Soft For Digging

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SOFT FOR DIGGING

7/10

USA 2001 : J T Petty : 77 mins

A blackly comic, bracingly experimental no-budget horror film, Soft For Digging was filmed at roughly the same time as The Blair Witch Project in another corner of the same Maryland forests. But while Blair Witch relied on endless chatter to propel its plot, Soft For Digging is virtually wordless, with only three brief bursts of dialogue. Writer-director Petty instead harks back to silent movies and literary forebears by dividing his narrative into discrete sections: ‘Chapter I: In which we are introduced to Virgil Manoven; His very bad cat runs off.’

Manoven (Edmond Mercier) is a seventysomething recluse minding his own business in his remote rural farmhouse (he’s a close cousin of the crotchety hermits that populate Cormac McCarthy’s novels like The Orchard Keeper.) Chasing his errant cat one morning into the woods around his property, Manoven glimpses what looks like the murder of a young child. He reports the matter to the police but (a la Blow-Up) there’s no body to be found. Troubled by disturbing dreams, he investigates further and eventually is ‘guided’ to a spooky orphanage where events take a supernatural turn.

Petty works wonders on a reported budget of $6,000: eschewing the horror genre’s usual excesses, he patiently and precisely constructs a deadpan fable that juxtaposes the humdrum and the nightmarish. This is a refreshingly bare-bones kind of storytelling, deploying pictures and sounds (a squeaky toy, a boiling kettle, Manoven’s flatulence) to parcel out just enough character and plot information at each stage. Barely 21 when he made the film, Petty shows an especially precocious understanding of the rhythms of old age – on one level, the film can be interpreted as a visualisation of Manoven’s decline into senility. But there are many possible readings of this elliptical, tantalisingly ambiguous miniature: an impressive calling-card from an audacious, innovative film-maker.

30th September 2002 (seen on video, 25th February, and in cinema 13th April, Melkweg, Amsterdam : 18thFantastic Film Festival)

click here for an exclusive in-depth interview with J T Petty on Soft For Digging

by Neil Young
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