Soft for Digging (1998) is a real under the radar film. I read about it a few years ago when it was making the festival rounds and getting some lukewarm but positive praise. What I read always stuck with me and it became one of those films I kept an eye out for but half expected I may never see. But, hey, even the tiniest of the tiny can get some life on DVD, and you can now add Soft for Digging to that list.
J.T. Petty wrote, directed, and co-edited the film which was his NYU thesis project. Largely silent with only a handful of dialogue lines (most occurring late in the film), the film is split into chapters, the first reading, "CHAPTER 1: In which we are introduced to Virgil Manover: his very bad cat runs off."
Virgil Manover is an isolated loner, getting on in years, living in a mountain shack, his only visitor being a wary paperboy. One day, while out in the woods looking for his cat, he observes a little girl and a young man in a black trenchcoat carrying something wrapped in a white blanket into the woods. He follows them from a distance and witnesses the girl being strangled by the young man. Virgil runs into the woods.
Virgil goes to the police, and search parties begin to scour the forest but nothing turns up. The cops and community look at Virgil as a backwoods introvert, already weird, possibly senile, and probably drunk. Only Virgil knows what happened and thanks to some increasingly vivid nightmares of the dead girl, the woods, being buried in the earth, and a run down asylum/ school, Virgil cannot forget what he saw. He becomes compelled to find the girl's murderer, but the mystery and the results of uncovering it are stranger than one might expect.
That first chapter sums up the minimal style of the film. Virgil wakes up, pulls a robe on over his longjohns, boils some eggs and makes some coffee, opens the door to get the paper, his cat runs out, and then he grabs a cup of coffee and a squeeze toy and walks out into the woods trying to lure his cat back. It is very, very minimal, in every sense.
Largely shot in the Appalachian Mountains in rural Virginia, Soft for Digging is an interesting amateur exercise in muted horror. It draws on bits reminscent of Evil Dead and The Exorcist, but it definitely hits the beats and seems more inspired by silent film making. The storytelling is resourceful, managing to convey humor in the title cards and Virgil's facial expressions, creeps in some nightmarish imagery, and reveals the mysterious details in clever ways. The style keeps it from being a roller coaster ride, but as a first timer feature, Soft for Digging is an interesting indie.
The DVD: Vanguard
Picture: Full-screen. It pretty much looks like you'd think a student film made for $6,000 dollars would look like. Shot under the icy tones of a Fall/Winter sky, there isn't much in terms of color details, though fittingly so, as the cold appearance adds to the mood of the film. The 16mm stock is pretty rough and spotty, and the format lends itself to higher grain levels. Still, aside from some minor pixelation, technical quibbles are minor and the transfer does a decent enough job with the rough sourced material. Just don't expect visual wonders; the quality is such that it could be mistaken for a thirty year old student film.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. I had and good laugh and I double checked the back of the DVD case to make sure that was, indeed, a 5.1 track. Sure, it isn't all dead air, but with only four or five lines of dialogue, simple scoring, and some disorienting horror ambient fx, in the end, it is extremely straightforward in its audio presentation. It is nice they went the extra mile, but really a simple 2.0 stereo track wouldn't sound much different.
Extras: Audio Commentary by J.T. Petty and his cinematographer and producer. Pretty much the standard indie film making anecdotes about the hurdles of low budget film making. Unfortunately bad audio recording hampers the commentary; it is very noisy, echo drenched, and distorted. Petty also continues talking after the film has ended, resulting in a truncated anecdote.
Conclusion: The style definitely won't be appealing to commercial film fans, but those interested in an indie horror feature in the Blair Witch vein (but in my opinion, much better) will find a rewarding little chiller.