MAY 14, 2011
As a fan of JT Petty's The Burrowers and (most of) Mimic 3, I was excited to see his debut film Soft For Digging pop up on Netflix Instant (it's possibly been there for a while; I swear half of the horror titles that are available don't actually show up in the horror section, only as "related titles"). Even when my buddy Rob G told me he didn't think it was really horror, I was still interested in seeing it - if anything I'm even more excited to see non-horror fare from an interesting filmmaker who I only know from their horror work (i.e. Elvis from John Carpenter, which I STILL haven't seen because it's too damn long for me to find the time for).
But I disagree with Rob, it definitely fits into the horror genre. It's not out and out scary or anything, but the movie basically boils down to a tale of some sort of supernatural possession, complete with a little girl in demon makeup freaking out on camera (aided by some alt-editing techniques and the like - this movie is VERY much an artsy student film). And whether it was intentional or not, the movie's near total lack of dialogue actually got kind of creepy (for the first hour or so, the only word in the film is "Murder!"), and some of the film's events were kind of spooky as well, such as when the old man discovered a buried body in the woods near his house.
Back to the no dialogue thing, it's actually kind of funny how they work around it sometimes. At one point a phone rings, and I thought "a-ha! Surely there will be dialogue here!", but then they cut to an angle outside and let his facial expressions more or less tell you what is being said. And since a good chunk of the first half of the movie deals with the police investigating his claims about the murder he saw and later the corpse he found, it's quite a marvel that Petty was able to get all of this stuff across without dialogue, and it never gets confusing. However, he does use "Chapter" title cards that sort of provide the jist of what the next 7 or 8 minutes will be about, which sometimes spoil things (the last one in particular) but at least help give us an idea of where the story is about to go.
Interestingly, I had the wrong idea of what the movie was about for a good chunk of its running time. The old man sees a young guy killing a girl, and no one else saw anything nor can any evidence be uncovered. Later, someone drops off an envelope with information about an orphanage a few towns over, and the guy travels there to look around. It seems abandoned at first, and yet there are these quick flashes of the place in a different, livelier time, as if he was remembering having been there before. So I started thinking that he was actually the murderer and had either repressed the memory or suffered a psychotic break of some sort, and would ultimately come to realize that the murder had occurred at his own hands several years before (a theory someone else had on the IMDb, in fact). So it's kind of funny that the real answer turned out to be far more horror-based - Rob's "warning" actually sort of helped me be surprised by the outcome.
I was also impressed by Petty's restraint. I didn't know it was his student film until after I finished, but I certainly wasn't surprised; the 16mm image and aforementioned somewhat "artsy" tone reminded me of most of the stuff I saw during my own time at film school (which was around the same time, incidentally enough; the film has a 1998 copyright, that was the year I shot 8mm for the first time), albeit in feature length form. But there was nothing flashy or provocative about it - Petty was wise enough to do something a bit "small" and also do it right. I've seen too many student films that are way too focused on wowing the audience (or at least, their professors) with technical savvy or "hey look we got one of our actresses to appear topless", but Petty's focus seemed to be on getting a good performance from his lead actor and telling a story with minimal resources (and, again, dialogue). To me, that's a hell of a lot more interesting than a 15 minute short that has some cool sets or whatever, but doesn't make any goddamn sense and has a lot of pretentious voiceover.
I should note that the plot kicked off when the old man went to look for his cat, and it doesn't have a happy ending. As a cat owner, I really felt for the old guy - I freak out when one of my pals has decided to hide under the couch or something and prevents me from finding him right away (part of my OCD "requires" me to make visual confirmation that they are both in the house before I leave for work or whatever, and again as soon as I come back; if this takes more than 30 seconds I start to get upset). Thus, the ending really upset me, both in what happens and how abruptly it all goes down (and in turn how quickly the movie ends after that). I don't know how many friends I'd recommend the movie to anyway - it's slow and strange and requires a bit of thinking to understand, which sadly cancels out most of the folks I talk to in real life (except the ones that have already seen it) - but I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone who has lost a pet in the past, I dunno, decade.
Apparently the DVD has a commentary, so I am bummed that I watched it on Netflix, as I would really love to hear it. I have to assume that the process of making a feature length student film took a toll on Petty and his crew (hell, our 18 minute student short nearly killed us; I'm not lying when I say that my hair began turning noticeably gray while I edited it), so I'm sure the commentary is filled with great war stories. Maybe I'll pick it up at Amoeba or something if it's cheap. But either way, I am now fully sure I am a fan of Petty's, and I hope he gets another relatively big film like The Burrowers sooner rather than later.
What say you?