Monday, April 16, 2012

A Horrible Way To Open Your Film Up To Easy Title Jokes

For whatever psychological reason you want to apply, many of us are endlessly fascinated by serial killers. Adam Wingard’s 2011 A Horrible Way To Die is quite aware of that fact, using the concept to explore several themes. None are cute and fuzzy.

Quick Plot: On a windy winter day, a man drives a tied-up woman to a secluded mountain overlook to apologetically strangle her to death.


Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood here…

Next we meet Sarah, a fragile thirtysomething dental hygienist celebrating three months sobriety at an AA meeting. There she meets Kevin, a fellow recovering alcoholic with a compassionate face. The two begin a hesitant relationship as we learn the root of Sarah’s life-changing decision: the opening killer is her ex, currently serving multiple life sentences for a mass killing spree that had rocked the media a few months earlier.

One of the most interesting aspects of A Horrible Way to Die is how it plays with its timeline, calmly moving between Garrick (genre champ A.J. Bowen)’s past killings, his current escape and the carnage it causes, and Sarah’s drunken past through fragile sober present. Much like the brilliant Dream Home, this structure works well in making the film interesting without unnecessarily toying with the narrative. The choice enhances the characters’ actions rather than ever feeling like a gimmick to use an unusual format.

Unfortunately, the filming style DOES feel like a gimmick. Over the last few years of independent filmmaking, we’ve seen our share of shaky cam and while it has its place, its use in A Horrible Way To Die is positively annoying. Yes, the film is going for a form of hardened realism, but that doesn’t mean the audience is required to leave with a headache.

But if you can get past some of the film’s styling issues, the story inside (by Dead Birds writer Simon Barrett)  is quite good in an unexpected way. As Sarah, Amy Seimetz creates an effective shell of a broken woman with a believable and understated performance that provides a solid center. While I’ve never dated a serial killer (that I know of), I think anyone can wonder what it mean to discover someone so close to you has been doing such terrible things. What does it say about you if you didn’t realize?

That’s one of the major questions asked by A Horrible Way To Die. Along the way (to die), we also get to think an awful lot about addiction (be it to Jack Daniels or throat slitting), relationship transitions, and America’s sick fascination with criminal minds. We don’t get answers, but it’s an interesting exercise for viewers looking for a little more challenge in their genre fare.

High Points
Between Seimetz’ distraught Sarah, Bowen’s conflicted killer and Joe Swanberg as the nice guy Kevin, all the performances are top notch in a way that shuns showiness for a harder sense of honesty.

I won’t give away the big twist, but I will give the film credit for its execution. I didn’t see it coming, but I imagine a rewatch would show the signs were there without ever impeding on the initial narrative

Low Points
I won’t lie: the title “A Horrible Way To Die” sets a definitive exploitation expectation that doesn’t in any way fit the film (though yes, it is catchy and makes jerks like me want to rent it). While I think one could assign an interesting interpreations of how the phrase refers to the film, it also seems like a cheap trick to mislead its audience

The aforementioned filming style, something that makes the film feel far more pretentious than it actually is

Lessons Learned
Going to a wine-laden Italian restaurant on your first date with a recently recovering alcoholic is probably ill-advised

When your life has already been something of a horror movie in the past, the last thing you need is a snowy trip to a cabin in the woods

It’s really hard to hurt someone in prison

A Horrible Way To Die calls to mind something like Red White & Blue, a similarly sad look at broken people made with a sprinkle of cinematic pretension. I was a huge fan of that Simon Rumley film, although it certainly sank in deeper with time. I imagine A Horrible Way To Die will have a similar fate. The more I think about Sarah and what it means to have loved a man capable of pure evil, the more intrigued I become with the film I’ve already watched. It has its problems—drink an O’Doules every time I mention shaky cam—but there’s something there in Simon Barrett’s script and Wingard’s direction. To go into the themes might reveal some plot twists and in truth, I haven’t fully decided what they’re trying to say anyway. But that’s part of the enjoyment of a film like this or Red White & Blue. It’s something to think about, a sort of film that gives birth to more questions than answers. I won’t say I liked it or didn’t, but those seeking a challenging spin on the genre could certainly get something out of a rental. That ‘something’ may be a headache or conversation, but hey, it’s something you didn’t have before watching, right?


  1. AJ Bowen's beard has to go down in the annals of best horror film beards.

    I'll respectfully disagree and say the shaky cam style, while played out, actually served a purpose with this particular film. I felt it was there to to heighten the effect of how both character's lives where chaotic and coming off the rails. I don't think it was just style for style's sake.

  2. Hm. You're probably right in the shaky cam's intent, but I just found the end result annoyingly indie-feeling. I'm sure the filmmakers were using it for a more admirable purpose, and perhaps I'll be a tad more tolerating of it on second viewing. Time shall tell.

  3. I recently reviewed this one myself, and I'll admit it's bit more gushing than yours. I loved this movie, and wasn't put off by the shaky cam a bit, but then I've got a high tolerance for it. I've never experienced a headache from it. Wingard's Pop Skull (full disclisure I've only watched the first 10 minutes so far) however, does feature a strobe effect that made me want to puke a bit. His debut, Sick House is pure exploitation, and a huge mess. That said, I'm really looking forward to You're Next and V/H/S. I think he's finally got the hang of creating living, breathing characters, which is the heart of real horror (Hell, real cinema in general)).

  4. I have a friend who saw You're NExt at TIFF and absolutely loved it, so I'm definitely looking forward to it. And V/H/S's premise is just too interesting to turn down. I didn't really dislike A Horrible Way To Die; I just found the filming style extremely frustrating, while everything else in it (the performances, the structure, the twist) worked quite well. I think Wingard is definitely one to watch. I just hope he focuses more on those things in the future and less on overbearing style (at least to me, though I seem to be a minority on that!).