Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Horrible Way to Die

Film: A Horrible Way to Die (2010)
Dir: Adam Wingard
Rating: *** out of 5 stars

A Horrible Way to Die is the latest feature from indie horror director Adam Wingard. It is not a well-known title yet, but it has been drawing a lot of attention at recent film festivals, including Fantastic Fest where the writer and lead actors won a few awards. The film was made on a shoestring budget but that fact does not distract from its good writing, fine performances, and even some solid gore. Unfortunately, frantic camerawork does heavily distract from the good parts and therefore drags the movie down a bit.

Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is a recovering alcoholic with a dark past. After moving to a new town, she joins AA in hopes of beating her problem and starting a new life. Although reluctant to begin a relationship, she agrees to go on a date with a fellow AA member, Kevin (Joe Swanberg). As the two grow closer, Sarah knows that she must tell him her dark secret, that her ex-boyfriend is convicted serial killer Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen). Making matters worse, Turrell just escaped from prison with his sights set on Sarah, killing anyone who gets in his way.

Screenwriter Simon Barrett has constructed a simple yet effective script. The concept and the characters are well-written. The tension is slow-to-build in places, but the story picks up toward the end and wraps up nicely. Complementing Barrett’s writing are some talented actors. Indie darling Amy Seimetz is very good in the lead role. Sarah is 100% victim – she is not a strong female figure but we get the impression that perhaps she once was. Alcoholism and Turrell have seemingly made her this way – a ruined woman. Seimetz is an ideal match for the part of this woman emotionally battered by her own demons.

However, it is AJ Bowen who really steals the movie as Garrick. Like many serial killers, Turrell is a man of few words, but complex nonetheless. In Bowen’s face, you can see how the character struggles with his urge to kill – how he genuinely means it when he promises not to hurt his victims right before he murders them. The kill scenes are brutal and bloody – a stark contrast against the flashbacks in which Garrick is tender with his then-girlfriend Sarah. Bowen delivers the perfect blend of intensity and sympathy for the role.

Wingard’s storytelling style is effective, as the film flows well, but his visual choices are questionable. Most shots are out of focus, shake wildly, or veer away from anything of relevance (actors, scenery, etc.). This kind of nauseating camerawork does nothing to help the film. Presumably, Wingard’s intention was to symbolize the frantic nature of each scene – a filmmaking choice that lacks originality. Whatever his goal, it looks like his cameraman has some combination of ADD and epilepsy. This is not pleasant to watch, nor does it instill a sense of tension or uneasiness. It just comes across as annoying to the viewer. In many shots, the lighting and set design are great – it is a shame to have those aspects hidden by a runaway camera.

The concept of A Horrible Way to Die is as old as the horror genre itself – a girl being stalked by a killer. But this is not a typical cat-and-mouse story, as it deals more with internal menaces such as dark secrets, addiction, and denial. The film makes good use of its meager budget, and despite some eye-straining camerawork, is an interesting little thriller worth checking out.