Director/Screenplay – J.T. Petty, Producers – J.T. Petty & Jeffrey Odell, Photography – Patrick McGraw, Music – Sophocles Papavasilopolous & James Wolcott, Makeup Effects – Paul Goldblatt & Jeremy Saulnier
Edmond Mercier (Virgil Manoven), Sarah Ingerson (Claire), Andrew Hewitt (Shovelman), Wayne Knickel (Detective Shakespeare), Joshua Billings (Detective Dick), David Husko (Priest)
Elderly Virgil Manoven lives by himself in a remote cabin in the Maryland countryside. Following his cat into the woods one day, he sees a man strangle a young girl. He calls the police but they are unable to find any body. The dead girl then calls to Virgil in his dreams, giving him clues and leading him to help solve her murder.
Soft for Digging is a film that was made as a student project at New York City’s Tisch School of the Arts Program in 1998. It gained some modest exposure after playing Sundance and various fantasy festivals in 2002. It proved of sufficient acclaim to have director J.T. Petty hired for a series of profesisonal films.
The unmistakeable aura of The Blair Witch Project (1999) hangs over Soft for Digging – it is a student film shot on video, it is made for only a reputed $6000 budget (cheaper than Blair Witch) and involves haunted happenings in the Maryland backwoods. For all the quickness to compare it to Blair Witch though, Soft for Digging has a modest degree of originality of its own. J.T. Petty attempts to do some highly artistically ambitious things, especially given the novice nature of the exercise – for one, there is almost no dialogue in the film. There are about four lines at the asylum near the end and the old man gets to say a single word, which is incomprehensible. All the rest is conveyed by gesture and acting, something that requires an impressive degree of attention in conveying things via body language and gesture. Here the old man Edmond Mercier gives a convincing performance.
Petty also achieves an effectively haunted atmosphere. The film has a slow, somnolent pace – Petty trades in slow fades and appealingly opens each section on a chapter number and a brief précis of the action that will follow. Unusually good is his slow accumulation of background atmosphere – the sinister cat lurking, the foregrounded boiling pot, the reindeer candy cane and the sense of the seasons passing at the cabin. When it comes to the outright manifestations, Petty evinces something eerie and unearthly happening in the woods. The sped-up rotating head effect has become old hat in the couple of years since the film was made but the disappearing dead body and strangulation scenes are highly effective.
The film becomes less adept in the second half. Here the unearthly atmosphere of the first half in the woods segues into a mundanely ordinary piece about a ghost seeking retribution for its murder. It is a disappointing comedown from the almost Lovecraftian unearthliness that Petty conjures in the first half. The Blair Witch Project was much more successful in sustaining its atmosphere by not revealing anything about the agency behind the haunting. This reveals too much and in so doing loses it.
J.T. Petty went on on the basis of this to direct a number of professional films with Mimic: Sentinel (2003), S&Man (2006), The Burrowers (2008), Hellbenders (2012) and Gone: VR 360 (2016), while he has also written the various Splinter Cell videogames.