September 6, 2011
AJ Bowen as Garrick Turrell
Amy Seimetz as Sarah
Joe Swanberg as Kevin
Five years ago I was entirely confident that James Wan, Alexandre Aja and Darren Lynn Bousman were the undisputed kings of the new generation of horror directors. That opinion hasn’t changed much. All three of those gentlemen are nothing short of brilliant, true visionaries. But today I’m fully willing and able to admit that the entire crew surrounding AJ Bowen are every bit the equivalent in regards to talent. We’re talking about guys like Ti West, Adam Wingard, Adam Green and Joe Swanberg (to name a few). All amazingly legit studs of genre cinema. It’s time we start recognizing these guys for the consistently standout contributors they are. The focus cannot remain pinned to flicks like The House of the Devil, Hatchet, You’re Next and V/H/Sexclusively, we’ve got to step back and look at the complete careers of these gents, because they’re extremely impressive, and they’re still improving with every project.
A Horrible Way to Die went a bit unappreciated upon initial release. That’s really rather unfortunate, as the film, while quite bare bones on the production values, is extremely creepy, crawling deep beneath the skin as a direct result of the actual possibility of one insanely frightening sequence of events. Unlike the bulk of horror films, the plight experienced by female lead Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is entirely believable, especially in today’s society, when we see situations like this illuminated on criminal documentaries regularly (I’ve actually seen a few Cold Case Files that bear jolting similarities to the core concept of this pic). Sometimes the world’s realmonsters are the most terrifying, even when trapped in the confines of fictionalized entertainment; a man with murderous intent and zero remorse is infinitely more unsettling than the man who morphs into monster upon arrival of the full moon. Maybe that’s just personal taste, but realism leaves me far more shaken than the fantastical.
And that’s what A Horrible Way to Die is, realism captured on camera. Sarah’s busy attempting to start a new life after learning that her ex, Garrick Turrell was imprisoned for living a double-life, moonlighting as a sadistic serial killer when not romancing his unsuspecting love. To say the woman’s a little shaky is an understatement. She’s constantly on guard, cautious of those around her, nearly incapable of trusting anyone. Until she meets the charming Kevin, who seems to say all the right things and make all the right moves. But Sarah’s life is about to be put in danger once more, as Garrick has escaped from prison, and Kevin’s got a nasty secret to share.
I’d love to spoil the hell out of this one and spell out every last twist for you, but that simply cannot happen. It can’t happen because there’s actually a rather surprising turn in store. We as the viewer know there’s an ugly spin on the horizon for Sarah, and we have a fair idea of what that spin is; but when all is revealed in a taut climax, we get quite a bit more than we’d foreseen. Mind boggling and nauseating, things couldn’t possibly end much worse for Sarah, and we realize this as we stare at everyday faces that disguise nothing short of pure evil. A pure evil that could live next door, to you – or me. And – again – that’s what makes the picture so rattling. Murderers don’t grow fangs, sprout fur or rise from the dead, they look like everymen. They look like us. A Horrible Way to Die reminds us of that, and that’s some scary business that isn’t easily shaken from the mind.
We’ve got a series of stellar performances to take in. Amy Seimetz is great as the vulnerable survivor-girl. AJ Bowen delivers a measured performance that enhances the sinister side of his dual personality. Joe Swanberg plays manipulative like a seasoned scumbag. These are all A-class performances that really sell this sometimes-subtle, sometimes-overtly shocking feature. But the promise of the picture stretches far beyond onscreen appearances alone. Adam Wingard guides viewers through parallel stories that meet in the perfect culmination of insanity, and along the way we’re treated to some excellent editing and inviting stylization. Make no mistake, this isn’t a high dollar studio pic, but Wingard’s editing skills are so ambitious it’s easy to forget there isn’t a boatload of dead presidents invested in the project. As for the story itself, huge, huge respect goes out to Simon Barrett, who took liberties to make man more terrifying than creature when writing this captivating little tale.
A Horrible Way to Die isn’t about slobbering, fanged creatures, and it isn’t about senseless exploitation. What it is about is the chance of turmoil. The chance of disaster and unrivaled misfortune. It’s about scaring us deep down inside, where we attempt to take solace in sensibility and presumed securities. Psychological horror, you ask? Absolutely. Genius psychological horror, to be more specific.