Friday, June 19, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Digging up the Marrow (2014)

Adam Green’s Digging up the Marrow (2014), is a mock-documentary, found-footage horror film. The work-of-art takes a creative leaping-off point from the premises of Nightbreed (1990) and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1933), and concerns a possibly unstable man, William Dekker (Ray Wise) who believes he has encountered a society of real-life monsters. 

Dekker calls that world not Midian, but “The Marrow.”

Historically speaking, I’ve found Green’s work to be, well, variable. 

Hatchet (2008) was atrocious, and made even worse by its over-hyping in some corners. But I cherished Frozen (2010) and would unreservedly count it as a masterpiece of nihilistic horror. 

Digging up the Marrow falls somewhere between those extreme poles. 

It is no disaster, and at times even feels like it could rise to the level of cult classic.  Most of this success has to do with Ray Wise’s extremely powerful and memorable performance. But credit Green’s choices as director, too. He makes a good-humored horror film here with some real jump scares, not to mention one of the most sinister, disturbing endings I’ve seen in some time (even though nobody actually dies). 

At other times, however, Digging up the Marrow feels more like 90 minutes of self-promotion than it does a legitimate, internally-consistent narrative.


Green is essentially the movie’s main character, and as such is constantly seen discussing his TV series, Holliston, wearing shirts that promote his movies, or discussing collectibles that do the same.  As viewers, we also visit his house and meet his beautiful wife (at the time of production). 

Somehow, there’s an uncomfortable undertone here. It’s almost like Green is saying in some of these moments: “look at me, I made it! I’m a big-time Hollywood director!” 

The film might have worked more successfully with an unknown in Adam’s role, and it would definitely have worked better with an experienced actor in that role. I realize that Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh cast themselves in starring roles in their movies all the time, but they were on-screen performers who graduated to direction.  Green is kind of taking a reverse trajectory, and the experiment is not entirely successful.

Still, Digging up the Marrow features some big laughs, some big scares, and some great character moments.  It features a distinctive tone, and is worth seeing.  At some points, the budgetary limitations hamper the film, and you’ll ask why the camera never actually takes a trip into the Marrow.

But overall Digging up the Marrow is a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy the found footage format.

“Haven’t you always wished that something like this was real?”

Director Adam Green (himself) is contacted by a fan, William Dekker (Ray Wise), who believes that he has uncovered a world of monsters. 

In fact, he claims to have found an entrance to this world, the Marrow, in a nearby cemetery, and recruits Adam to make a film about his beliefs

Adam is impressed by Dekker’s story, and the artwork he has created to diagram the various monster personalities he has encountered. 

Still, Adam and his cameraman are shocked after one long night of surveillance when a monster appears before their camera, and then darts away.  Adam orders more cameras (and a light) set up in the cemetery, but Dekker is concerned about scaring away the monsters.

One in particular, it seems.

At a horror convention, Adam meets up with horror directors Tom Holland and Mck Garris, and they reveal that Dekker also contacted them regarding his crazy story of a monster world called “The Marrow.” Now Adam feels like Dekker may be hoaxing him, and sets out to learn about his past, including a period in which he worked on the Boston Police force.

One dark night, Adam returns to the cemetery to see what’s out there for himself, without Dekker’s interference. 

He gets more, perhaps, than he could have bargained for…

“It’s crucial we just observe, and don’t interact.”

Digging up the Marrow obsesses on the idea of “monsters,” and a constant refrain in the film involves Adam’s love of such characters. 

All his life, he has wanted to prove that monsters could be real. On one hand, this interest proves Green’s love of horror, certainly. On the other hand, if Green loves the horror genre that much, he should know that monsters don’t want to be found, let alone filmed. They want to be left alone.

Adam makes the same mistake, then, as so many horror movie characters have in the past: he wants evidence of something supernatural -- or least different -- that he can take back to society.  Dekker warns him that the monsters just want to be free, and that they exist in their own world, going about their normal business.  They will respond negatively if forced into unwanted contact, but Adam proceeds anyway…at his own peril.

Adam’s dual nature as both a horror movie lover and a horror film businessman represents a crucial aspect of the film, and one not always navigated entirely successfully.  Adam keeps repeating that he loves monsters -- probably too many times -- but at the same time, one suspects that he is most intrigued about capturing something new on film; something that none have seen before.  Look at the narcissism and resentment Adam displays when he finds out that Dekker went to John Carpenter, Mick Garris and other film directors before he went to him.

That pique is vanity, to be certain, but also an economics-based fear that his story may already be “out there” and therefore not get the reception he would like it to get when he screens his film.

