A Horrible Way to Die
The innate appeal of the serial killer drama to low budget filmmakers is obvious. A subgenre that emphasizes character, suspense and atmosphere over action and visceral gore is relatively easy to do, from a technical standpoint. From an artistic standpoint, however, this kind of character based drama is more challenging than just doing a straight up slasher. There are precious few filmmakers that have produced lasting works in this field; John McNaughton’s masterpiece Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the gold standard, of course. More often than not, though, directors who start out with the noble intention of creating a film grounded in credible human psychology find out the hard way that it’s not as easy as it first seems, and in the end it’s the audience that pays the price. Such is the case with the ironically titled A Horrible Way to Die; by the end of this dud, any way to die will seem preferable to watching this pretentious exercise in self-indulgence.
Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is a recovering alcoholic, trying her best to put her life back together after getting out an utterly disastrous relationship. She spends her days marking time as a nurse at a dental clinic. At nights, it’s the bad coffee and stale cigarette smoke of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It at these meetings she meets Kevin (Joe Swanberg) a nice, if nebbish, guy also working his way through the recovery process. They start dating in earnest, but their involvement soon snowballs into a full blown, occasionally awkward, sexual relationship.
Now, we all have ex’s that we’d rather not think or talk about but, in Sarah’s case, she has good reason to feel traumatized by her previous relationship. You see, her ex is serial killer Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen), recently escaped from prison (not sure how, but it might have something to do with a literal loose screw – I hope that wasn’t the filmmakers taking a stab at symbolism). With the help of a hostage, Turrell has managed to slip the FBI dragnet and is making a beeline towards Sarah, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
It’s an extremely thin excuse for a story that, as undercooked as it is, is still riddled with holes. If the FBI knows where Sarah is and can see the path of bodies, when don’t they put agents on her to intercept Garrick? It seems the filmmakers are more interested in effect than in story and logic, but even by the standards of that low hanging branch, their efforts don’t bear much fruit. The plot hinges on the fact that Sarah and Garrick are past lovers, which is an interesting hook. The problem is that the filmmakers don’t clue the audience into this for a third of the running time. When the two plot threads: Sarah’s alcoholic recovery and Garrick’s escape from prison finally are connect the moment is “huh” when is should be “ah-HA!” It actually does Amy Seimetz’s performance a disservice to reveal her backstory this way; her nervous energy and reticence to get involved with nice guy Kevin loses some of the impact it might’ve had had we known the extent of her emotional trauma.
There’s no point to the non-linearity of Garrick’s story, and contrasting it with the more traditional narrative of Sarah’s story doesn’t add anything. If anything, it undercuts what should be escalating tension. When we already know that Garrick slips the roadblock, however, because we’ve already heard about it in a news broadcast earlier in the film, it saps the scene of him actually doing it of any possible suspense. Garrick may have cut his victims’ throats, but the filmmakers seem intent on cutting their own with heir needless stylistic flourishes. Not helping matters is the fact that AJ Bowen as Garrick Turrell, likely the most experienced actor in the cast, doesn’t register at all. The role is underwritten enough, but he tries to internalize far too much. The result is a gaping hole where the big threat of the film should be.
The movie is slick and well produced, despite its low budget and it often does an extremely effective job of establishing mood, but it has little to no insight into the inner lives of its characters. It’s all surface flash and pretense. The use of jittery handheld cinematography is obnoxiously self-conscious. Kinetic photography can be effective when it used well, but it’s been overused by filmmakers who have little idea what they’re doing or what effect their going for, it really makes me long for the days of Carpenter and his long, smooth Panaglide shots. That it wants so desperately to feel raw and realistic, ironically, is what makes it feel forced and postured. Worst of all, it’s never scary or suspenseful. And with a needless, voyeuristic masturbation scene and an extraneous tits shot of a corpse, it skirts the line between legitimate artistic and tasteless exploitation.
And man, is it ever a slog getting to the third act of the film. Beyond establishing the basic premise and providing some effective characters moments, there’s not a lot going on in the first hour. There’s little in the way of story and the characters are very roughly sketched. Sarah is the protagonist and we really only know three things about her: she’s a recovering alcoholic, she works as a nurse and her ex-boyfriend is a serial killer. Credit must be laid at Amy Seimetz’s feet that we feel anything at all for Sarah.
