I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
Maybe I’m misreading the intentions of screenwriter Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard, but A Horrible Way to Die feels like an attempt to steer clear of the cynicism found in much of the current slate of indie serial killer films. While technically a horror film with its building sense of dread and occasional moments of brief bloodshed, it’s a quiet picture that is more concerned with the psychological trauma of its two leads than scares.
Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen) is an alleged serial killer awaiting trial in solitary confinement. When he escapes while being transported, his former girlfriend Sarah (Amy Seimetz), a recovering alcoholic now living in hiding, tries to hold her life together and not let her paranoia get the better of her. That’s easier said than done due to news of killings possibly committed by Garrick being reported. Even worse, the trail of bodies seems to point to Garrick making his way across the Midwest to where Sarah now lives.
Further complicating her life is Kevin (Joe Swanberg), a fellow recovering alcoholic whom she has started dating. Unable to tell him the full story of her past and dealing with misplaced guilt for Garrick’s murders, she stumbles awkwardly into the new relationship that seems built just as much on desperation for normalcy as affection. But if Garrick is out there and trying to make his way back to her, is Sarah placing Kevin’s life in danger just by letting him be near her?
That description makes the film sound like a white-knuckle thriller of mounting suspense, but Wingard takes a more subdued approach. He lingers over deliberately-paced scenes of Sarah and Kevin in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and on dates, observing her attempts not to revert back to drinking under the stress of the nonstop news of Garrick’s escape and apparent killing spree.
Wingard also devotes much of the film to scenes of Garrick as he makes his way cross-country, kidnapping and using women to get through roadblocks before killing them and stealing their vehicles. Where a lot of current indie horror films would use these scenes to indulge in graphic violence and gore, Wingard focuses more on the aftermath, as Garrick, wracked with guilt, composes himself before moving on. It’s a striking choice to focus just as much on the psychological damage that killing does to the killer as on the fear and paranoia of Sarah as the potential victim.
It’s this commitment to avoiding the dispiriting gore and inhumanity of the torture porn genre that I find admirable in the film. There are disturbing moments and Wingard doesn’t shy away from the bloody aftermath of violent death, but he never lingers over or fetishizes the violence. The film feels more realistic and unsettling for these choices.
At the same time that Wingard and Barrett avoid the obvious story beats and shock moments, Bowen and Seimetz deliver nuanced performances that strengthen the already solid film. The soft-spoken Bowen finds humanity in Garrick, making him almost sympathetic as he lingers over his victims in regret. His killer is not a brilliant movie psychopath who wants to kill and composes elaborate ways to do so. He is simply a sick man driven to do terrible things by a malfunction in his brain, which makes him pitiable and frightening at the same time. Seimetz gives the fragile Sarah an element of toughness that never comes off as false. There is no bravado to her fight with alcoholism or her attempts to maintain her composure in the face of increasing paranoia, but there is determination. There is a dignity to her performance—the sense of a warm soul shining through her stoic face.
The cinematography by Chris Hilleke and Mark Shelhorse takes a cue from the barren Midwestern winter scenery, composed of cold, blue and gray hues in the outdoor scenes. While that footage is striking, it pales in comparison to the close ups used on the actors in many of the interior scenes. Pushing the camera in on their faces, making the audience feel an intimacy with the characters that borders on uncomfortable, the shots also highlight the atmosphere of dread and create suspense out of what is not shown. It’s hard to tell much about the interior locations, leaving the viewer to wonder if Garrick might be lurking in the background.
This is one of the rare genre films that works just as well on an emotional level as a visceral one. It’s grim, but never descends into nihilism, leaving room for small moments of hope in Sarah’s story as she tries to move forward while looking over her shoulder.
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