You don’t need to believe in the paranormal to feel haunted. Ghosts, by and large, represent the restless, buried things in life, be they personal secrets like the spectral women of Crimson Peak, warning the new young bride lest she suffer the same fate, or larger, societal sins like the vengeful spirits of Poltergeist, raging at the new inhabitants of the houses built on their graves. Ghosts are secrets, shame, insecurity, trauma, and repressed desire. The best horror films use ghosts in this way, and, in the case of the hard-boiled new indie film, The Deeper You Dig, strike new ground and bring ghosts to the underexposed thriller genre.
The brainchild of the filmmaking couple, Halfway to Zen’s John Adams and Toby Poser, The Deeper You Dig uses its budgetary restrictions to their fullest, cooking down the story to a brutal game of hide-the-evidence with a minimal cast and few locations. John Adams also stars in the film as Kurt, a misanthropic recluse living next door to Ivy, the hustling tarot card reader and single mother played by Toby Poser. Ivy’s daughter, Echo, played by Adams and Poser’s teenage daughter, Zelda, also keeps things close to home. Shot around their family home in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the Adams family made their horror movie with a true indie mentality (there’s a joke in there about an Adams family making horror films, but I’m not clever enough to make it).
The plot kicks off when, during a late-night sledding session, Kurt kills Echo in a tragic auto accident. For fear of the police, Kurt decides to cover up the crime and live as though nothing happened. Ivy, however, gets suspicious and tries to learn more about her elusive neighbor and get closer to the truth, a pursuit made all the more complicated and tense by Echo’s return as a ghost set on tormenting Kurt for his crime.
A guy, a girl, and a ghost. In The Deeper You Dig, all three elements are given equal weight, creating a screaming tea kettle of a film about guilt, secrecy, and the inevitable ruin both can bring. Kurt believes he’s saving himself by covering up his crime, and instead condemns himself to a new kind of Hell in which his greatest sin refuses to leave him alone. Ivy, once a strong medium with an accessible connection to the great beyond now reduced to conning people with tarot cards, also has to face her own secrets in pursuit of the truth. The only one unburdened is Echo, aptly named for the way her voice continues to rattle around the film like Jacob Marley’s chains in A Christmas Carol.
In its simplicity, The Deeper You Dig unlocks multiple tributaries of narrative flow, giving equal weight to the wants and fears of all three of its main cast members as they work towards their respective goals. Echo longs to be seen and understood, Kurt longs for a clean slate, and Ivy longs to connect with her daughter. Even separated from the vicious crucible of the film’s plot, the characters’ goals remain the same. If Echo had never died, she would still crave the understanding of her mother, Kurt’s desire for a new life free of his sins would burn no less brightly, and Ivy, for all her supernatural sensitivity, would still feel like her daughter was just out of reach.
The performances are naturalistic and grounded in their simple reality, particularly Poser’s Ivy and Zelda Adams’ Echo. They’re as believable and relatable a mother and daughter as any other pairing in cinema, something as attributable to their skills as actors as to their actual being mother and daughter.
The cinematography, also the work of John and Zelda, treats the beatific landscape of the Catskills like a cruel parody. Every majestic tree is given looming, oppressive weight, the white snow more reminiscent of oblivion than a winter wonderland. The magic used to be here but is gone, leaving a film as gaunt and unsettling as an abandoned theme park.
A rare feat in modern horror, The Deeper You Dig strikes at the bedrock of what truly makes people afraid: vulnerability and the depths of depravity humans will crawl towards to avoid it. Its ghost wails and wisps even in the quietest moments, a dark Tell-Tale Heart and siren song beckoning the characters towards a shocking, brutal discovery of the unspeakable truth.