The Deeper You Dig. 2020.
Directed & Written by John Adams & Toby Poser.
Starring John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams, Shawn Wilson, & Joan Poser.
Wonder Wheel Productions
Not Rated / 92 minutes.
Drama / Horror
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains major spoilers.
All hope abandon ye who enter here!
I can safely say there are very few films out there like The Deeper You Dig— an exercise in DIY family film making, the small, effective team consisting of a father, mother, and daughter: John Adams, Toby Poser, and their daughter Zelda. Although the film’s budget is quite modest compared to others it’s screened with at festivals from Fantasia Festival to Fantastic Fest, its effectiveness has nothing to do with any monetary amount and everything to do with atmosphere, story, and the heavy themes that prop it all up.
Adams and Poser’s screenplay tells the tale of a small town family— a mother, Ivy, and her daughter, Echo— whose normal, content lives are shattered by a brief yet fatal encounter with a stranger called Kurt. When Echo goes missing, her mother assumes the worst, as if she can feel the loss of her daughter from the earthly plane. Ivy tries to reach across to the realm of death in search of closure. Meanwhile, her neighbour Kurt is harbouring debilitating guilt over what happened to Echo and he’s quickly falling apart.
The Deeper You Dig touches on the thin veil between life and death, showing us how fast a single moment can change our lives forever. The film goes deeper beneath the surface of that fleeting view of life, digging into the surreal effects of guilt and taking responsibility for one’s own immorality. An interesting quality of the screenplay is how it represents elements of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory about the grotesque body, depicting how the murder of a young girl transforms her killer’s body and mind, and showing how death, through all its gruesomeness, can somehow lead to new life, for better or worse.
The fatal meeting of Kurt and Echo on a dark road epitomises the fleeting quality of life. At any time life can end, and in the saddest ways. The fragility of human life exposes a thin veil between the world of the living and death, and, apart from being a sliver of the story, we see this represented in Ivy’s use of Tarot. During one scene where Ivy’s reading cards for Kurt, The High Priestess card gets pulled. The High Priestess symbolises, among other things, the thin veil separating life from death.
Another piece of imagery that speaks to this thin veil is the deer, because of the scene when Kurt runs Echo over— before she’s hit there’s a flash of a deer in the road. More than this, the deer is a mystic symbol of regeneration due to how it sheds its antlers in winter and then grows them back come springtime. There are numerous instances where the deer’s image pops up throughout the course of the film, like the aforementioned moment when Kurt sees a deer in the road. Or, when Echo has a deer on her wall, or when she’s seen drawing a picture of a deer. It’s the final glimpse of a deer, a doe to be exact (female deer), when Ivy sees one in the woods that signals Echo’s spiritual rebirth, or her figurative regeneration, which I’ll come back to again later.
Although the film creates its own kind of spiritual mythology, specifically in the scene where Ivy enters the Seven Circles, this wonderfully strange occult ritual relates its Seven Circles to the Seventh Circle in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno from his 14th-century epic poem, the Divine Comedy. The Seventh Circle in Inferno is the level of Hell in which Dante and Virgil find the Violent, divided into three rings. One of those rings is for those who’ve done violence against their neighbours, just like how Kurt has done violence to Echo, one of his neighbours in that little town. The Deeper You Dig retains its own occultism while drawing off classical sources in the screenplay’s depiction of the afterlife, or, rather, whatever is beyond this plane of existence. This connection to Dante’s vision of Hell as one that has different strata further connects with Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque, itself involving the upper and lower strata of the body.
“That’s the deepest you can dig?”
Guilt and taking responsibility for one’s transgressions are an overall thematic concern in The Deeper You Dig, explored through Kurt and Ivy. Poor mom gets an ironic, karmic dose of pain as she owns up to the responsibility for leeching economically off the pain of grieving people, encompassed in the disappearance/death of her daughter. Ivy’s vision of herself as a decaying clown is an important piece of imagery. It’s both a recognition of her mistakes— (i.e.) she sees herself as clownish for her deceptive psychic business now that she has a dead loved one of her own whom she desperately wants to contact— and likewise an image that brings to mind another Bakhtinian concept: the carnival. For Bakhtin, the clown was a rogue and fool, moving between the rogue’s playful deception (how Ivy sees her treatment of those she’s ripped off) and the fool’s stupidity (perhaps a reflection of how Ivy views herself for not yet being able to figure out what happened to her daughter). Kurt receives a return of bad karma for what he did to Echo, and his guilt’s expressed in similar surreal ways as Ivy’s reckoning with responsibility.
