The Deeper You Dig (2019)

The Deeper You Dig at Fantasia and FrightFest 2019

Ivy (Toby Poser) and Echo (Zelda Adams) Allen are a mother and daughter living on the periphery of Sullivan County, Pennsylvania. Once a gifted spiritualist, Ivy has since lost her second sight and her way, and now resorts to stringing along needy, paying local clients with tarot readings and deferred messages from the dead. Teen goth Echo has an easy, loving relationship with her mother, and has grown up surrounded by the tools of her trade. Yet what neither foresees is Echo’s sudden, semi-accidental death after she is hit by the car of Kurt Miller (John Adams), an outsider who is refurbishing the abandoned house up the road to sell on. Yet even after Kurt has buried the evidence, Echo keeps resurfacing to haunt her killer and be reunited with her mother.    

The opening credits of The Deeper You Dig refer to it as “An Adams Family Film”, which is as much a punning reference to the film’s traffic in the domestically macabre as an advertisement of its makers’ identities. For this strange, intimate ghost story is the fifth feature, following Rumble Strips (2013), Knuckle Jack (2013), The Shoot (2014), Halfway to Zen (2016), to have been co-written and co-directed by husband and wife team John Adams and Toby Poser, and to have starred themselves and their family. Equally important here, though, is that division of labour between a male and female filmmaker. For much as Echo’s favourite tarot card is the High Priestess who expressly mediates no less between male and female than between the living and the dead, gender here is something that, like the empty house near the Allens’ home, can be flipped and fixed, with brooding, hypermasculine Kurt having to dig deeper into both snowy earth and his own feminine side. Soon, in a Stir of Echo(es), the 14-year-old revenant will take partial possession of Kurt’s mind and body as well as of his temporary home, engendering in him an internal battle of the sexes.

As Kurt struggles to renovate a house still reverberating with an act of male violence against a woman, The Deeper You Dig has as its nearest neighbour Travis Stevens’ Girl on the Third Floor (2019), even if they were made in complete isolation from each other. Certainly both films use genre elements to expose a model of masculinity held back by its own past and in major need of reconstruction. Adams and Poser’s film plays out for the most part as lived-in winterbound realism, but with wild excursions into the stylised and the irrational as both Ivy and Echo, from their now different realities, circle Kurt like supernatural hunters. It is all at once a portrait of grief’s persistence (Ivy’s very name encodes tenacity) and a celebration of a love between mother and daughter that goes beyond the grave – and beyond the fourth wall, given that Ivy and Echo are played by actual mother and daughter. Through the film, co-director John Adams also finds a way to get closer to his own daughter, Zelda, as their characters hang out (after a fashion), their identities blur and their lines reecho through the veil between reality and fantasy. As the conventional rôles of family – mother, father, child – are redistributed and reintegrated in unexpected ways, the results are moody and melancholic, but also, the deeper you are willing to dig, the more unsettlingly transgressive.

© Anton Bitel