Part documentary, part narrative, there are no easy labels for writer/director Adam Green’s latest movie, Digging Up the Marrow. On one hand, it features Green and a number of his regular collaborators playing themselves. At the same time, it stars Ray Wise as a Dr. Loomis-esque obsessive on the hunt for real-life monsters. It’s told as a straightforward documentary, but it also features cool-looking monsters designed by artist Alex Pardee (whose artwork served as the inspiration for the film). The pieces might be recognizable in and of themselves, but put together they make Digging Up the Marrow a movie that doesn’t quite feel like anything else out there.
It’s difficult to describe the premise of Marrow without giving too much away, and this is the kind of film where it’s better to go in cold. Suffice it to say that Green plays himself, a successful independent horror filmmaker running his own studio (ArieScope, the offices of which serve as the setting for several scenes) and juggling multiple projects. He receives a letter from a man saying he has discovered an opening in the ground that acts as the entrance to “the Marrow,” what he calls the underground tunnels that act as the home to real-life monsters. Unsure if this man, William Decker (Ray Wise in a tour-de-force performance), is bug nuts crazy, but too curious to pass up the opportunity, Green and his friend/cinematographer Will Barratt (also playing himself) set out to make a documentary investigating Decker’s outlandish claims. And that’s only the beginning…
More should not be said, because while Digging Up the Marrow is not necessarily a movie of big surprise twists (though there are many interesting developments), the uniqueness of its approach begs going in as blank a slate as possible. Discounting the Hatchet sequels, writer/director Adam Green has never made the same movie twice; Marrow might be his biggest departure yet. It’s unlike anything he has made to date, but still feels very much like an “Adam Green movie” — and not just because he’s the star. The telltale signs are in the way the film focuses on dialogue and character, in the way it breaks tension with a well-timed joke, in the way he attacks the material with the same childlike glee with which he dumped buckets of blood across the New Orleans swamps in Hatchet. In a genre often defined by nihilism, there is nothing cynical in Green’s work. In Marrow, Green actually wants to be cynical and mistrust what Decker is telling him, but he can’t. He loves this stuff too much.
Green makes what can be described as “hangout horror” movies, which are as much about the characters sitting around and riffing as they are on creating scares, whether it’s Joel David Moore lamenting his broken heart in Hatchet or the three doomed skiers swapping stories in Frozen (it’s best evidenced in Holliston, Green’s sitcom that’s entirely about the hangout). Despite its unconventional form, Digging Up the Marrow is no different: scene after scene is as much about moving the story forward as it is about hanging out with Green and his ArieScope family, from Barratt to producer Sarah Elbert to editor Josh Ethier. Kane Hodder (who played Victor Crowley in Green’s Hatchet films) stops by for a very funny cameo, all of which feels improvised but is actually tightly scripted.
There are moments later on in the film that feature Green and Barratt searching the woods that gradually get scarier and more tense, but they’re just as entertaining when riffing off one another. We like hanging out with these people enough that we eventually forget there are going to be monsters.
The result is a movie that’s not really scary until it is, though Green knows how to make the monsters worth the wait and let them rip (if one is being completely honest, they’re cool enough that the movie could have used more of them). The pseudo-documentary approach actually makes them scarier, as it places them in a very real-world context. The way the lines blur between fantasy and reality (even faux reality) gives the horror elements an immediacy that feels different than a traditional monster movie from which we are further removed. It doesn’t hurt that there a couple of wicked good jump scares. Never underestimate the power of a good jump scare.
While Green is loose and likable at the center of the film — he’s the one making the documentary, so he appears in all of the scenes — Marrow is really the Ray Wise show. He has always been a highlight of any project in which he appears, but Wise is on another level here. In Richard Decker he creates a fascinating and haunted character — a guy with secrets and a whole life’s worth of history that is only suggested through performance and the occasional line of dialogue. Decker is dark and driven and tortured, but also cagey and deceptive and, at times, funny in an absurd way (Wise’s deadpan timing with “they like pancakes” is a highlight). They mystery of “Just who is Decker?” is every bit as compelling as “Are there monsters or not?” There are not enough good words for what Ray Wise does in this movie. He’s just brilliant.
On a deeper level, Digging Up the Marrow might just be an autobiographical portrait of Green that explores why he does what he does. A self-described insomniac and workaholic, Green knows something about obsession; the way the “Adam Green” character lights up at the prospect of seeing a real monster speaks to a lifetime spent dreaming about things that go bump in the night. Green has turned those dreams into his films, and now he’s made a film that reflects both the process of realizing those dreams and the need to exorcise them on-screen back at his audience. Pretty heavy.
There’s something thrilling about Digging Up the Marrow’s confidence — it’s a film that’s willing to be original, get deeply personal and still work as a fun genre exercise. It warrants a recommendation based solely on Ray Wise’s performance, but there’s much more to the movie than that. Digging Up the Marrow isn’t just a terrific horror movie; it’s a movie about why we are drawn to horror movies.
Movie Score: 4/5
In case you missed it, check out Patrick's two-part interview with Digging Up the Marrow writer/director Adam Green: