Earlier this week, the Melbourne International Film Festival teased audiences by announcing a couple of titles that would be playing during the two and a half week celebration of film. One of those titles was the highly anticipated and very well received horror film, “You’re Next”, which is written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard. This talented pair had previously combined forces on 2010’s “A Horrible Way To Die”, which is set firmly in the serial killer sub-genre but with quite a significant twist. It is a title that I have had sitting on my dvd shelf for quite some time, still unwatched, and with the announcement that Barrett and Wingard’s latest would be playing at this year’s MIFF, I thought now was the perfect time to dust it off and finally give the film a watch.
The film is about a twenty-something aged girl named Sarah who once was unknowingly in a relationship with a serial killer. After following her boyfriend, Garrick, during one of his many late night “walks”, Sarah happens to come across a storage unit that he has kept secret from her. Going back to the place in daylight, Sarah breaks into the unit only to discover the horrible secret Garrick had been hiding from her. She breaks down and immediately calls the police, thus ending her relationship with Garrick and being the main reason why this notorious serial killer was finally put behind bars. Years after Garrick’s incarceration, Sarah is still struggling to get herself back together and regularly attends AA meetings for her alcohol abuse. She believes that if she hadn’t been drinking or drunk most of the time while she was with Garrick that the outcome would have been very different and many lives would have been saved. To be truthful, Sarah is a wreck of a person, but one day whilst at one of her meetings, a young man named Kevin reaches out to her. Although Sarah is unsure if she is ready for this kind of attention, she decides that it is finally time to re-enter the world and agrees to go out on a date with Kevin. As time goes on, she begins to feel more comfortable with Kevin and even starts to enjoy his company. However this new found happiness may be short lived, as Garrick has recently escaped from prison and is heading directly to the whereabouts of his ex-girlfriend.
The majority of “A Horrible Way To Die” is really excellent. It is a very well put together film, filled with great ideas and fantastic, naturalistic performances. The script is interesting in the way that it tackles the conventions of the serial killer film and turns them on their head to create something that is truly unique within the genre, and the way the story has been edited and presented in a non-linear format, also makes the story immensely suspenseful and intriguing throughout. However, as good as all this is, the diabolical way “A Horrible Way To Die” has been shot, almost destroys any enjoyment you can get from this film………almost.
Before I get to the major negative of the film, let’s talk about the positives. As I mentioned the film has a couple of great performances from Amy Seimetz and AJ Bowen, as Sarah and Garrick respectively. Bowen does a stunning job of presenting a man who hates what is inside him, but doesn’t have the strength to stop himself from performing these heinous deeds. Garrick isn’t your normal “movie” serial killer, rather thanks to Bowen’s performance, he is represented as a deeply flawed human being who is sick with an insanity he cannot control. It is so obvious that this is a man who is at war with himself; a man who is constantly fighting over what he wants to do against what he “has” to do. Each time the man kills, he is often seen crying or slumped in a heap knowing he has failed yet again to stop himself from letting the evil out. It is such a well rounded performance that you actually get a sense of what is going on in Garrick’s head, despite the fact that he is given limited dialogue. One telling piece of dialogue that comes late in the film is when Garrick explains why he loved prison so much which was because of the space between people, meaning he was never close enough to anyone to kill them. Seimetz, likewise, gives an amazingly human performance as Sarah and never once makes a false step. She is also presented as a very flawed person, someone who is riddled with guilt due to uncontrollable things in her past, and she is failing to come to terms with. Seimetz injects so much pain into Sarah that it looks like she could breakdown at any moment. She seems to wander the world in a daze; she is alive but barely exists, that is, until Kevin enters her life and she slowly starts to find her feet again, although Sarah is one who finds trusting people very hard, for obvious reasons. In regards to Joe Swanberg’s performance as Kevin, while he is certainly not bad, he just isn’t as convincing as his contemporaries. He gives Kevin a smarmy presence and I never felt as if he was ever truly sincere.
While I usually hesitate to mention a twist in a film, I am going to do so here. Late in the film, there is a significant twist in the tale, as everyone’s motivations appear to change that leads to the films denouement. While I really believe that the twist is quite clever and should have worked really well within the film, unfortunately the finale of the film just hasn’t been done well at all, particularly from an acting standpoint. It appears that the actors went to great lengths to portray such an emotional honesty for the early scenes of the film that when it came to the big reveal when some of the character’s true motivations are revealed, they aren’t able to make this change as believable as it should have been. For the first time in the film, everything plays out more like a movie and the situation, for once, does not feel real. From a directorial standpoint also, the final scene just looks rushed and everything is blocked as basic as can be. This is a shame because if this scene could have been pulled off with the honesty of what had come before it, “A Horrible Way To Die” could have become a genre classic.
Another thing that impressed me about the film was its editing, and the fact that the story was presented in a non-linear fashion. While I will admit that it did cause some confusion early on in the film, once I understood exactly what was going on and who was who, I found the device to be exciting and it generated some great suspense. It may be true that the editing disguises just how straightforward and simple the story really is, but for me I thought it added another dimension to the film and it made it much more enjoyable. The way Garrick’s back-story is presented really gives him extra depth in regards to just how human and likeable he was when he was with Sarah, something you would never imagine early on in the film.
Now, it is time for me to talk about the biggest flaw in “A Horrible Way To Die” and that is the way the film is shot. Right off the bat, let me say that I am not a fan of “shaky cam” at all. I think it is often used to disguise a director’s deficiencies and is very often used lazily, although I will admit there are some times (not very often) when this style does work within the confines of the film itself. This film appears to have been shot entirely hand-held, which I do not have a problem with in and of itself, it is just the style that director Adam Wingard chooses to employ within the handheld style that I couldn’t stand which is something even beyond “shaky cam”. For whatever reason, the camera never stays still and thus is constantly in motion (obviously), even during the most banal of dialogue sequences. Characters appear in and out of frame within shots as the camera seems to just sway aimlessly. What is so strange about this is that this is obviously a conscious decision from Wingard to shoot like this because the camera moves so unnaturalistically that it had to be deliberate. It makes the film infuriating to watch and actually works against the film because it just takes away from what is so good about the film which are the performances (and the story as well). It immediately takes you out of what you are watching because you become so aware of the camera moving, mainly because of the actors appearing in and out of frame so often. Even worse are the scenes in Sarah’s house which for some reason is lit entirely with Christmas lights. Whenever night scenes are played out in this apartment we get the red flares from the lights making it almost impossible to see what is going on, this combined with the camera nauseatingly swaying all over the place. Another deliberate thing is the fact that a lot of what we see is out of focus. Again, I do not understand why a director would choose to film his story in this way as it seems so anti-productive.
Overall, as bad as the visual style of “A Horrible Way To Die” is, I think the strengths of the film are so strong that I was still able to get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It is obvious that both Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard have talent (Wingard also edited the film) and they have created quite an amazing film that had the potential to be a classic if it was shot in a normal conventional way. While some detractors of the film may claim it to be too slow, I thought it’s pacing was spot on. In fact, I thought pretty much everything about the film was spot on, if not for the damn visuals……Why, Adam, Why?!?! Thankfully, from the look of the trailer of the pair’s next film, “You’re Next”, Wingard has abandoned this intrusive style of filming for a more traditional approach and from all reports, the film is amazing. While “A Horrible Way To Die” frustrated me no end, the film has so much good in it that I would still cautiously recommend it.