A Horrible Way to Die. 2011. Dir. Adam Wingard. Written by Simon Barrett.
Starring A.J Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Brandon Carroll, and Lane Hughes. Anchor Bay Entertainment. Rated R. 87 minutes. Horror
★★★★ (Blu ray release)
I’ve been a longtime fan of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. Though, I did experience Barrett’s writing in the eerie Civil War-era horror film Dead Birds before I experienced his recent partnership as a writer-director team with Wingard. They are a really great pair. I think Wingard doesn’t just work well with Barrett in the sense they’re probably good friends, he seems to get what the writer is saying, or at least they appear to have the same sensibilities. This translates really well onto film. I don’t think they’ve exactly reinvented horror, but I do think they continually succeed in breathing new life into tired genre filmmaking.
Always hesitant to say it myself, Wingard belongs to the small group of horror filmmakers people like to dub with the yawn-worthy label “mumblegore” – an offshoot of “mumblecore, what I see as a silly labeling of films concerned with more natural approaches to dialogue, story, or any aspects really, as opposed to a lot of the fake, plastic genre filmmaking pumped out of Hollywood. “Mumblegore” then are simply horror films that look to achieve these sorts of aesthetics. A Horrible Way to Die is a new look at the serial killer horror movie, which is presented to us through Wingard’s unique eye from a script by Barrett. The whole thing might seem, to some, as an aimless sort of method towards telling a story and visually showing us the film. On the other hand, I think Barrett and Wingard present a truly humanistic version of what could be a simple story about the psychology behind that of a serial killer balancing his home life and his criminal life on a razor’s edge. It also doesn’t hurt there’s a nice little twist in the finale.
A Horrible Way to Die tells the story of Garrick Turrell (Bowen), a convicted serial killer operating in the southern United States. He escapes custody while being transported from his prison facility. He starts to kill his way back towards home. There, his former girlfriend Sarah (Seimetz) is drying out. Sarah spends her nights now trying to kick the alcoholism she adamantly believes caused her to overlook Garrick’s true personality. Through Alcoholics Anonymous, Sarah ends up meeting a guy named Kevin (Swanberg) with whom she begins to get close after slowly letting down her guard. All the while, Garrick continues a path of destruction trying to reach Sarah once more.
I think one of the reasons this movie came across so well for me is due to the amazing cast. First of all I’ll mention Joe Swanberg because his role is the smallest in comparison to the two leads. His character starts out feeling sort of awkward, but not because Swanberg’s acting is bad; he conveys Kevin as a bit of an odd guy, obviously struggling with his own alcohol problems. Eventually, however, you start to sense something about him is not exactly quite right. You just can’t put your finger on it. I think Swanberg did a lot of subtle acting with this character and it really worked well for the plot. I think not enough focus is given to how well he plays off Amy Seimetz here. Partly because she is really great.
Seimetz does a great job playing a very conflicted women in A Horrible Way to Die. I think a lot of people, who just want to complain, might try and say Barrett writes her poorly as a strong female role. I disagree. Women don’t have to be perfect. Just as they don’t have to look pathetic and near complete helplessness like Stanley Kubrick’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance in The Shining. Sarah is a complex woman with difficult problems on her plate. If there hadn’t been such a great performance by Seimetz perhaps this character may have come off like a real pushover. Instead, I get the impression she’s someone who doesn’t want to give up. One scene shows her having a bit of a relapse and then proceeding to pour all the rest of her liquor down the toilet; you can tell, while she fell off the wagon briefly, a realization set her back in place. Unfortunately for Sarah, there are other, higher powers at work threatening to undo everything. It’s a really great role and I think nobody else but Seimetz could do it. She fits in very well with the style of Wingard.
The ultimate best part about A Horrible Way to Die is absolutely A.J Bowen. I’ve been a fan of his for awhile now ever since I first saw a movie called The Signal; he was fantastic in it, and ever since I’ve paid attention to anything with him in the cast. Here, his portrayal of Garrick Turrell really does something for me. He’s a lot more dapper and charming than Michael Rooker’s titular character from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Still, there is something about him in this film which reminds me of Rooker. Underneath Bowen’s boyish good looks and disarming voice lurks the presence of evil – Turrell can barely go fifty feet without seeing another person he wants to kill. It’s like this part of him is engrained into his DNA, hardwired to his brain. He can’t forego the urges.