If there’s one thing the film does exceedingly well, it’s developing the relationship between Kevin and Sarah. From the first flirtations to the awkwardness of the morning after a not particularly memorable night in bed, the screenplay continually rings true and the actors are completely credible. There’s melancholia to these scenes; you’d love to see these two wind up together but you can tell very early on that it’s simply not going to happen.
I suspected that the plot would resolve in a typically trite, thriller fashion but the final twist is not only stupid, it’s insulting and arbitrary. It was only surprising in the sense that the filmmakers actually had the audacity to think they could pull it off. It doesn’t do anything in the first acts to earn what it tries to pull off in the last. I saw it coming, not because the groundwork for it was well established, but because I figured that they’d go for the most ridiculous final twist ever. And I was right. Yay me.
A Horrible Way to Die looks like it was shot with predominantly low/natural light. Couple that with the intentionally jittery camerawork and you have a recipe for a disaster. That this isn’t the case here represents one of the few areas in which this film averted disaster. While the wan, gloomy visuals aren’t actually going to have retailers jumping to use this disc as showroom material, it does nevertheless represent a best case scenario for the film. There is some flickering contrast in the opening scene and some color banding in the brightest areas of the white curtains in the flashback scenes. While colors are expectedly muted, fine object detail is strong…when the camera bothers to stay in focus.
I wouldn’t recommend you watch this movie regardless of the technical merits of its presentation but if you do in spite of my warning, you’ll get reasonably high quality visuals.
I kind of wonder why anyone even bothers to give a low budget production like A Horrible Way to Die a full on 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track, then spend the majority of the mix ignoring the back channels. In the opening scenes, the powerful score has real presence in the back channels. Other than that, the mix is front heavy with the surrounds being employed primarily for subtle ambient effects. Dialogue is mostly clear, though I did need to turn on the subtitles for a few of the quieter moments. This was an ultra low budget movie so it’s not surprising that it isn’t an audio powerhouse, but it certainly could have benefitted from a stronger audio mix.
I understand that audio commentaries are often recorded before a film’s even been released and, as such, there’s often a distinct lack of perspective when a director’s trying to explain to the audience why his piece of shit film is a masterpiece. On this commentary, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are refreshingly self-deprecating about a lot of their film’s shortcomings. Obviously I don’t agree with most of their artistic choices, but they spend the majority of time apologizing for what they perceive to be their film’s flaws, not wallpapering over them with bullshit excuses and narrative fabrications. Best bit: writer Barrett explains how he learned that having a screenplay where a baby gets stabbed for no real reason may not be the best idea ever.
There’s also an entirely perfunctory Behind the Scenes Featurette (7:13) that consists of some blurry handicam footage intercut with a couple of interviews. No real insights into the creative process or the rigors of working on a low budget or, unforgivably, any interview footage with Seimetz.
More like A Horrible Movie to Watch.
Trite jokes aside, A Horrible Way to Die can charitably be described as a missed opportunity. I had pretty high hopes for this one going in. The menu for the Blu-ray consists of some images from the film that have that wan, icy, shot in November look that I connect with, Amy Seimetz gives a fantastic performance and the score has a haunting, mournful horn section reminiscent of Howard Shore’s early collaborations with David Cronenberg. Too bad the movie’s good points are surrounded by so much chaff that they’re unable to redeem the film as a whole. As a character study, it lacks insight and as a thriller, it lacks suspense. Yeah, this disc is reasonably well put together but a sow’s ear embellished with rubies is still a sow’s ear; it will never be a silk purse. Similarly, A Horrible Way to Die will never be a good movie, no matter how slick the Blu-ray is.
I didn't care for this one either.
Reminded me of another recent film, Red White & Blue.
I have this on DVD, but haven't checked it out yet. I'll heed your warning, but I'm still interested. I've been hearing great things about his newest film though, You're Next.
I loved Red White & Blue so if that reminded you of this, I might enjoy it. We'll see.
Watched it tonight and actually enjoyed it. Thought it was a good character piece and thought the slower pacing and atmosphere really worked, and the actors were all quite good. While the third act and reveal near the end was a bit cliched, it was still a fairly solid indie horror film overall and worth checking out.
I completely agree with your review. The last 15 minutes are ridiculous in a film that aims to be weighty.
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