Our parents gave all of us some version of the “don’t talk to strangers” speech. This should go double, maybe triple, when a gyspy moonshiner in a top hat wants you follow him into the woods with his two brothers, one who looks like a caveman in overalls and another wearing a deer skin like a hillbilly shawl. Nothing good comes from making that choice. Then again, if the protagonist of Dig Two Graves made the smart decision, we wouldn’t have much of a movie.
Taking its title from the well known Confucius saying that when embarking on a quest for revenge, one must dig two graves, Dig Two Graves plays like a dark backwoods fable, like an American gothic fairy tale. Haunted by the death of her brother, young Jake Mather (Samantha Isler, Captain Fantastic) navigates life, death, revenge, and generational blood feuds. Because no seemingly idyllic small town is ever as idyllic as it seems, there’s corruption, greed, and snake handling, and when the aforementioned trio of siblings offer Jake an impossible bargain to bring back her brother, she must consider the true price.
Making his feature debut, writer/director Hunter Adams unfurls the dark past of the town and the sins of Jake’s own family, chiefly her drunk sheriff grandfather (Ted Levine, Silence of the Lambs), through flashbacks. Though a few narrative questions linger at the end, the reveals, deftly stitched into the fabric of the film with slick match cuts, gives the measured pace a compelling forward pressure, doling out just enough information and mystery to keep the audience on the hook.
Dig Two Graves admittedly leans way too heavily on a slew of horror tropes. Swelling, cacophonous music juxtaposed with muted, watery silences; canted frames and low angles for days; snakes, carnival folk, and magicians; perfectly timed lightning; and the camera ominously drawing back to create a voyeuristic effect all practically scream “I am setting the mood now.”
Though these are well-worn tricks of the trade, by and large, they work fairly well. Dig Two Graves carries an unsettling, vaguely hallucinatory vibe, like it’s all a bad dream from which Jake is about to wake. These are all oft-played cards because, when used right, they’re quite effective, and, especially coupled with the 1977 setting, there’s a nice throwback horror feel. I mean hell, what about hillbilly gypsy moonshiners doesn’t scream to be the back end of a drive-in double feature?
Point of view issues pop up from time to time throughout Dig Two Graves. It’s most compelling when the narrative keeps close to Jake. Samantha Isler paints a quiet picture of a girl coping with grief, the loss of innocence, and trying to figure out why the hell this backwoods troupe of failed magicians talks to her in the first place. It’s her story and the film truly belongs to her, so when the focus jumps away, it never quite fits, like a jacket that’s just a size off.
When the perspective bounces to the grandfather, it’s less jarring than other instances. Ted Levine tends to crank things into overwrought territory from when the mood hits, but it’s his thread that shines the past, and he and Jake have such a strong central bond it’s easy to get past the bumpiness. It’s when Dig Two Graves makes ill-advised leaps to other POVs where more serious problems arise. A thread with Jake’s mother (Kara Zediker) is unnecessary and never develops into anything, and a late-in-the-game shift to the former sheriff (Danny Goldring, The Dark Knight) awkwardly shoehorns in chunks of exposition.
Despite unevenness—I get that with low-budget features you must to work with what you have—Dig Two Graves is a solid horror joint full of atmospheric tension and enough peculiarities to set it apart. It never gets as full-on crazy as it could—more snake-handling voodoo rituals please—there are creeps and creaks and more than enough to warrant a horror fan’s attention. And if Hunter Adams wants to keep making horror movies, I’m down to keep watching. [Grade: B-]