J.T. Petty's Soft for Digging is perhaps the best truly independent horror film that I've seen in a very, very long time. It's a film that sometimes lingers in the grey area of familiarity, but still manages to not only possess its own unique voice, but also to almost completely defy description. It's a film that will frighten you...not with "boo" scares, but with sheer force of will. It's a film that will haunt you...not simply with outright spooky content, but with its total, masterful, omnipresent sense of dread. Soft for Digging is one of those films that will be, with time, discussed, pontificated over, revered, and even loved, much in the way that Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) is discussed, pontificated over, revered, and loved. While this all might sound like overwrought hyperbole, let me tell you people...this is destined to become one of those films. Soft for Digging has been labelled a "silent film" and an "art" film...those things might be true. But, as you'll find by reading my review, if it's those things, then it is also, above and beyond all else, a horror film, and a very frightening and effective one at that.
An old man named Virgil (Edmond Mercier), who lives a nearly hermetic existence in a cabin in the woods, ventures out into the deep woods one morning to find his very naughty cat, who escaped earlier that morning. He doesn't find the cat, but he does witness something very, very horrible...the act of a little girl (Sarah Ingerson) getting strangled by an unidentified man in a green workman's jumpsuit (Andrew Hewitt). Terrified, shocked, and more than a little confused, Virgil runs back to his house and phones the police. Upon summoning the entire township to search for the unnamed and mysterious little girl and her evasive killer, the search party comes up with nothing...absolutely nothing...no trace that any crime has been committed at all. Even more confused and concerned than before, Virgil returns to his cabin and eventually, to his normal day-to-day life. But, the his memories of what he saw, or thinks he saw that day in the woods come back to "haunt" his dreams and his waking life as well. Slowly, Virgil decides to try to solve the mystery himself. What he finds is strange and terrifying, and utterly unexpected.
There's only so much that can be said about the plot of Soft for Digging without ruining the surprises. This is a film about isolation and loneliness, and it is structured to give you only what it wants to give you at any particular moment...it's a big, constant "build up". For some, the lack of a traditional "slam-bang" pay off after the slow burn of the first 9/10ths of the film may be disappointing. Indeed, the climax of the film is almost an anti-climax, but it does wrap up the story nicely. Whatever. Come to your own decisions about the final act. Suffice it to say that the story goes full circle, and ends almost as it begins.
Stylistically, Soft for Digging is efficient and inventive, and it stands as total proof that one doesn't require extensive exposition or dialogue in order to establish a character. In fact, Soft for Digging contains, at best, four lines of dialogue, and only one word is actually spoken by our protagonist Virgil. It's a big moment...and it's superbly creepy when that single word is said. I won't tell you the word, but it's so fitting and delivered with such matter-of-factness that it just lingers or reverberates there for a few seconds...almost as if Virgil can't believe he's said it himself. This lack of spoken dialogue is not to say that Soft for Digging is a "silent" film...it's not. It does have title cards at key points in the story, but let me stress one thing: sound plays an unbelievably important role in this film. As far as I can surmise, the stylistic decision to eliminate dialogue from the film only emphasizes the sounds that you hear, from the percolating of coffee, to the purring of the cat, to the crunch of Autumn leaves, to Virgil's panicked, labored breathing as he flees through the woods...every sound is highlighted and almost amplified. It's an eerie effect, and it adds immeasurably to the overall tone and effectiveness of the film.
Comparisons have been...and will continue to be...made between Soft for Digging and David Lynch's early works, most notably Eraserhead. There are stylistic similarities, to be sure, and at least one undercurrent theme...that of loneliness...is shared. Any further comparison would be unfair to both films, I think. Soft for Digging is a wholly unique, completely absorbing, and nerve-wrackingly eerie film that digs into your mind and just latches on. Plus, it's "art", so it's good for your brain! The almost total lack of gore/blood will likely disappoint the gorehounds out there, but this is one of those films that demonstrates how, sometimes, extreme horror doesn't always mean hatchets slamming into people's chests and whatnot. Sometimes, extreme horror comes from the realization that you're growing old...that you no longer have a place in the world...that everything, including the woods around you, is closing in. Now that's scary...
The screener DVD I'm reviewing here is quite nice, and it contains a gorgeous full-frame transfer, with only the expected amount of grain and dirt for this kind of production. There are a surprising number of extras to be had here, including a great commentary track with Petty (and others), where he discusses in great detail the no-doubt arduous process of putting this labor of love on film. Plus, there is a delightful "easter egg" as well...if you find it, you'll be glad you took the time to do so. All told, this is an excellent presentation for an exquisitely beautiful, creepy, and memorable film. Soft for Digging is proof-positive that "extreme horror" has many faces. Seek it out. You'll be glad you did! Highest possible recommendation!
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