Monday, October 17, 2011

A Horrible Way to Die

A recovering alcoholic meets a nice young man in her support group, but has trouble opening up to him due to some dark secrets in her past. Meanwhile, a serial killer escapes from jail, and leaves a trail of bodies behind him as he travels the country. Flashbacks slowly reveal a shared history between the two, and it becomes clear that their paths will be crossing again soon.

Things were off to a bad start, and I was not inclined to give director Adam Wingard the benefit of the doubt. His Home Sick was one of the worst horror movies in recent memory, and I had to shut off Pop Skull after 30 minutes due to boredom. So when A Horrible Way to Die started in with its desaturated, hand held style (often obnoxious, lazy, low budget shorthand for "this movie is serious and gritty, yo"), I was ready to write it off. I'm glad I didn't. Much like how Stevan Mena made major personal improvements between Malevolence and Bereavement, so too has Wingard evolved into a promising filmmaker. A Horrible Way to Die is a smart, moody thriller/character piece with some seriously strong performances and a few unique ideas. It's serious minded and even kind of sad in a way few horror movies ever bother for these days. And though Wingard's initial aesthetic choices rubbed me wrong, they are mitigated by his favoring of long takes and naturalistic performances.

My main misgivings here come from the ending, but I don't want to get specific because I'm still highly recommending this one. After an hour an 15 minutes or so of muted, understated atmosphere (punctuated by effective scenes of violence) and thoughtful character work, it throws in a silly, unnecessary and borderline insulting twist that makes some of the movie seem weaker in retrospect. But then, the movie throws in another twist that's actually kind of cool and, unlike the first, follows logically from everything we've seen before. So I guess I'm conflicted.

As a final note: just a shout-out to actor AJ Bowen, who plays the serial killer. Bowen is becoming something of a scream king; he was in two of my favorite horror films from the last decade, House of the Devil and The Signal, and stole every scene he was in. As far as I know, maybe he hates it and feels like he's stuck in the horror movie ghetto, but I'm always happy to see someone doing strong work in the genre. Here, after so many lively, wisecracking serial killers in the movies, Bowen brings us a guy with a real sense of melancholy and inner-turmoil, and he's a big part of why this film works so well.

Grade: B

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