A Horrible Way To Die DVD Review

The Film
The mumblecore movement has thrown up its fair share of cinematic navel gazing, but lately some of its leading lights seem to be turning their hands to more to genre filmmaking, without losing sight of the lo-fi origins of this almost homemade style of cinema, and I’ve been rather enjoying their take on the horror genre. Director Adam Wingard shot this film; a sort of mumblecore Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, back in 2010, and typically for this group of filmmakers has since completed another 3 features of his own.

As the film opens, serial killer Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen) has escaped from custody and is on the run and killing again. Separately Sarah (Amy Seimetz) and Kevin (Joe Swanberg, one of the leading figures in mumblecore as director, writer and actor) meet at an Alcoholics Anonymous group and begin tentatively dating, but Sarah seems nervous, like she might be hiding something from Kevin.

On the up side, A Horrible Way to Die takes a different approach to a genre that we’ve seen hundreds upon hundreds of times. It’s very short (under 80 minutes between opening and closing credits), but it still concerns itself more with character than with incident. The relationship between Sarah and Kevin is beautifully developed, and both of them feel like complex, rounded characters, navigating something tentatively, each for their own reasons. For a while they feel as though they are off in their own little film, but it’s so beautifully observed that you go with it and the fact that you’re interested in, and care about, both of them makes the second half of the film, as Wingard ratchets up the tension and reveals more of the past, much more uncomfortable (in a good way). The serial killer side of the film is tough and violent, but doesn’t feel sensationalised. Though, at first glance, he seems like a normal, harmless, guy you’re never asked to look at Turrell as an anti-hero, and murder is shown as a difficult, messy and nasty act. Violence is never fun or cheap here, and that approach really comes home in the film’s brilliant, haunting, opening scene.

It also helps that the performances are uniformly top-notch. Seimetz and Swanberg are both very naturalistic and draw you into their characters lives with a series of intimate observed moments. AJ Bowen is very different, and his affectless performance is genuinely chilling, allowing you to buy Turrell as a truly dangerous man. Only in the film’s last few minutes do the performances stop working – for reasons I can’t get into without ruining the film.

While there are many good things here, there are also things that don’t work. While Simon Barrett’s screenplay is strong on character it’s less hot on plot. I found the key twists here to be very predictable, and that further undermined an ending that doesn’t quite work anyway, both because it involves a character moment that doesn’t quite come off and because the closing moments feel, to me anyway, at odds with the unsparing tone of the rest of the film.

There’s also the matter of the way the film is shot. Much of the time the grainy handheld does help convey an observed and intimate feeling, but sometimes it just feels a bit self-conscious and you wish the operator would hold the camera steady for just a few seconds, obviously this is most felt in the moments when the film isn’t quite working in other departments, but it did pop me out of scenes that I was otherwise enjoying from time to time. Your mileage may vary, depending on how you feel about this style of cinematography, I’ve always felt that – by trying consciously to do the exact opposite – it draws a lot of attention to itself.

On the whole, A Horrible Way to Die is a film that overcomes its flaws with some fine performances and a refreshing take on themes and characters that we’ve seen before. It’s not perfect, but it more than holds the attention for 80 minutes and has more genuinely chilling moments than most Hollywood horrors in recent memory.

The Disc
Picture and sound are both solid enough, but the lo-fi, low budget, origins of the film definitely show in the disc. It’s never less than watchable, but it’s never really more than that either. There are no extras, not even subtitles for the film, which is shameful. In this day and age there is no excuse for not catering to film fans who are hard of hearing. It’s also a shame that, with two other great posters to choose from, the DVD art looks quite so uninspired.

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