It was an accident. A dark night. A remote road. A girl sledding alone. A man driving home. And just like that, 14-year-old Echo Allen is dead. A tragedy to be sure. But what happens next is true horror. By following her killer and the mother Echo has left behind, The Deeper You Dig explores grief and guilt while traveling down a twisted road into the supernatural.
Toby Poser stars as Ivy Allen, Echo’s loving mother and a professional clairvoyant who is rattled when — in the middle of a séance session — she hears her daughter’s disembodied voice apologizing. Ivy soon realizes Echo (Zelda Adams) is missing and so is her sled. Fearing the worst, she goes to the cops and begins to paper her snow-covered mountain town with missing person posters. Seeking guidance from beyond the grave, she’ll reach out to supernatural forces. And seeking help from her neighbors, she reaches out to Kurt (John Adams), who just moved in up the road and harbors a horrible secret.
While Ivy is on a journey to uncover what’s become of her daughter, Kurt knows all too well. And we do too. The Deeper You Dig is quick to show us Echo’s death at Kurt’s hands. As he tries to hide the evidence, his crimes grow greater. But Echo’s not having it. The dead teen resurfaces, her moody blue lipstick giving her smirk an added drama as her ghost appears in doorways and taunts him while perched on his home-improvement projects. Sometimes, she’ll appear rotted. Sometimes she comes with warnings, insults, or threats. Slowly but steadily, her pressure is wearing away at Kurt’s sanity. But mama Ivy is dealing with a darkness of her own. The insights from the other side come at a cost, dragging her through hallucinations that are grim, humiliating, and dangerous. In the end, these two, staring down from opposite sides of this agony, will collide in a climax that’s wild, vicious, and bold.
At the top, I’d thought I’d seen movies like this before, meaning crime dramas where the grieving parents of a missing child are on a frantic search for answers — or someone to blame–a quest that will lead them down a path of self-destruction. But The Deeper You Dig is different at every turn. From that first contact, Ivy knows her daughter is dead. But she also knows Echo is not gone. And because the girl is not gone, the film has a uniquely haunting horror-bend that brings the spunky Zelda Adams into scenarios of menace and macabre mockery. Echo becomes the sin her killer cannot bury and the hell from which he cannot escape. And yet the film refuses to make Kurt an outright villain or a heartless monster. His first mistake — terrible as it is — could happen to anyone. And when he decides to take her body from the scene of the crime, you can at least understand his panic. Which makes what Kurt does next all the more disturbing.
The blend of crime-drama and supernatural horror is intoxicating. The tug of Ivy’s investigation tangles with unnerving imagery of cryptic figures and gnarly realms. Meanwhile, Kurt’s paranoia increases with Echo’s appearances, making him feel as if even his own home is no safe haven.
Regrettably, in some of its horror set pieces, you can see the limitations of The Deeper You Dig’s low budget. Its surreal spectacles and most egregious gore can feel a bit dated, like something out of a ’90s music video. Seeing the seams of the visual effects can be a bit distracting. Still, the constraints of the budget don’t overshadow three outstanding performances that make The Deeper You Dig a must-see.
Poser brings an earthy depth to this mournful mother. When she’s joking with Echo in the opening, she’s gruffly warm with a winking wit that encourages her fast-maturing daughter to feel comfortable to say things like “that’s cunty. I like it.” In one short scene, Poser and Adams swiftly establish a seemingly effortless chemistry that makes the cruel separation of their characters sting deep. And as Ivy goes on her journey through the uncertain realms of the paranormal, she’ll give her body over to the elements, her face over to cracking clown make-up, and her spirit over to the dogged trials of grief. With cops, she is resolute and stoic. With Kurt, she is patient and kind. But with the spirits, she has no need to uphold a guise or smile. Her shoulders slump, her voice crumbles, and she is shattered. Echo was her joy, her smile, her spirit. But even as a ghost, this girl maintains her wicked sense of humor.
Often in these movies of child murder or child abduction, the child victim is a grinning, blond angel, practically spun from sunshine, sugar, and Hallmark greeting cards. But Echo is no angel. She curses. She breaks rules. She’s a Goth kid, favoring all black clothing, cat-eye liner, and dark lipstick in black and blues. Her eyes glitter with mischief. Her voice snarks and crackles with ghoulish glee. Adams refuses to play the perfect victim. Instead, she paints a portrait of a teenager who is caring and rebellious, childish and mature, clever and lost. Her complexity makes the loss of Echo all the more harrowing. She feels real, and so too does her absence.
Last but not least is John Adams. It’s easy to imagine a version of this movie where Kurt is played as theatrically aggressive or savagely steely. But Adams creates instead a character that is isolated and afraid, and so reacts impulsively, sometimes violently. He has a soft side, which aches for Echo and her mother even as he works against them. It’s the quiet moments where Kurt’s alert eyes flash with regret or doubt that makes the actions that follow cut sharper. By giving us reason to empathize or even pity Kurt, Adams creates opportunities where this lost man might find salvation. And each time Kurt chooses to dig deeper, it’s another dizzying blow that takes us one step closer to a chilling conclusion.
Watching the film, I didn’t know who’d written and directed it, but wondered if it was crafted specifically for these three actors, who breathed such life into this fascinating and fucked up trio. When the credits rolled, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn The Deeper You Dig not only stars Toby Poser and John Adams, it was written and directed by the pair, who are married and have been making self-starring indies together since 2013. As for Zelda Adams, she is not only their electric ingénue, but also their daughter.
Discovering after the fact that The Deeper You Dig’s stars are also its creators made me appreciate the movie even more. This is no vanity project. Each of this family plays a character that is more messy than admirable. There’s nothing glamorous here, only the ghoulish, grisly, and heart wrenching. Their performances — while terrific — don’t offer the kind of showy emotional moments that are preferred for award ceremony clip shows. Just as they rejected crime-drama conventions, they reject such sentimentality and melodrama. Instead, Poser and Adams crafted a film uniquely their own, which is richly engaging, thrillingly fresh, and sensationally creepy.
The Deeper You Dig made its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com