Monsters are “real” in Digging Up the Marrow, an air-quotes documentary that doesn’t completely reinvent the whole found-footage format but improves upon it. After deformed backwoods slice-and-dicer Victor Crowley and frost bite, horror filmmaker Adam Green (he of the gory, fun Hatchet movies, the 2010 ski-lift nightmare Frozen, not Disney’s animated fairy tale about the love between princess sisters, and FEARnet original series Holliston) has devised his own kind of “found-footage” item—or, as he calls it at one point, “footage footage”—with a plethora of monsters. In the form of a documentary driven by monster fandom, the film begins with a slew of talking-head interviews by Candyman actor Tony Todd, Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli, and Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman (just to name a few) to prime up Green’s monster-filled dreams that will soon come to life. Don’t worry, though: it’s only a movie; one part The Blair Witch Project and another part Night Breed…with a whole lot Adam Green movie merchandising.
Green plays himelf, a horror/monster geek turned filmmaker—how meta!—with a new project opportunity before starting production on his show at ArieScope Pictures. With his longtime cinematographer, Will Barratt, he hooks up with retired Boston detective William Dekker (Ray Wise), who now resides in Chatsworth, California, and has been studying an underground society of monsters whom he insists really do exist. Dekker has researched over 40 different species for decades and sees monsters as misunderstood human beings born with physical deformities. Apparently, beneath the surface of the earth lies a metropolis, and the entrance of their hiding place is called “The Marrow.” At a cemetery in the woods, Dekker takes Green and Barratt to the sightings. After a while of the filmmakers feeling a bit skeptical about Dekker and his research, they will get more than they bargained for, but isn’t that how it always goes?
Self-reflexive, engrossing, and effectively capable of evoking goosebumps out of even the not-so-easily scared, Digging Up the Marrow ain’t half-bad. If Green and all of his crew members play themselves (as well as cameoing directors Todd Holland and Mick Garris), Ray Wise is the only one playing a fictional character. As much of a genre stalwart as Lance Henkrisen, Wise manages to make the headstrong William Dekker completely plausible with a real passion for what he does and glimmers of blunt humor. Without much reasoning beyond, “Everybody likes pancakes,” Dekker even states that one of the half-dozen entrances to The Marrow is an IHOP, which gets a bemused reaction out of Green. Informative but mysterious, Dekker might be an open book about his monsters, but when he gets Green’s attention by mentioning his son briefly, he keeps his personal life entirely at bay.
As we see what Green’s DP sees through the frame in night-vision mode, the film gets a lot of mileage out of teasing the viewer, who might be just as skeptical as Green and his crew when Dekker doesn’t deliver on its sightings. Though Dekker forbids them to use lights while waiting for monsters by the trees in the pitch-black of night, the failure to listen to his orders just as a monster stands directly in front of them elicits one socko seat-jumping moment (which, amusingly, in the playback doesn’t make Josh Ethier, Green’s editor, or Kane “Jason Voorhees” Hodder flinch one bit in the editing suite).
For much of the film, Adam Green goes just far enough to rally up enough enthusiasm for how much (or how little) he actually shows the monsters or The Marrow itself. Early on, he sets up the gnarly, brilliantly frightening monster design in hand drawings (which are inspired by the art of Alex Pardee) shown to Green by Dekker. Dekker even shares Green a story about “Brella,” a female creature whom he witnessed hide underneath an umbrella to seduce a college boy who then went missing. Let’s just say patience is rewarded when Green and Barratt decide to go investigate The Marrow at night without Dekker and are attacked. Green is confident enough in his filmmaking to not let his third act go to hell-breaking-loose bedlam and a lot of gimmicky camera-shaking. Leaving behind such quibbles as a missed opportunity with Dekker’s personal life and a more in-depth exploration of The Marrow, along with an ending that doesn’t really register, Digging Up the Marrow is a surprisingly gore-free but not tension-free funhouse trip for genre loyalists and those who go aaahh! at the sight of a real monster.
Digging Up the Marrow is now in select theaters and available on video-on-demand platforms.