Released in 1990, Clive Barker‘s “Nightbreed,” based on his own novella about an underground society of monstrous outcasts, was creatively compromised, critically lambasted, and financially disastrous (making less than its meager $11 million budget). In subsequent years, however, it proved to be highly influential, spawning a comic book series, videogames, and a lavishly restored director’s cut, released last year by the good folks at Shout Factory. You can certainly feel the film’s mark all over “Digging Up the Marrow,” writer/director Adam Green‘s faux documentary about his own quest to uncover a “Nightbreed”-like resting ground for mythological beasts. While it tries its hardest, it ends up falling short of its promise. It’s got a lot of spirit, but not much follow-through.
The movie opens with presumably real-life footage of Green quizzing folks at horror conventions and San Diego Comic Con about why they love monsters so much. There they are — people like Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman, “Candyman” star Tony Todd, and the lead singer of cartoonish metal band Gwar — all talking about how much they wish, desperately, that monsters were really for real. Green introduces himself as a horror filmmaker, having made the first two “Hatchet” films and the underrated stuck-on-a-ski-lift thriller “Frozen,” before turning his gaze inward, producing a horror comedy TV show, “Holliston,” that he also stars in.
Green sets up his horror credentials for a reason, though. All of this introductory nonsense is to sell the crux of the movie, wherein a crazed man named William Dekker (Ray Wise) comes to him claiming to have proof of the existence of The Marrow, an underground society full of monsters. He claims it is “100 yards below earth” and that the civilization is quite sophisticated — there are weddings and friendships and buildings. Dekker shows him drawings of the phantasmagorical beasts that populate this underground community. Green, despite his natural cynicism, is hooked, and together he and Dekker and assorted technical people go out in search of the Marrow and its slimy inhabitants.
Now, this is a pretty good premise for a found footage movie, but the most compelling thing about it is also what distances it the most from the conventions of the genre. Found footage movies are supposed to sell you on their raw authenticity. The reason why “The Blair Witch Project” was so terrifying was that nobody had ever seen those actors before and the aesthetic of the film was so chillingly amateurish that there seemed to be a fairly good possibility that you were watching the last few days of a bunch of kids who walked into the woods and never came out. “Digging Up the Marrow” would have had a similar charge, especially during sequences where Green and Dekker go out into the woods to uncover one of the portals to the underground world, except that Green is too flashy a protagonist. Everything about him screams pay attention to me, from his “I’m just a regular guy making horror movies” shtick to the way he objectifies his (now ex-)wife, having her parade in the background in her underwear while issuing grave warnings.
But the biggest problem with the film’s aesthetic is also its greatest strength, and that’s the performance of Wise. From on the outside, it might seem like a catastrophic mistake. Everyone knows who Ray Wise is, even if they aren’t 100% sure. He is probably most remembered for his role as Leland Palmer on David Lynch and Mark Frost‘s influential television series “Twin Peaks,” but he pops up time and time again, on everything from TV’s short-lived “Reaper” to big movies like “X-Men: First Class.” When Wise shows up, you’re not immediately drawn into his story, you’re instead thinking, Oh, that guy. There’s a complete disconnect. And all attempts to establish the story as a really-for-real event disappear instantly. It’s a real shame, too, because Wise is so good. He brings real conviction to the character, with an unpredictable liveliness and some really interesting emotional shading as well. This character isn’t exactly what he seems, appearing to have a more personal connection to the Marrow, which Green uncovers as the film goes along. It really is a tremendous performance, to the point where it’s unclear why Green and his collaborators didn’t just shoot it as more of a straight narrative, or remove the Green character altogether, allowing Wise’s Dekker to address the audience directly, drawing them into the supernatural fold.
There are a number of things to appreciate about “Digging Up the Marrow,” from the inventive creature designs and effects (by well known urban artist Alex Pardee), to the occasionally jokey tone that adds a knowing extra layer to the shocks (there’s a great moment where Kane Hodder, a former Jason in “Friday the 13th” and star of Green’s “Hatchet” movies, comes into the editing suite and says about the found footage approach: “Nobody is gonna want that anymore”), but the entire enterprise is so thoroughly mediocre that it’s hard to get excited about any of it. Green has proven that he’s a gifted genre filmmaker, but it would be wise for him to quit the naval-gazing long enough to make the kind of throwback horror movie that initially attracted his fans. “Digging Up the Marrow” could have been an effective riff on Barker’s “Nightbreed,” but instead becomes just another found footage horror lark, with occasionally nifty effects and an overriding sense that Green’s ego, and not a wonderful Ray Wise performance, is what the movie is really about. [C]