I think casting Bowen really helped this character. Very well-written, but Bowen brings the Ted Bundy-ish charm to Garrick Turrell. I can see how this guy would get away with things so long if he were being careful, just as Bundy himself was doing until he went even more insane than he initially was and got himself caught – the charming nature really takes people off their guards and leaves them vulnerable to Turrell’s sick whims.
I really loved the opening scene of the movie when Garrick is sitting in his car; he snaps awake, as if out of a nice nap, gets out and opens a trunk to reveal a woman bound and gagged. He apologizes and tells the lady he must have dozed off. It’s the way he says it which really sets the tone for things to come. There are a few interactions Turrell has with people that speak to his chilling character, such as in a flashback scene to a night when he gets home to Sarah late, and naturally she has questions; coupled with what we know about him already and what we’ll learn more of soon after, the ease with which lies come out of his mouth to explain his otherwise unexplainable whereabouts is astonishing.
Again to reference real life, I imagine this might be how many serial killers have sounded to their significant others. Specifically I think of a man like Dennis Rader, a.k.a B.T.K (Bind Torture Kill), who went home to his wife and children every night while also going out to do heinous things, maybe after they all went to bed or maybe he made up a story like Turrell to explain his absence later. I imagine Rader probably sweet talked just like this. It’s very chilling. Bowen is amazing in this movie, and in general. His casting is genius here.
As a film, I absolutely give this 4&1/2 stars. There’s nothing wrong with A Horrible Way to Die. Admittedly, some may not necessarily enjoy all the cinematography Wingard chooses to use. I think while the story tries to distance itself from the typical outings we usually get in regards to serial killers, as there are tons, the handheld camerawork Wingard does in this movie really sets it apart from what we’re used to – apart from a few unique slashers, Se7en, as well as more recent works like the Red Riding trilogy and HBO’s True Detective, there aren’t too many really fresh takes on serial killers floating around. A lot of the same old meal. I have to at least admire, above all else, the effort on the parts of both Barrett and Wingard to try and subvert expectations a little while still somewhat working with a formula familiar to audiences.
Most recently, they’ve moved into action-thriller territory with a fabulous film, The Guest, attempting to do the same thing with a different genre. I will always keep my eye on either of them, whether as a team or not. Great director and great writer.
The Blu ray release from Anchor Bay Entertainment I have also comes with three other films: WWE Films’ No One Lives, Hatchet, and The Alphabet Killer. While it does have a bit of extra content, it’s less than you might expect from a single release of the title. That being said, I really, really enjoyed the commentary with Barrett and Wingard. Lots of valuable insight not only into the film, but also into their thought process, both personally and artistically. They’re genuine guys from what I can tell, so it’s always nice to hear an audio commentary where the people talking are concerned first and foremost with discussing the film, and not themselves. Also, there’s a nice little featurette, “Behind the Scenes of A Horrible Way to Die” where you get to see a lot of fun little bits from the production of the film. I admire Wingard a lot as a director because he really loves to be hands on, and you get to see a lot of small bits where he’s basically doing the job of director, as well as director of photography (for those who don’t know – this would be the individual in charge of the camera/lighting crews). While it is a small movie, it’s still great to see how much of Wingard’s vision is really coming across in the finished film.
This is absolutely a fresh film on an old subject. If you’re a fan of Wingard’s earlier work, or even his latest, you should definitely see this – likewise with Barrett [Dead Birds is the first of his movies I saw & I really love it – own it on DVD – so if you’ve seen his other stuff please check that out also]. There are lots of visually interesting scenes in this movie. Some might not enjoy the frenetic look of the camerawork. I think it really fits the tone and subject of A Horrible Way to Die, and brings a unique perspective to the serial killer sub-genre. Not to mention the score of this film is totally ominous; this is one of those dark, brooding scores where the music really crawls under your skin, rattles your bones and teeth, and generally unsettles you. Everything works together here to provide horror with, at the very least, something different. A Horrible Way to Die is a great and non-typical experience amongst so many other movies trying to do the same thing while failing to actually do so. There’s an atmosphere and mood about this one that will haunt you for days. It haunted me. Still does.
For my review of You’re Next, the home invasion horror-thriller by Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett, click here.