have taken up the film’s budget by itself if groomed for a Hollywood production.

The film concerns an elderly man named Virgil Manoven (Edmond Mercier) who lives a nomadic existence in an old cabin in the woods of Elkton, Maryland. His life has become one of routine, he rises each morning, eats breakfast, retrieves his post and does the mundane chores necessary when living in an old cabin with only a pet cat for company. One day his cat is perturbed by something outside in the woods and runs off to investigate. Virgil follows and there, in a clearing, he witnesses a man (Andrew Hewitt) carry what appears to be a wrapped up corpse of a child from a car and bury it. A young girl (Sarah Ingerson) is also present - but no interaction between the two takes place. As the horror of the situation begins to manifest in Virgil’s mind he decides to make a run for home and call the police. Two investigators arrive, whom the credits refer to as Shakespeare and Dick (Wayne Knickel and Joshua Billings), who escort Virgil to the crime scene but upon arrival there appears to be no evidence of foul play and the old man is left to reflect on his own memory of the incident.

Virgil’s sleep is plagued by dreams in which the young girl haunts Virgil and which lead him to recall specifics of the incident. He imagines he sees a young child strangled and as the visages escalate Virgil comes to the realisation that the little girl witnessed at the scene of the burial was actually the spirit of the strangled child. The detectives are summoned once more, but excavation of the supposed grave results in a blank and the old man is dismissed as a little senile.

Convinced that he has not imagined the incident and that his mind is fine, Virgil sets out on an investigation of his own to unearth the truth, following clues fed to him by the murdered girl whom he discovers is called Claire. She leads him to a Catholic orphanage where he recognizes the caretaker as the man from the crime scene and who appears to have acted on orders from the institution’s head priest (David Huusko).

As a calling card for the talents of J. T. Petty, aged just 21 when the production was completed as his New York University thesis, SOFT FOR DIGGING boasts some serious talent. Unfortunately, aside from the technical aspects and the originality involved with its treatment, the film doesn’t serve up anything new as far as scripting is concerned. A similar storyline, that of the spirit of a murdered child attempting to bring their killer to justice has been done to death in the 90s, most notably with A STIR OF ECHOES, and THE SIXTH SENSE. We realise what is going on early in the film and spend the remaining fifty minutes awaiting Virgil to solve the mystery. That’s not to say the film is a disappointment - you can hardly expect miracles from a film whose low budget has been hyped as its main attraction. The direction and use of locale is more than satisfactory and I particularly liked the way the cat, (called Harpo for trivia completists) takes on a character all of its own. Petty’s sense of how to crank up tension works to an extent with a creative use of sound effects. As Virgil starts to question his judgement, everyday sounds around the cabin appear louder, as boiling eggs, pots, twigs and objects from reality clash head to head with ghostly dreams of the surreal. The performances are fine in the main except in the case of the priest (a Presbyterian Minister friend of Petty’s) who fluffs his lines and whose overdubbing is a little clumsy. But the real stars here are the locales. The eerie Elkton woods rival those used in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT(also shot in Maryland), the orphanage close to Severna Wood looks like an old asylum and Virgil’s cabin (an Appalachian Trail Club property in North Virginia) is not somewhere you’d want to live alone. Apparently its former owner was a Manhattan Project founder who is buried in its front yard, three feet deep and facing up.

With its plot concerning a murdered schoolgirl whose body is buried in the woods by a caretaker, obvious parallels will be drawn from recent events concerning the Soham tragedy. Bearing this in mind it won't come as a major shock if FILM FOUR decide to pull the plug on the film's intended UK satellite premiere at 1.45 am on Sunday 28th December. If not, then the film is definitely worth a look.

Carl T. Ford

Directed by J. T. Petty

English Language
USA / 2001 / 72 minutes


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