There is much within Jai Love's Dead Hands Dig Deep
(which premiered at Slamdance 2016 tonight) that is meant to shock us --- from footage of genitals and other body parts being pierced with screws and bolts, to a flap of skin being cut with a steak knife, to a possible mummified dog being violated onstage. Blood is spilled in all manner of ways, and we are supposed to cringe. As a horror fan, reviewer, and filmmaker, I can't quite figure out if I'm completely desensitized to these types of images, or if I just don't care much about the film's subject, ex-Kettle Cadaver singer Edwin Borsheim.
As the film progresses, we learn about the singer's upbringing in a Californian town that's a heroin hotbed and a home to the impoverished. We hear that as a teen, some men tried to take advantage of him, and he stabbed them. We're told that his father beat his mother (who was in and out of mental hospitals) and committed suicide. His stepfather eventually left the family, and one of his brothers died from an overdose. We are told that everyone blames mom for that --- but why? There are so very many things that Borsheim himself says to the documentary crew --- so many opportunities worth exploring --- that are simply stated and we are moved along to the next tragedy, threat, or shooting at a Christian rehab center.
This documentary looks good and sounds good, but it's isn't going to be for everyone; there are graphic images of those aforementioned body parts, a ton of blood, some drug use, and the subject (Borsheim) looking directly into the camera while telling the audience that he daydreams about killing us in detail. Fun. There's a lot of old video footage of the singer bloodying himself onstage, but of particular note is a short scene where Borsheim says his dogs tell him what to do: "they want bad things." And that's it. I'd love to hear more about what his dogs tell him, and why he thinks they talk to him. He's also obsessed with his ex-wife Eva (who apparently is also an ex of serial killer Richard Ramirez) and her daughter Scarlett. In order to stay away from them, he's created wooden versions of them and sleeps with wooden Eva. He has an Eva mask that he wears and talks "as Eva," some real Norman Bates stuff, but again, it feels like there's much more to be explored than what's shown here.
There are a slew of weird and uncomfortable things that actually occur while filming that could have upped the anxiety levels and made for a compelling study in psychology --- or at least of Borsheim. Sadly, festival audiences won't get to see any of it because they won't have access to the doc's press kit, wherein the production notes get really interesting:
Multiple times during post-production, Edwin went off the grid. His phone was de-activated many times and he was on and off of his property. Borsheim's property was meant to be seized due to not paying property tax, and began making it clear that he would commit suicide once he came back in to contact with the producers. Eventually his family intervened and payed his property tax, subsequently interfering with his suicide.
Due to the hostility that both Edwin and his brother Danny held for their mother, both refused to see her for the film. After much pleading from the producers, Danny escorted the crew to see his mother, but the experience was highly uncomfortable.
While first contacting Borsheim over the phone, the filmmakers began receiving pictures from Borsheim portraying a variety of disturbing imagery. As production continued, other members of the crew began to receive similar pictures.
On the first day of principle shooting, Edwin began directing violent threats at the film crew. Borsheim made it clear, that until the production of the film, nobody had entered the "Black House" in over a year.
Prior to the production of the film, there was an extensive search for Edwin Borsheim. Although his residence had been confirmed, there were different variables that stood in the way of actual contact. At the time, Borsheim had no phone or email and his property was guarded by his watch-dogs which made it virtually impossible to come in contact with him. After resigning the idea of making the film, Borsheim's relatives activated a phone for him and put us in contact with him. The film began production months after we started our search."
To me, all of this stuff is far more brow-raising than Borsheim telling the audience in monotone about his life and the awful stuff he's seen, done, and what he wants to do to people. What were the crew's reaction to being threatened with death and sent disturbing imagery? Was anyone really in danger? Borsheim threatened to commit suicide during filming; why, and what made him reconsider?
Documentaries are meant to raise questions, but they're also meant to make you question the chaos that is life. Dead Hands Dig Deep comes close to these objectives, but frustrates with its lack of really getting to the heart of its subject.
Filmmaker Love is a 19-year-old with a feature premiering at Slamdance. That fact alone is a hell of an achievement, and it's possible that Love may develop into a documentarian to watch if he can get to the underlying truths of his future subjects.