Storytelling in a mumbled language of creepy crossed with goofy, Dig Two Graves is a film about death and the different ways we cope with it. It’s a gothic thriller often too serious to take seriously, but with enough of a spook factor that I’d hesitate showing it to any kids.
The aforementioned death we experience through the eyes of smoky old Sheriff Waterhouse (Ted Levine), his granddaughter—called Jake (Samantha Isler), a strange shortening of Jacqueline—and a trio of Romani brothers. “Romani” or “gypsies,” what do you think they’re called in the film? You’re right: Dig Two Graves is not delicate, nor does it attempt to mask its minimal budget or dorky influences. Instead, it crafts an atmosphere of dirty desperation interrupted by moments of serendipitous beauty (piercing the darkness of the story are some spectacular shots of rural winter in all of its unforgiving harshness).
The tale begins with two cops (Waterhouse and his partner) disposing of a body in a flooded quarry. Two decades later, Jake’s older brother dies there in an accident. Jake is forever changed, which the film helpfully reminds us by having her bash her head on a rock while running for help, leaving her with a grisly facial scar for the duration of the film. To add to the obviousness, every character’s vaguely southern accent glazes the already hamfisted dialogue, giving the proceedings the air of a mediocre Stephen King adaptation. That just-off Americana feels right, but so does the overblown family melodrama lurking inside the film’s ostensible spookiness. Plot is conveyed almost as brusquely and bluntly as the film’s sound mixing, in which each cigarette lit by wrinkly lawman Waterhouse bears the sonics of a flamethrower.
Levine is the star of this thing, his Sheriff an anthropomorphic puff of cigar smoke who reads Confucius and growls his lines like an old dog by the fireplace. And Dig Two Graves’ weirdness almost matches his energy. When Jake takes a wrong route home from school one day, she meets three creepy brothers who look like they wandered off a movie about Civil War zombies. All tattered leather, pale makeup, greasy devilishness and the ability to summon snakes at will, they offer Jake a deal: a life for a life. They can bring her brother back, but they want her to kill for them in return. These Appalachian warlocks take Jake to their bone-decorated cabin—a domestic scene replete with a topless slave sorceress in another inexplicably gross move that is a hallmark of some of the poorer editions of Tales from the Crypt. The premise is fun, but the way it’s handled slips past camp into something equal parts unsettling and dully offensive.
So what was all that about two cops dumping a body? Would you believe it was a corrupt cop’s love of rape that eventually caught up with him? The threads of this plot are lightly interlaced, bringing together the brothers, the Sheriff and Jake in a way that seems like it’s always being explained but never quite clears up. There are amusing reveals (the brothers want Jake to kill the insanely bullied classmate who has a crush on her) and plenty of aesthetic lessons learned from the slow-burn romanticized horror of predecessors like Hannibal (the TV show). The film contrasts its bleak natural setting with fiery hallucinations (i.e., the bloody field dressing of a deer) just as it snuffs its promising weirdness with a blank lead and lazy story. Samantha Isler isn’t a bad actress, she’s just wrong for the role, going way too small for a movie that has a magical amulet and a gypsy curse.
Dig Two Graves is a bizarre film that builds up strange-but-muddled imagery like better films build suspense, until it all collapses in on itself like a burning house. We should be breathlessly waiting to see if Jake kills to selfishly bring back her brother, but the film’s juggling far too many moonshine jars to focus. Yet, even with its sexist elements and tin-eared dialogue, Dig Two Graves has an uncanny appeal that can keep you up at night—if only chuckling, incredulous at how close you were to being taken in by its imperfect spell.
Director: Hunter Adams
Writer: Hunter Adams
Starring: Ted Levine, Samantha Isler, Danny Goldring, Ann Sonneville, Troy Ruptash
Release Date: March 24, 2017