A Horrible Way To Die (2010)
(18) Running time: 84 minutes
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Simon Barrett
Starring: AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish, official HCF critic
Having read mixed reports of Adam Wingard’s third feature length film, A Horrible Way To Die, I went into this film with an open mind. First and foremost a massive congratulations on a quite wonderful title, however I fear the brutality of the title itself may put off some people who may actually find a lot to love about this film. Those expecting a full on barrage of blood and violence will be incredibly upset at the lack of violence on offer here, however those wanting something a bit special and a little different from the norm will be hugely rewarded. A Horrible Way To Die is unlike any other horror I have for quite some time, this is very clever, very arty, and those who enjoy atmosphere and style over gore and shocks will find a lot to like.
Wingard sets the tone with the opening scene of serial killer Garrick Turrell (an excellent and very chilling AJ Bowen) taking a female victim out of his car in the middle of nowhere and coldly strangling her and snapping her neck. It is harsh, but necessary to introduce Turrell in a way that will not allow you to side with him, no matter what your excuse might be. Turrell is a fearsome creation, and even in moments of fear as he believes two locals are about to turn him into the police, it is difficult to side with him. Anyway, the opening scene is almost colourless, it feels cold, chilling and very claustrophobic, and this is exactly how Wingard intends to carry on. Now that we have met Turrell, we then meet Sarah (Amy Seimetz) and Kevin (Joe Swanberg), two recovering alcoholics who meet and form a relationship while attending AA meetings. As the two become close, we learn that Turrell was in fact Sarah’s boyfriend before being locked up for murder, and Sarah is a damaged individual trying to put her life back together. The film now skips around stories and time zones, we jump back in time, we return to present day, without much explanation and it is down to you the viewer to work out where you are in the story. Now, just in case you get really confused whether you are witnessing past events or current, you can check the status of Turrell’s facial hair as he very kindly shaves off his beard for the present.
The film explains, in a cold and incredibly unnerving scene, that Turrell broke free from prison while being transferred and he is now heading back to his home town, and coming for Sarah. Now, with Turrell on the loose and Sarah in a new relationship, things start to become tricky, especially as Turrell begins killing again. To say much more of the plot would not be a good idea, so let’s talk about the film itself, and Wingard’s astonishing style.
Firstly, this is NOT a found footage film, but is filmed almost as a documentary. Wingard’s camera follows the characters around, creeping up on them when they least expect it, and yes it does wobble a bit, especially in a later scene where a character has a sudden realisation. This is exceptional stuff, and Wingard pops his camera quite literally anywhere he chooses: in the back seat of a car peering over the driver’s shoulder, in the ceiling looking down on Sarah and Kevin talking, it creeps into a motel room and into the shower, it peers around corners, Hell, in a number of breathtakingly beautiful scenes, the camera almost becomes part of Sarah’s collection of hanging Christmas tree type lights. This camera actually feels like a character from the film itself, it feels alive, and while this intrusive, claustrophobic and in your face style may not be suitable for everyone, I loved it. In another quite brilliant scene the camera ‘walks’ along a line of parked cars waiting for a police road block to check them, and when we get to the end car, the camera peers in so we can see who is in it. What also gave this film such a unique, cold and chilling atmosphere was the use of music: it is hard to describe the music, but it is a brooding, harrowing presence which will get louder as things intensify. The music, camera and colourless look of the film give it a real sense of evil lurking, the tone here is intense, claustrophobic, incredibly menacing and downright frightening at times. In fact, the use of music and atmosphere reminded me of Ben Wheatley’s exceptional film, Kill List.
Then there’s the cast themselves, all give wonderful performances, and even the extras at the AA meeting convince. However, this is Turrell and Sarah’s show, two completely different people, and two fascinating characters. Sarah is lonely and desperate for a normal life again after the turmoil of her relationship with a killer, she turned to drink after finding out he was a killer and now she wants her life back. The relationship she has with Turrell in the flashbacks is a caring one, although she worries why he keeps heading off at night. In her present day, her relationship with Kevin is expertly realised by Wingard who perfectly creates the way a scared, lonely woman would carefully start a new relationship. Then there is Turrell, and he may not be likeable, but he is certainly interesting. We learn he has thousands of fans who write him letters and even send marriage proposals while he is locked up, further proof at society’s fascination with serial killers. Turrell is a tortured soul and it appears he no longer gets pleasure from killing, but does not know anything else. In one of the film’s most chilling scenes a blonde drives him through a police road block and she asks if he can let her go. He tells her to pull over while letting the camera get a quick glimpse of his knife. The scene is almost unbearable to watch, but the look of anguish on Turrell’s face as he realises what he must do says more than a thousand words could. We later see him cry over a dead body in his bath, this man doesn’t enjoy killing, he needs to do it, and that is far more frightening.
A Horrible Way To Die is superb, this is real horror, dramatic horror, intense, moody and unforgiving horror at its best. Those who enjoy the serious, building stuff which requires a bit of effort from the viewer will love this. This is a superb character study of a serial killer, blended with a very real and honest story of one woman trying to put her life back together (some of the alcoholic scenes are incredibly powerful). Wingard has created something really quite special here, something different and something so harrowing, chilling and intense, it is guaranteed to stay with you for days after. This is powerful stuff, masterfully directed by a man at the very top of his game. If this is the kind of stuff Wingard can come up with only three films in, then we have a fresh, raw talent on our hands who will very soon be known to horror fans the world over. Adam Wingard, job well done!