“Dig Two Graves” (2014): Gothic Chiller Serves Up First-Rate Storytelling and Superb Performances

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. – Confucius

To what lengths would a young girl go to see her deceased brother once again? How much trust would she place in the promises of strangers, even if those promises defy reason and the laws of nature? The excellent independent gothic thriller/horror effort Dig Two Graves delves into these questions and several more.

The film is set in two time periods, with most of the story taking place in 1977. This is not, however, the 1977 of disco vs. punk rock music, polyester leisure suits, and long lines to see Star Wars. Writer/director Hunter Adams sets his tale in a realistic-looking rural American small town with plenty of gorgeous – often bleakly so – natural scenery to counterbalance the characters’ homes that are in various states of disrepair. Scenes shown in flashback are set exactly 30 years earlier with equal attention to detail.

Dig Two Graves
Sheriff Waterhouse (Ted Levine) inspects a mysterious cabin.

Dig Two Graves opens in 1947 with Sheriff Proctor (Danny Goldring) and Deputy Waterhouse (Ted Levine) tossing two bodies over a precipice and into a body of water at a quarry. Waterhouse then pulls a pistol on Proctor and tells him that he is no longer sheriff of their town. Proctor tosses his badge into the water and walks away. In 1977, Jake Mather (Samantha Isler in an engaging performance) and her brother Sean (Ben Schneider) walk to that same ledge with the intent of Jake jumping off, though she is scared to do so. Sean offers to jump with her at the same time, but at the last moment as he jumps, she lets go and stays on the edge. Sean doesn’t resurface and Jake cuts her head open when she falls on a rock as she hurries home for help.

Although Sean’s body is not found, the family holds a funeral for him. Jake has a close bond with her grandfather, Waterhouse, who is now the town sheriff. He is an alcoholic who is sometimes brusque, but he is gentle and loving with his beloved granddaughter. He consoles her during her time of bereavement and helps her try to get back to feeling more normal.

Dig Two Graves
Samantha Isler gives a winning performance as Jake, a girl who witnessed her brother die in a tragic accident.

One day, Jake decides to ignore her father’s instructions to wait for him to pick her up from school. She takes a walk by herself and is confronted by three odd-looking, intimidating men who seem to know about her. The leader of the trio, Wyeth (Troy Ruptash), performs a frightening magic trick and then tells her that Sean “is not dead; he’s just hard to find.” She follows them to their eerie cabin – perhaps shack is more apt – filled with fur pelts and hides, hanging vermin, and furniture made from animal bones, lit by fire and shared with a topless woman who is a snake handler. Here the men make an offer to Jake to bring her brother back from the dead. All she has to do is perform one task . . .

What exactly led up to Waterhouse and Proctor hurling the bodies over the ledge? How are events that happened with 30 years between them connected? Through flashbacks, answers to those mysteries are eventually revealed in Dig Two Graves, and they involve the evils of man as well as the possibility of the supernatural.

Dig Two Graves
Ted Levine is outstanding as the troubled Sherriff Waterhouse.

Everything about Dig Two Graves works. Hunter Adams has crafted a gripping tale and fleshed out his characters fully. I became invested in them, their struggles with mourning and grief, and their attempts to suppress or confront tragedy. Ted Levine is a treat to watch as he inhabits his character of a grizzled lawman but loving patriarch who smothers his hardships with bottles, flasks, and cigars. Both he and Danny Goldring play middle-aged and elderly versions of their characters, and the make-up effects for the latter seem natural and are never distracting, thanks to the fine acting jobs by both men.

As good as those two seasoned actors are in  Dig Two Graves, especially Levine, the breakout performance by Samantha Isler in the complex role of Jake is a joy to behold. Jake goes through a gamut of emotions, and Isler nails each one. For example, she  scowls and puts on a brave mask as as she tries to not appear intimidated and unafraid of the three strangers, even as they  perform bizarre magic rituals or turn their requests into threats. Jake is strong enough to do almost anything to bring her brother back but, at the same time, vulnerable enough to believe almost anything if it might bring him back. Hers is a complex character to play, and Isler gives what I feel is a star-making turn in the role.

Dig Two Graves
Proctor (Danny Goldring), former sherriff, is haunted by his past.

At the center of everything is Hunter Adams’ strong, captivating  story. Splendidly crafted and pretty much flawlessly paced, the tale flows effortlessly even as it jumps between the different decades and peels back layers of information. Viewers will find recurring motifs throughout Dig Two Graves, but I will save those for you to discover rather than discussing them here.

Eric Maddison’s cinematography is engaging and sometimes deceptively simple. He makes the quarry and surrounding woods feel almost like a character unto themselves, and he shows off striking underwater shots, as well. Scott D. Hanson  certainly deserves mention for his skillful editing. The score by Brian Deming, Ryan Kattner, and Joseph Plummer subtly heightens the tension and perfectly sets different  moods throughout.

Dig Two Graves
This snake charmer is only one of the bizarre characters who  Jake encounters.

You should note that Dig Two Graves is not outright horror; it is, as I mentioned earlier, a Gothic thriller; however, its tension and supernatural overtones place it firmly  in fright fare territory. It is a coming-of-age tale, too, and it has plenty of what I consider to be one of the most important elements in smaller films: heart. I’m confident that it will win over many genre fans. If you are in the mood for something decidedly unique, put this film high on your need-to-see list. It may be a bit difficult to find but it is well worth seeking out, and it certainly deserves a wide audience.

Dig Two Graves: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.