Adam Green, Alex Pardee, ArieScope Pictures, auteur theory, Chillerama, cinema, creature feature, Digging Up the Marrow, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, found-footage, found-footage films, Frozen, Hatchet, horror, horror films, indie horror film, interviews, mockumentary, Monsters, Movies, Nightbreed, practical effects, pseudo-documentary, Ray Wise, self-promotion, Will Barratt, William Dekker, writer-director-editor
As I stare forty years of living in the face, there are precious few holdovers from my childhood but there are still a few: I’m still terrified of spiders, I’m still fascinated by outer space and I still believe in monsters. Call it a life-long delusion, a long-held conviction or just plain bull-headedness but I staunchly refuse to believe that we puny humans really know all there is to know about this massive ball of rock and water that we live on (much less the billions of unexplored ones that blanket the cosmos). The oceans are mighty deep, the jungles are mighty thick and there are plenty of dark places to poke around in…if you think about it, we know as much about our world as any child does, which is, of course, not much.
Indie horror auteur Adam Green also believes in monsters and, like me, isn’t afraid to admit it. The difference, of course, is that this stuff is his bread-and-butter: as the head of ArieScope Pictures, creator of the Hatchet franchise (2006-2013) and horror-oriented TV show Holliston, as well as writer-director of the ‘stuck-on-a-ski-lift’ chiller Frozen (2010) and a segment in the rather odious Chillerama (2011) anthology, Green is one of the brightest stars in the modern horror constellation. With his newest film, Digging Up the Marrow (2014), Green fuses his life-long love of monsters and horror to a sturdy found-footage template and comes up with something along the lines of a low-key, indie, found-footage Nightbreed (1990). In the process, he illustrates the fact that true believers have known all along: monsters are real…and they don’t always have our best interests in mind.
Structurally, Digging Up the Marrow is similar to another indie horror film: writer-director J.T. Petty’s S&man (2006). Like S&man, Green’s film begins as a mockumentary, with the writer-director going around various fan conventions and interviewing genre luminaries like Lloyd Kaufman, Tony Todd, Mick Garris and the like. On the surface, the subject is monsters but the early part of the film is actually all about Green and his film company, ArieScope Pictures. In an exceptionally clever bit of cross-promotion, Green and his associates play themselves in the picture and we get plenty of behind-the-scenes peeks into films like Hatchet (2006): it works within the structure of the film but it also serves as a neat little bit of fan service, a two-for-one that speaks volumes to the way Green approaches the subject (and his films, in general).
As Green discusses the various monster-related things that fans and peers send him, all while accompanied by erstwhile cameraman Will Barratt, we finally get to the “fiction” at the heart of the “fact.” In the midst of all the documentary footage and interviews, Green discusses one particular person, William Dekker (Ray Wise), who claims to have actual evidence of real monsters. Dropping everything, Green and Barratt head out to go see Dekker and prove (or disprove) his claims. Once there, the filmmaking duo find their host to be an exceedingly eccentric individual: intense, no-nonsense and utterly convinced of the existence of monsters, Dekker claims to know where the entrance to their underground world is. Dubbed “The Marrow,” Dekker claims that monsters regularly emerge from the otherwise unexceptional hole in the nearby forest and he gives Green the opportunity he’s waited his whole life for: the chance to actually see a real monster.
As Adam and Will settle in, however, they begin to get the gradual impression that Dekker isn’t playing with a full deck, especially when he claims to see monsters that neither of them can. When Green unexpectedly gets his wish and actually sees something, however, it sets off a fire in him: despite Dekker’s increasingly frantic pleas to leave well enough alone, he’s bound and determined to descend into The Marrow, scratching that unscratchable childhood itch for the first time. Will Adam and Will find the monsters that they seek? Is Dekker telling the truth, completely insane or some combo of the two? And where, exactly, does that ominous hole really lead?
Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way up front: Digging the Marrow suffers from many of the same issues that most found-footage films do (at this point, these issues are starting to seem like inherent genetic defects in the sub-genre), the finale is a little rough and we don’t get to see quite as much of the monsters as I’d like (pretty much a standard complaint in most horror fare, if you think about it). As with pretty much any found-footage film, the movie also ends just as it’s really kicking into gear: again, pretty much endemic of the sub-genre.
And that’s pretty much it, folks: past those few small complaints, Green’s film is a complete joy, a fan love letter to monsters that manages to push pretty much ever necessary button in my black, little heart. While I’ve been a fan of Green’s since Hatchet, I was unaware of how genuinely charismatic the guy is: it’s always a danger when directors “play themselves,” as it were, but Green manages to be friendly, likable, interesting and, most importantly, absolutely believeable during the fictional portions of the film. It shouldn’t be surprising that Green can interact effortlessly with the other directors and industry folks at the conventions (those are his peers, after all) but his acting scenes with Wise have just as much authenticity and realism. Ditto Barratt, who proves a more than capable foil to Green. In a subgenre that often suffers from unrealistic, unlikable actors/characters, Digging Up the Marrow acquits itself most ably.
This, of course, doesn’t even take into account the stellar contributions of long-time genre great Ray Wise. Always dependable and usually the best thing on any screen at any given time, Wise is one of those actors that lights up any production: to be honest, his part in Chillerama was just about the only thing I enjoyed in that entire film and it probably accounted for a grand total of five minutes, tops. Here, Wise has never been better, for one important reason: Green actually gives him the opportunity to stretch out and sink his teeth into a meatier role. We get much more of Wise, here, than we usually do (maybe since Swamp Thing (1982), to be honest) and the results are predictable: more Wise equals more badassitude, period. He’s tough, snarky, sarcastic, caustic, funny, vulnerable, sinister, innocent and all-around amazing: it’s a full-rounded performance and a multi-dimensional character. More than anything, this should serve as a wake up call for other filmmakers: stop using Wise as seasoning and start making him the main course…there’s no reason this guy shouldn’t be carrying more movies.
Any film about monsters, however, must still answer one very important question: how cool are the monsters? In the case of Digging Up the Marrow, the answer is “Very cool.” Based on the artwork of outsider illustrator Alex Pardee (who also appears during the film’s faux-interview portion), the monsters are unique, frightening, weird, cool and all-around unforgettable. My big complaint, of course, is that we never see as much (or as many) of them as we should but that’s also like complaining that free ice cream isn’t your favorite flavor: are we really going to bitch about free ice cream? What we do see, however, makes all the difference in the world: it’s obvious that Green and crew have genuine love for their subject and it really comes out in the exceptional practical effects and creature designs.
One of the biggest compliments I can give Digging Up the Marrow is that I wanted more as soon as the film was over: the film is ready-made for a sequel (The Marrow has many entrances, according to Dekker, all over the world…including in an IHOP, since monsters like pancakes) and I say “Bring it on.” Digging Up the Marrow is a fascinating, unique and extremely personal film by a massively talented filmmaker: I have a feeling that Green still has a lot to say about the subject and I can’t wait for him to say it.
While monsters always function better in the darkness, Adam Green is one of the few filmmakers to successfully grab them and haul them into the light. As a lifelong monster hunter, I tip my camouflaged hat.