A Horrible Way to Die (2010): A Hell of A Way to Live
When someone is called "the future of horror", I generally scoff and say, "Yes, yes, I'm familiar with Ty West.", but I think for a change I've found someone who I may tentatively apply the dubious title. The director I'm talking about is Adam Wingard. After being impressed but his storytelling in the V/H/S 2 segment Phase 1 Clinical Trials, I went looking for what other films he had directed. Turns out, I had already seen on, Home Sick with Bill Mosley. While that film had some coherency problems as I recall, I didn't rather enjoy the dark spin on wish fulfillment. Poking around through my streaming services, I noticed that Wingard's A Horrible Way to Die was being featured and without even checking the synopsis I gave it a shot. What I got was not at all really what I expected, but rather something more mature and stylish than I would have thought a young director, or even one with moderate experience, could undertake.
What A Horrible Way to Die turned out to be was something well more than what could have appeared in a two line synopsis. When I looked after watching the film, the distillation of the plot is something to the effect of "an alcoholic tries to get her life together as her serial killer ex closes in for revenge.", and in the simplest non-spoilery kind of way, that is what this is. Sarah (Amy Seimetz) attends AA meetings where she is too shy to all about her past except in veiled statements, but who can blame her as her ex-boyfriend was Garrick Turell (AJ Bowen), an infamous killer who, we are told, has Facebook fans that number in the thousands. While being transported, and unbeknownst to Sarah who is recovering, working as a waitress, and dating nice guy Kevin she met at AA, Garrick escapes custody and begins to make his way toward the small Missouri town where Sarah now lives.
For most of the film we follow Sarah's mundane life as she tries to not drink, recover some trust in people, and make friends before the action switches over to Garrick murdering his way toward her. Somewhat confusingly, and only apparent because of changes in Garrick's facial hair, we also get to flash back to their relationship in the past. They seem a sweet couple. He just happens to go out a kill people at night while she is sleeping. When she makes the gruesome discovery, Sarah books a one way ticket into the bottle as her love, the murderer is hauled off to jail. The unfortunate thing is that both the main stories and the flashback inform the last ten minutes of the film in such a delicate way, and I don't want to spoil anything for anyone. I'll just suffice it to say that things did not go as I expected, and when a film does that, I am often greatly pleased.
While Wingard employs some nice cinematics, A Horrible Way to Die hangs most of its fate on the performance of Amy Seimetz as Sarah. It's not all that hard for AJ Bowen ( House of the Devil, Hatchet 2) to come off as a psycho. All you have to do is show him killing people, and as a audience, we will believe it. Bowen does have one lighter scene in which his bemused and deranged killer meets up with a paranoid schizophrenic for a conversation about government eavesdropping. (I'd also like to say a fine howdy do to the NSA agent assigned to monitor The Lair. Hope you're having a great day.) Seimetz's character is a tougher sell. She has to play a woman who is not only removing from alcohol addiction, a vice we never witness her indulge in, but also from the scar it must put on your sole when you find out that your significant other mutilated people and put them in a storage locker. Pulling off this kind of double trouble dysfunction is the stuff Oscars are made of. While I won't go so far as to say her performance should have somehow been Academy worthy, well, it was a damn site better than Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. Sarah is the emotional center of the film, and juxtaposed against the raw violence and the films devilish twist, Seimetz cements the film's core.
Now, back to Mr. Wingard. The script for A Horrible Way to Die, an original story by writer Simon Barrett (Red Sands, Dead Birds), is a complex affair more rooted in the emotional, character driven story than in illustrating horrible ways to die. In this regard, there will be many who are looking for torture porn level, serial killer violence who will be let down. For my money, the violence is deftly woven into the plot. It is often unexpected, and, at moments, gruesome, but for every heinous act that is shown, others are left to our imagination, horrible in a Hitchcockian Psycho mold. There are however some drawbacks to Wingard's stylistic choices. While much of the film has a slightly grainy atmosphere that kind of brought to mind the Coen Brothers' Fargo, Wingard still muddied the waters with quick cuts, swirling nausea inducing shots, and the dreaded MTV style cuts that I always hope will someday fade from film making. I can see how he wanted to use them to display insanity or disorientation, but they merely detracted from the experience of the film as a whole.
Having only seen two features and his segment in V/H/S 2, I still hesitate to firmly place the mantle of the "future of horror" on Wingate's shoulders, but in the same breath, I will say that I find great promise in his work so far. With a number of films still out there for me to check out, I will be curious if the opinion will change with further or future viewing of his new material. I really hope not. Where so many new promising horror directors are either latching themselves onto remakes (I'm looking at you Alexandre Aja) or stewing up the same ultra-violence we've all seen before, Wingard seems to genuinely be trying to do something different, approaching horror from a human perspective where monsters aren't always what they seem and the real horror might just be dealing with the reality of life. Not being able to gain control over your own existence? Now that would be a horrible way to die.