Written and Directed by: Adam Green
Starring: Ray Wise, Adam Green, and Will Barrett
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"In every society, there are the deviants, the ones who are pure evil..."
Digging Up the Marrow is Adam Green’s entry into the found footage arena, and his commitment to the aesthetic is weirdly strident and relaxed all at once. His mockumentary approach is initially rather convincing: without knowing anything at all about the film, it’s easy to mistake it as an actual documentary on monsters, as it opens with various talking heads (everyone from Lloyd Kaufman to Dread Central’s Steve Barton pops up) offering their thoughts on creatures and our fascination with them. However, as it wears on, Digging Up the Marrow becomes less about this and more about slotting itself as the latest bump-in-the-night thriller, albeit one that’s carefully and skillfully crafted.
Before heading down that path, Green continues to give the impression he’s filming a documentary for his production company with a rather self-aggrandizing bit where he rifles through some fan mail. One letter in particular catches his eye, as its writer—former Boston detective Thomas Dekker (Ray Wise)—claims to have confirmed the existence of actual monsters. According to Dekker, they are merely deformed children who disappear into an underground world to form communities, and he has glimpsed into this largely unseen land. Intrigued, Green takes it upon himself to track down Dekker and investigate his claims for the documentary, and the task begins to consume him both professionally or personally. This is one project that could very well kill him.
Only it obviously won’t, right? Not with Green obviously having survived to do promotion for the film and with his casting Ray Wise (who is as intense and scary as any actual monster the film features), a move that curiously destroys any illusion about the film’s supposed veracity. You almost wonder if this this isn’t intentional, though, as Digging Up the Marrow is rather playful about itself and its director. There’s an inside baseball dimension to it that separates it from other, similar films, which provides Green a platform from which to make some wry commentary on the genre itself. When he’s not investigating alongside Dekker, he’s in his editing bay or on the horror convention circuit, where fellow luminaries prod him about his work. For example, Kane Hodder can’t believe he’s actually filming a found footage movie because it’s so overdone, while Tom Holland is flabbergasted that he’s even entertaining Dekker’s story.
While this stuff will be especially fun for genre fans, it doesn’t exactly illuminate or provide any especially deep insight on either the found footage approach or the subject matter. More than anything, pulling back the curtain reveals Green’s true motivations: as a grown-up Monster Kid who went on to parlay his obsession into a career, he very much wants to believe Dekker’s claims that these creatures exist. Imagine if someone told you the plot of Nightbreed were real: surely, you’d be pretty desperate to believe it, right? Green at least hopes you would, as a chunk of his film is dedicated to the tension that mounts between him, his co-workers, and his family as he digs deeper into Dekker’s increasingly outlandish and contradictory stories.
This tension—which especially escalates between Green and producer/cinematographer Will Barrett—consumes much of the proceedings. If it feels like I haven’t discussed Digging Up the Marrow as a horror movie very much, it’s because it’s very withholding. Rather than work to subvert this particular sub-genre, Green very much works within it: this a slow burn where the rabbit hole doesn’t spew forth its horrors with any regularity, nor is it in any particular hurry to do. In fact, exactly one overt scare carries the entire first hour or so, and it’s a pretty standard jolt that occurs when Decker and Green explore the local cemetery that supposedly acts as an entry point into the monstrous necropolis lurking beneath the earth. You know the scene: some low-lit, spooky woods produce weird sounds off in the distance while the two argue over the situation. Suddenly, the intense, breathless quiet is interrupted by a monstrous face leaping into the frame. It’s Chair-Jumper Cinema 101.
Green further follows the syllabus to the letter with typical found footage tricks. He mounts cameras in the cemetery, which yields some subtle, disquieting footage to hold viewers over until the loud, more explicit climax finally reveals what Green and his audience have been waiting for. Technically, the approach feels more or less correct, though it puts Digging Up the Marrow at odds with itself in some ways. Credited to both writer/director green and the imagination and artwork of Alex Pardee, it certainly features plenty of the former while it somewhat tables the latter. Those creatures we do see are fantastic and otherworldly beings brought to life with some impressive (and totally believable) effects work, but one sometimes wonders if this is the right approach to take considering how imaginative and cool these designs are. Forget believing these things are “real”: you’re left wishing you could just see them a lot more outside of one climactic burst (after which Green retreats to a predictably obscure, mysterious coda that further obscures the monsters).
But, on the other hand, you’re inclined to commend Green for stepping outside of his own comfort zone. Primarily known as the gore-maven who introduced the hyper-violent Hatchet franchise to the world, Green is much more restrained here than usual. Digging Up the Marrow is the work of the same mindset that gave us Spiral and Frozen, though it’s arguable even more reserved than either of those films. To wit, his best, most unnerving scare here operates completely in the background without anyone calling attention to it. Seeing a filmmaker branch out like this is encouraging, even if it is in the service of something that’s otherwise so familiar and well-worn. To his credit, Green has at least taken heed of those that preceded him on the path and dutifully retraces their steps while tossing in his own diversions, however brief they may be.
Apparently, Digging Up the Marrow has been quite the labor of love for its director, who has been toiling away on it for over four years. After debuting at the 2013 edition of Harry Knowles’s annual Butt-Numb-a-Thon, the film didn’t reemerge until last August at the Film 4 Fright Fest in London, where it was quickly announced that Image Entertainment would handle U.S. distribution. The fruits of these labors have finally revealed themselves on DVD, where Image has put together a solid package to complement a fine presentation. Given the film’s low-budget nature, its transfer is more than adequate but hardly reference quality, though the 5.1 surround track is wonderfully immersive and adds to the film’s creepy ambiance. A commentary with Green, Pardee, Wise, and Barrett headlines the supplements, which also includes about 25 minutes of deleted and extended scenes (introduced by Green), a trailer, and “Monsters of the Marrow,” a thirty minute tour through the film’s production, from its conception to its creature designs.
The latter will especially be of interest to those left wanting for better glimpses of the monsters within the actual movie, which understandably remains a bit of a sore point. Digging Up the Marrow is odd because Green’s heart is in the right place two times over: he wants to celebrate how cool monsters can be, but he also knows it can’t exactly revel in them either. It’s an awkward position, but Green skirts around it just nimbly enough. Buy it!
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