In sharp contrast to Adam, Dekker clearly possesses a unique personal interest in the Marrow and its denizens.  We learn some details of his back-story, and his family, in particular, but I steadfastly admire Digging up the Marrow for not spoon-feeding us every last detail.  It’s far better for some aspects of Dekker’s “madness” and back-story to remain ambiguous, and Green shows nice restraint in allowing mysteries to be raised, and then slow-boil for the duration of the film.

Two things make the world of the monsters tantalizing in Digging up the Marrow

The first is Ray Wise’s off-kilter, off-balance, award-worthy performance.  He plays a man of great feeling, great emotion, but also a man who absolutely lacks a sense of humor about himself or his subject. Much of Wise’s dialogue could thus play as either straight, or as wickedly funny. The trick, of course, is that Dekker never realizes his words might be seen as funny.  He believes every word, and Wise invests him with pathos and humanity in a fascinating way.

Secondly, we get Alex Pardee’s colorful, creepy art work, and his unforgettable monstrous creations like Brella (a monster with an umbrella over her head), and Vance, to name just two. These creatures, at least on paper, possess distinctive identities.  They are beguiling and fantastic.

The cameos in the film from horror icons like Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Mick Garris and Tom Holland contribute to the fun in two ways. 

First, they help to humanize the genre, and its practitioners’ long-held desire to find “real” monsters.  Monsters are, and always have been -- at least in horror movies -- deliberate symbols of the outsider.  Generations of children have grown up loving the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the Frankenstein Monster, or the Wolfman because there is some sense that they are misunderstood, or shunned simply for being different.  Tony Todd, Lloyd Kaufman, and others talk meaningfully about this idea, and when they speak, they speak from the heart.

But Kane Hodder gets some of the best moments in the film, playing an unenthusiastic but agreeable straight man. Hodder sits in on an editing session with Adam, and sees the footage featuring a monster.  Even though he is told it is real, Hodder steadfastly refuses to believe it is so, and keeps asking how it was created. 

The discussion descends into a discussion, and then critique of found footage movies – “nobody wants that anymore” says one character -- and it’s really quite amusing.  But the scene also explains something significant about found footage movies. 

In one way or another they are all about our desire to see something we have never seen before, whether it be Sasquatch, UFOs, or the Loch Ness Monster.  Yet the irony is that if we were to see a “real” iteration of such a creature on YouTube, or even the Nightly News, we would likely do precisely what Hodder does in Digging up the Marrow.  We would rationalize the footage as a hoax, or as Hollywood wizardry.  Found footage movies, regardless of their drawbacks, are about the desire to see, and, simultaneously, the inability to accept what is seen.

Digging up the Marrow critiques the form in other ways too, noting, for example, that green night vision -- a staple of found-footage films -- has a way of making everything look like “shit.”

Such moments are self-reflexive and funny, and they embrace a great quality of the horror genre:  it is never afraid to look at itself and laugh.  The slasher format got roasted in Scream (1996), of course, and Digging up the Marrow offers some nice little roasts of found footage throughout.

I also credit Digging up the Marrow with some genuine creativity in its last act.  So many found footage movies are about the inescapable nature of death. 

In these films, the camera need be the only survivor, right? 

The final scenes in Digging up the Marrow -- a masterfully lensed exploration of anticipatory anxiety – couldn’t show us Adam Green being killed by monsters, right?  He’s a real guy. He’s going to survive.

Instead, the final scene of the film amounts to what might be termed an explicit visual threat against Adam Green’s continued survival, and it is, indeed, terrifying in its implications. 

The monsters may live in the Marrow, but they can get to you or me at any time, this ending observes.

That “universality” is the key to good horror, and the key to a troubled slumber too.  Digging up the Marrow is more amusing than scary, perhaps, but it ends on a high note of horror. If much of the movie is about discussing the pitfalls of a genre that “nobody wants” anymore, and that “looks like shit,” the film’s denouement escapes the clichés of the form. It thinks outside the found-footage chest of tropes.

My biggest problem with Digging up the Marrow -- and it doesn’t prevent me from noting that it is a worthwhile and enjoyable horror film -- is that the inside-baseball Hollywood stuff gets dull after a while.  It is so pervasive that viewers may feel Adam Green is telling the truth when he keeps telling everyone who will listen that the movie is “just a side project.” 

In the meantime, he’ll keep hawking Holliston and selling T-shirts and toys from his films…

If the film had adopted a more caustic attitude towards Green’s relentless self-promotion, it might have mitigated this concern to a greater degree.  As it stands, Digging up the Marrow will be remembered, certainly, as an intriguing film, but also one that shows off, once more, Ray Wise’s incredible talents.  He is riveting and amazing in this horror film, walking a tightrope between madness and perfect sanity that is impossible to turn away from, or to forget.

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