Soft for Digging

“Soft for Digging” is a tense, compelling horror film for 45 minutes or so. And then you realize it’s not going to be anything more than a very basic campfire story, and the disappointment settles in. What a waste of perfectly good atmosphere! What a waste of a good concept!

The concept is that there is almost no dialogue. The protagonist is an old man (Edmond Mercier) who lives alone in a shack in the woods. One morning while pursuing his errant cat, he witnesses a little girl’s murder. The cops are unable to find any evidence, though, and the old man is not believed. He would doubt himself, except that he begins having visions of the dead girl, leading him to seek out her murderer.

To a point, the absence of dialogue is ingenious. It means the film can be, essentially, a standard horror-flick without being saddled with standard-horror-flick dialogue. (No one can say, “I’ll be right back” if no one’s saying ANYTHING.)

The characters do speak to each other, of course, but the camera backs away when they do, or we switch to another scene. The things that don’t need to be spelled out for us, then, are not spelled out. We don’t need to hear the old man explain to the cops that, well, these woods all look alike, and that’s why he can’t find the exact spot the murder occurred. We get that.

Writer/director JT Petty has a good thing going here, with cinematography (by Patrick McGraw) and sound (by Matthew Polis) that remind me of the original “Night of the Living Dead.” The film looks much older than it is, no doubt due to the film stock not being the most expensive available — a practical matter that winds up being a plus, as it enhances the movie’s creepy feel.

The problem is in the story, which turns out to be utterly unoriginal and virtually twist-free. No matter how useful a gimmick is, a film needs to be able to stand without it. This one collapses even WITH the gimmick; without it, you’d never give it a second thought.

C- (; Not Rated, probably PG-13 for some violence and scariness.)