Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mumblecore Horror - A Horrible Way to Die

If there's one thing I'm a sucker for (aside from a good horror movie), it's a superdepressing indie drama about addiction and damaged lives. At long last, there's a film that gives me the best of both worlds. Adam Wingard's A Horrible Way to Die combines the no-budget shaky-camera aesthetic and character-driven, emotional focus of an arthouse (mumblecore, if you want to get derogatory) flick with the grimness and brutality of horror. Yeah, nothing makes me grin like a film devoid of humor or hope.

I should note that this isn't a movie for everyone. If your horror leanings are more Return of the Living Dead than Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you may not find much to enjoy. Likewise, if shaky camera gives you a headache or otherwise peeves you, you're gonna want to turn this off 10 minutes in. Personally, I'm rather fond of the handheld aesthetic, which may explain my superhuman tolerance for found footage horror. Bottom line, if you can tolerate (or heck, even enjoy) the cinematography, A Horrible Way to Die holds many rewards.

At its heart, A Horrible Way to Die is a tragic love story involving Sarah, a recovering alcoholic who was so drunk for so long that she never picked up on the clues that her live-in boyfriend Garrick was a serial killer. When the film opens, Garrick has escaped from prison and is heading back to Sarah's town. Meanwhile, Sarah is doing her best to heal, attending AA meetings and starting to date Kevin, who she met there.

Amy Seimitz gives a flawless (IMHO) performance as Sarah, and I can't wait to see more of this actress. She comes off as mousy and withdrawn, but she's been through too much to take shit from anyone. Her wounds are raw, but just beginning to heal. When she decides to take a chance and trust Kevin enough to meet him for a dinner date, it's an act of incredible bravery.

The first time you see Kevin looking at Sarah in AA, he comes off as incredibly creepy, but when he eventually asks her out, he's so awkwardly charming and sincere that he wins you (and Sarah) over. I'm going to make myself vulnerable for a minute and admit I'm a huge sap. If my wife was one to go for chick flicks, you'd hear no complaints from me, as I'd secretly enjoy them while pretending not to. And I'll readily admit that for me, half the pleasure of watching A Horrible Way to Die was watching this damaged girl learn to trust again and form a relationship with this awkward-but-nice guy.

Speaking of nice guys, as far as serial killers go, Garrick has to be one of the nicest out there. In his first scene, Garrick helpfully tells the girl he's got tied up to watch her head as he lifts her out of the trunk. Then he repeatedly assures her that everything is going to be okay shortly before strangling her. It's as if he never quite believes he's going to kill anyone until his compulsion gets the better of him, and afterwards, he's always remorseful. The film draws a nice parallel between Garrick and Sarah, because they are both ruled by these compulsions that make them despise themselves. Killing is Garrick's addiction, and you get the sense that the nice-guy side of him isn't a false front, but a genuine side of his personality, and the one he wishes was in control of his actions. Now, I can't say how psychologically realistic this is, but it made for an interesting character.

If you haven't seen the film and it sounds like something you might like, now's the time to stop reading, because I can't take this discussion any farther without giving away some MAJOR SPOILERS.

I don't know about you, but I didn't see the ending coming at all. And the first time around, I wasn't too happy with it. It seemed like a cheap twist for the sake of having a twist ending. On top of that, I really liked Kevin, and I wanted his feelings toward Sarah to be real so that when one or both of them wound up tortured to death, the horror would cut deep. That's what I've been waiting for: a horror film where you care so deeply about the characters that when they're murdered, you're left devastated. Instead, Kevin turns out to be a serial killer groupie who, along with his 2 friends, have captured Sarah and arranged for Garrick to meet them in a secluded cabin to get his revenge for her turning him in to the cops. It seemed far-fetched, and worse yet, totally out of character for Kevin.

Here's the thing though, watch it again and you can see there was no cheating. There were subtle, damned-nigh imperceptible clues to what was coming. At their first date, Kevin, a supposed recovering alcoholic, chooses a restaurant with booze covering every wall. He claims he didn't realize it until he walked in the restaurant, yet when Sarah says she has no idea what she wants, he says, “It’s all pretty good." If he knows the menu so well, he obviously frequents the restaurant, but if he was really an alcoholic, he would definitely have noticed the wine bottles everywhere.

On the second viewing, I found Kevin so creepy that I could hardly believe it hadn't been obvious all along that he was a predator. Mostly it's just the way he looks at Sarah when she's hinting at secrets he already knows. What I had chalked up to his being awkward (or even being a less than convincing actor) I now interpret as dead-on acting choices. He's awkward because he's a psycho trying to appear to be a nice guy.

Once I got over not getting the ending I was expecting and hoping for, I realized that the actual ending was better, because it contains the whole point of the film. Through the whole movie, you just sort of assume Garrick is heading home to get revenge. Instead, he ends up rescuing Sarah from her captors and letting her go. He still loves her deeply and feels guilty about failing to be the man he should have been for her. As he's cutting her down from the ceiling, Sarah tells him she missed him, and means it. Once she's been freed, they exchange a loaded glance, we get a quick flash of a love scene from earlier in their lives, and she leaves while he collapses from the stab wound he's sustained.

Earlier I pointed out the parallel between their addictions, which is why, on some level, Sarah understands Garrick. Maybe she doesn't understand the compulsion to kill, but she understands uncontrollable compulsions to do self-destructive things and to hate yourself for it. She also never personally saw his brutal side. He was always gentle and loving with her, which is why she can't hate him despite all he's done. In their shared glance at the end you can see that they still love each other despite everything, and that they both know they have to let each other go. Classic star-crossed lovers with a deep, black twist.

The one thing missing from A Horrible Way to Die was any sort of scare factor. There was some decent tension in parts, but it was way less of a scary movie than a dark, bleak drama. But the good news is that Adam Wingard's next film, "You're Next," looks to be a balls-out home invasion type horror movie with the 3 principle cast members from AHWTD appearing. Plus, Ti West is playing a character named Tariq, so I'm obviously there.

For a dissenting opinion on A Horrible Way to Die, check out the If We Made It Podcast with my friends Jeff and Tucker, in which they also give an insightful review of Lucky McKee's The Woman before ranking A Horrible Way to Die lower than Santa Claus: The Movie in their Flickchart.

I'm fishing for comments with this one, so please let me know what you thought of A Horrible Way to Die. Was it as good as I made it out to be? Worse than Santa Claus? Somewhere in between? Let me know. And when you're done commenting, head on over to the MMM Facebook page to see what I thought of Dolan's Cadillac. Then call your mother. She has heard from you in so long. Also, you might think about a haircut.


  1. Great review! You make excellent points and observations. I feel your analysis is far more interesting than the film, but I still really want to like it. I think I will return to it one day. Unfortunately, this film has no mustache-twirling Lithgow, so y'know.- Tucker

  2. Awesome review. I as well wanted badly to like this movie and although the performances were good, I am one of those that just can't get over the excessive shaky cam. I am sure AHWTD is a better movie than Santa Clause, but if I had to sit through one again...dastardly Lithgow gets my vote. Keep up the great reviews and thanks for the shout-outs. -Jeff

  3. I was in the middle on this one. Loved the performances and agree the twist was played out pretty incredibly, but the overly indie camerawork bugged the heck out of me. It was definitely a tad too pretentious for its own good, but it did a fantastic job of exploring addiction and recovery. I've heard great things about You're Next so I'll definitely keep Wingard on my radar.

    OH! And I've only seen it once, but your points about the foreshadowing are pretty neat. I'll definitely keep them in mind if I get back to it.


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