Director – Adam Wingard, Screenplay – Simon Barrett, Producers – Simon Barrett, Kim Sherman & Travis Stevens, Photography – Chris Hilleke & Mark Shelhorse, Special Effects/Makeup Effects – Fantasy Creations FX (Supervisor – Mike Strain Jr.), Art Direction – Flynn Thomas Smith. Production Company – Two Squirrels/Snowfort Pictures/TTOB Productions/Arable Entertainment.
A.J. Bowen (Garrick Turrell), Amy Seimetz (Sarah), Joe Swanberg (Kevin), Brandon Carroll (Rusty), Lane Hughes (Reed), Kelsey Munger (Elisabeth), Holly Voges (Carla), Michael Anthony Miller (Steven), Ed Hanson (Mr Harper)
Garrick Turrell, a convicted Missouri serial killer, escapes from jail during a prison transfer. Avoiding the police roadblocks, he makes his way across country. Meanwhile, Sarah, his former girlfriend, is trying to place her life back together. She is the one who discovered that Garrick was a killer and called the police. She has been attending AA to deal with her drinking problem. There she meets and becomes involved with another attendee Kevin.
Adam Wingard has been a name on the rise in recent years. Wingard first appeared with the horror film Home Sick (2007) and then gained festival acclaim with the hallucinatory horror Pop Skull (2007), followed by the non-genre likes of What Fun We’re Having (2011) and Autoerotic (2011), the latter being co-directed with Joe Swanberg who is one of his actors here. Wingard gained increasingly wider recognition with the subsequent home invasion horror film You’re Next (2011), The Guest (2014) about a psychopathic Iraq War veteran, Blair Witch (2016), Death Note (2017) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021). He has also directed episodes of a number of multi-director anthologies, including The ABCs of Death (2012), V/H/S (2012) and V/H/S/2 (2013).
I have generally enjoyed most of Adam Wingard’s feature films so far (although cannot say the same of which I can say when it comes to his anthology segments). I cannot also help but think that all of his films have the potential to have been far better works if Wingard had pushed the material a little further. A Horrible Way to Die was the first Adam Wingard I found a fully satisfying experience and would have to call it his best film to date.
With A Horrible Way to Die, Adam Wingard has embraced the mumblecore movement – indeed, he even casts a director Joe Swanberg who has made the mumblecore film his home territory. This is a kitchen sink serial killer film. One where everything is shot in terms of grainy handheld camerawork that is constantly wandering around in focus but usually stays in closeups on the central characters. The effect evokes an unusual intimacy.
The film switches between the two point-of-view characters – A.J. Bowen’s just escaped serial killer and Amy Seimetz as his ex-girlfriend trying to put her life back together. It also flips back and forward in time between past, present and the order of events happening. The overall effect is to create a serial killer film that seems less a work of horror than one that exists as a state of mind.
A.J. Bowen makes a captivatingly unassuming killer. He holds your attention from the scene in which he is first introduced, where he sitting in a car pulled over on the roadside then gets out and opens the trunk to reveal a girl imprisoned there, apologises to her for drifting off to sleep and reassures her that everything is going to be alright only to then strangle her. He is immediately different to the horde of cacklingly insane geniuses that have crossed the screen. In its politeness, his is a performance of disturbing normalcy.
It is also a performance immensely aided by Adam Wingard’s understatement – in the scene just after A.J. Bowen goes through the police blockade with Kelsey Munger, Wingard does not need to show anything violent, just her frightened for her life and saying she wants to see her family and then the abrupt cut to the car parked and her bloodied head against the window as Bowen staggers about in the foreground. It is not that Wingard avoids shock effect either – there is one nasty scene where landlord Ed Hanson enters the house and finds the missing girl’s body and that her cat has been locked in and fed on her flesh.
I felt A Horrible Way to Die was an extremely absorbing and interesting film – that is up until its left field twist. This just felt a little gimmicky. It is an ending that would have worked well within a more standard thriller-modelled psycho film. It is just that this in a film that makes a virtue of its kitchen sink realism to suddenly start using very artificial plot devices seems forced. Furthermore, the series of confrontations between the various parties in these scenes are not well directed. The mumblecore approach makes the shock and action shots seems shabby and amateurish, of home movie quality, and the effect is a comedown from what the rest of the film was up to that point.