John Adams, Toby Poser/ USA/ 2019/ 95 mins

At the time of writing, the film industry is reeling (no pun intended). The second biggest chain of cinemas in the world has announced that they are closing down all their screens in the UK and US for the foreseeable future. Who knows where the business will be when, or if, the dust finally settles, or some semblance of equilibrium is restored. What is already clear is that a model that relies on the success of a more clutch of tentpole releases is barely sustainable under normal circumstances. Something has to change. With that in mind, the incredible story of the ‘Adams Family’ and their micro-budget cottage industry may be diluted a little over the next few years as their approach becomes increasingly normal. In the meantime, let’s salute the feat of husband and wife team John Adams and Toby Poser in bringing this assured, idiosyncratic and eerie little ghost story to the screen for a mere $11,000.

Kurt (Adams) is an outsider in a small town in the Catskills renovating an old home to sell on. One night after a few two many beer ‘n shot combos at the local bar he runs over young Echo (Zelda Adams, daughter of the filmmakers), a vibrant and eccentric teenage girl who loves night-time sledding and crackly old vaudeville records. A tragic accident soon takes an even darker turn. The girl’s disappearance sparks the return of a genuine psychic gift in her mother, Ivy (Poser), who has been operating a cold-reading tarot business until the reappearance of her sixth sense. Meanwhile the mischievous spirit of Echo is living up to her name by tormenting the increasingly volatile Kurt as a particularly sarcastic¬† personification of a guilty conscience.

The Deeper You Dig is an old-fashioned morality fable at its core, but Adams and Poser (with Zelda credited as co-director) pepper the familiar ghostly narrative with more than enough of their unique sensibilities to make the film stand out for for more than its miniscule budget. Largely eschewing jump scares in favour of a chilly sense of dread – with a lot of help from the beautiful but frigid snow-scapes of upstate New York, the Adams punctuate their tale with bleak humour, occasional squelchy moments of gore, and a love of surreal set pieces. These come during Ivy’s search for the body of her daughter. There’s a dogged, backwoods, Marge Gunderson appeal, as the weather-beaten medium goes about her tragic business. These clash with the creative, psychedelic freak-outs of the rituals and visions she undergoes. The excellent Poser throws herself wholeheartedly into the madness.

Apart from these instances of wild experimentalism, the film is a largely subdued and muted affair as mother and daughter zero in corporeally and metaphysically on the luckless Kurt. Even with a much larger budget you assume that Adams and Poser would indulge the arthouse sensibilities they display here. While they undoubtedly set The Deeper You Dig distinctively apart from flashier, but more generic movies, there is a sustained and deliberate ambiguity that occasionally tips over into abstruseness. There are also times when an attempt to go for broke with the blood highlights the lack of budget, although you can’t fault Adams and Poser for either their ambition or faith in their own abilities. Zelda Adams also deserves credit for her puckish, sparky spectre. Used sparingly, but effectively, she is something of a modern update on Poe’s tell-tale heart, and a genuine delight whenever she is onscreen.

Whatever the future holds for cinema in general, it looks bright for the ‘Adams Family’. Given the quality of The Deeper You Dig and the attention it has received, it’s a fair assumption that they will be able to draw on a substantially higher pool of resources for their next picture. There is a fertile spring of underground talent that have been given the chance to shine thanks to the boom of digital video, and Adams and Poser join the likes of Anna Biller and Jeremy Gardner as multi-hyphenate talents to be reckoned with. While The Deeper You Dig may err on the side of melancholy and lacks that tiny extra pizazz that would make it genuinely scary instead of consistently creepy, it is a fine, economical little chiller, irrespective of its modest means.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 5 Oct 2020