The surrealism of guilt strikes Kurt in a variety of ways. He hears music Echo enjoyed listening to— a version of “Ain’t We Got Fun“— pouring from the speaker of an antique radio. He later sings it to himself. His night sweats are akin to being underneath an open sky and getting rained on in bed. Kurt’s psychological headspace begins to mirror the physical architecture of the house he’s renovating, the renovation itself symbolic of a past being covered up like the crime he buried. A house’s natural groans are now the stirrings of the dead, the restlessness of Echo’s ghost. And the lower in the house Kurt goes the more terrifying his nightmarish, surreal experience gets with horrific vision of Echo. Again, I connect this concept of Kurt’s psychological architecture with Bakhtin’s ideas about the grotesque body.
Without boring any readers too much, Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque body involves the upper and lower levels of the body. In particular, the parts of the body we can consider liminal, in that they represent points of the body where the outside/inside meet— the body is usually considered pure, often referred to as a temple, whereas the outside world is dirty or tainted, so these liminal parts of the body are used as exaggerations of the grotesque. Those liminal parts of the body are the ears, nose, mouth, anus, urethra: locations where things exit the body, but where they also can enter. The mouth eventually connects through the body to the anus, meaning that what one swallows through the upper stratum of the body will eventually reach the lower stratum. So, though the mouth is part of the upper stratum, the act of swallowing is a “most ancient symbol of death and destruction” (think Leviathan), and it’s “the open gate leading downward into the bodily underworld.” Similarly, the mouth’s link to the body’s lower stratum, and the lower stratum of the body being synonymous with reproductive processes just as much as with defecation, is summed up in another image of swallowing: Ouroboros, symbolic of the life, death, rebirth cycle, which comes to bear on the grotesque body’s presence in the film.
Exactly how does Bakhtin’s grotesque body figure into The Deeper You Dig?
Well, eating food, pissing, and vomit are part of it, each connected to death. The other part is how Kurt becomes Echo in a figurative rebirth. First off, we witness Kurt eating in two crucial scenes: once before he kills Echo, and once afterwards. Later, he vomits up blood and maggots, as if his body’s experiencing the physical effects of death that Echo’s corpse is experiencing buried in the dirt. The most telling moment of Echo living through Kurt, birthed anew, is when he goes to the bathroom at Ivy’s house and sits down to pee— he even goes back to put the toilet seat up, purposefully playing into traditional gender role expectations because he can feel himself becoming somebody else, a young girl no less. This urination scene is key to the Bakhtinian connection, illustrating that Kurt becoming Echo is a spiritual rebirth by way of the grotesque body.
Echo’s reborn as a ghost through Kurt to offer her mother closure as he becomes a vessel for Echo’s spirit, and to punish his violent transgression. This returns us to the High Priestess card from the Tarot deck, symbolic of, among other elements, duality and the binary between male-female. Bakhtin writes that the grotesque body is “a body in the act of becoming … never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body” and that “grotesque imagery constructs what we might call a double body.” This statement seems to parallel Kurt’s restoration of the house which in turn mirrors Echo being spiritually rebuilt through his own physical body. Even after Ivy’s violent showdown with Kurt she keeps him around to act out the everyday rituals— such as hot chocolate with marshmallows at the table— the mother-daughter duo once performed together when Echo was alive. Kurt’s surreal guilty nightmare represents the negatives of the grotesque body, signalling death and decay, while the grotesque’s positive aspects are embodied in Echo’s ghostly rebirth through him, resulting in an eerie, bittersweet ending for Ivy.
“Every end has a new beginning;
at least that’s what they say to make you feel better.”
The Deeper You Dig, without all this lengthy dive into theory, is an inventive, emotional, and genuinely unsettling piece of work. There are films with budgets 20 times as big that can’t carry the weight this one does on their best day. It’s a testament to the heart behind this family of filmmakers and how well they’be brought their unique brand of horror to the big screen. There are already plenty of people singing this film’s praises, including Freddy Krueger himself.
And it deserves every single word.
Underneath the surface this film gets at heavy issues, channelled through the pain of a grieving mother seeking to unlock the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance. Bakhtin’s grotesque body fits perfectly with how Kurt experiences surreal guilt, as well as leads us to the spiritual rebirth of Echo through Kurt, and this idea of figurative regeneration returns to its roots in the deer’s recurring image. The Deeper You Dig depicts the existential struggle of life, death, and rebirth in the aftermath of violent crime. Ivy’s experience can be taken as an allegory for the experience of real people whose loved ones disappear or get murdered. She has to all but relive what happened to her daughter, then finds the spirit of her daughter lives on in the same man who took her daughter’s life. Ivy’s grieving process is like that of someone who needs to know what happened to a victim in order to find full closure, often resulting in their loved one’s memory forever being intertwined with the person who victimised them. A bittersweet journey, indeed, just as it is when Ivy sits across from a bloody Kurt and hears her daughter’s voice come out of his mouth.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Indiana University Press, 1984.