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STUDIO: Anchor Bay
RATED: R (for disturbing bloody violence and images, language, some sexuality and nudity)
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes
• Audio Commentary
Sadly, not a companion piece to A Lonely Place to Die.
AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg
An escaped serial killer comes back for his ex. Emotions ensue.
Tired of lame serial killer films that relied solely on mindless gore, writer/producer Simon Barrett and director/editor/camera operator Adam Wingard set about to make a psychological thriller that put you inside the mind of a killer. Boy, did they fail.
Garrick Turrell (Bowen) is a serial killer so famous he has his own Facebook fan page. Too bad his ‘fans’ can’t see that he oftentimes crouches into a near fetal position and cries after most of his kills. Not helping his case is that Bowen looks alarmingly like comedian Paul F. Tompkins.
After escaping from a prison van (no reason ever given as to why he was being transported) by killing a guard (with a screw that so conveniently happened to be on the floor), Turrell sets about returning to the woman he was involved with and, incidentally enough, helped lead police to his capture.
Sarah (Seimetz) is a dental technician who is understandably still dealing with the after effects of having slept with a guy who likes to keep corpses in a storage facility. We’re introduced to her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, as I guess a psychiatrist’s office or victims support group would’ve been too obvious. It’s there where she meets fellow addict Kevin (mumblecore fixture Swanberg), who takes an immediate liking to her.
The budding relationship between Sarah and Kevin takes up the majority of the film probably because, despite his apparent popularity on social media, Garrick is not an interesting character. Very little explanation is given as to why or who he kills, and his misgivings about his murderous acts (the aforementioned crying) beg for psychological insights that the filmmakers don’t even bother expounding upon. This pretty much defeats the entire purpose of the movie. Sarah’s struggles with PTSD, paranoia, and learning to trust again would’ve made for a much more compelling movie had Garrick been kept more as a peripheral, or off-screen completely, threat who could rear his head at any moment. As it is now, we have little to fear about Garrick, especially since flashbacks to his relationship with Sarah go out of their way to show that he loved her (you know, as much as a serial killer can love someone). What is meant to show that Garrick isn’t a one-note cliché only helps to confuse the tension the filmmakers are trying to build. Near the end he has a monologue about how his propensity for murder prevented him from giving her the trusting relationship she desired. All he needed to do was get on his knees and plead, “I won’t kill any other women, babe. I promise!” to push this into so-bad-it’s-good territory, but alas…
Although all three roles are fairly stock as written, Seimetz and Swanberg have an effortless rapport that makes even a seemingly unnecessary dialogue about borrowing a toothbrush seem important. It’s no surprise to find out they’ve worked together previously. Seimetz herself is the standout with a performance that appears quite natural. Her ability to convey emotion despite the limitations of the screenplay is one of the few bright spots of the film, the other being Jasper Justice Lee’s effectively eerie score. It’s only a shame that as the movie progresses she becomes, to put it bluntly, quite stupid. Are we really expected to believe that even though Garrick hears about his own escape through newspapers, television, and radio (in three separate scenes no less) Sarah doesn’t hear about it at all until – you guessed it – it’s too late? Call me crazy, but if I had dated someone who butchered people I’d want to know every time they sneezed.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: A Horrible Way to Die is quite possibly the worst shot film I have ever seen. Being a lover of independent film I am more than used to and accepting of handheld photography. I am not, however, accepting of a movie that looks like it was shot by Michael J. Fox off his meds. Seriously, this movie would make the Blair Witch Project directors puke. In what is by far the shakiest scene in the entire film, which Wingard for some reason decided to shoot one-handed, Barrett jokes in the commentary that Wingard must’ve been furiously masturbating with his other hand. That’s the only plausible explanation I can accept, because as an aesthetic choice it’s quite inexcusable. Wingard also chooses to transition between scenes by going in and out of focus, which becomes annoying really fast, and sometimes doesn’t even bother to frame the main action occurring in the scene. Sloppy doesn’t even begin to describe it.
There’s a plot twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, though with everything being handled so poorly it’s too little too late. The ending itself is a cop out that negates the very title of the movie. For two people trying to draw fresh blood (sorry) from a tired genre, their decision – pitifully justified in the commentary – to stray from what would have been a shockingly cruel yet refreshingly daring ending is tantamount to a cinematic castration. Oh, well. We’ll always have The Mist.
Movies like Silence of the Lambs, Copycat, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer have proved it is indeed possible to make an intellectually stimulating serial killer film that doesn’t solely rely on gore. But those movies had compelling characters, intelligent writing and coherent directing, none of which A Horrible Way to Die possesses. It’s always commendable to try a new spin on a well-worn genre, but in the end it’s all about the execution. No pun intended.
As it is quite obvious from viewing that this is a low-budget affair, the audio commentary by Wingard and Barrett delves into the intricacies involved in shooting with so few resources. This is quite informative for beginning filmmakers and proves to be more interesting than the feature itself. Wingard and Barrett are both affable and passionate guys who are fun to listen to; you just wish their talent matched their enthusiasm. They relate one story of how a noise preventing them from shooting turned out to be the next door neighbors having sex in a shower for an hour-and-a-half, which would’ve been a less horrible way to spend ninety minutes than watching this movie.
Also included are a fairly bland seven-minute behind the scenes featurette and forced trailers for Bereavement with Michael Biehn and the unintentionally-hilarious looking Christine rip-off Super Hybrid (“Most cars run on fuel. This one runs on blood!”).
Out of a Possible 5 Stars