After being blown away by Pop Skull,
director Adam Wingard became an instant favorite of mine. It's obvious
the man has plenty of talent, so I was quite curious to see where it
would lead him next. While A Horrible Way To Die was made directly after
Pop Skull, the two films are actually very different and are almost
impossible to compare. That's not to say A Horrible Way To Die isn't
worth your attention though.
Pop Skull was above all an audiovisual experience, in A Horrible Way To
Die Wingard finds a better balance between abstract atmospheres, proper
character development and plot progression. Whether that actually
results in a better film is something that greatly depends on your own
take on cinema. The film is not as in your face as Pop Skull and takes a
little longer to engage, but in the end there is still a clever pay-off
and Wingard definitely succeeds in getting a clear point across.
With A Horrible Way To Die Wingard seems to be making his take on Henry
(Portrait Of A Serial-Killer). The thematic similarities and low-budget
background of both films are obvious enough, then again that's where the
comparison between the both of them should probably end. Wingard makes a
more subtle, introvert observation of the serial killer stereotype
while clinging onto a rawer, darker edge the entire running time.
Wingard's killer is not a depraved individual harboring pure evil,
rather a helpless young man battling his uncontrollable urges.
Garrick Turrell is a notorious serial killer that was put behind bars
when his girlfriend found out about his secret nightly activities. When
Turrell is transferred between prisons though he sees an opportunity for
escape and instinct takes over. On the other end of the spectrum we
find Sarah, a young woman recovering from her drinking problems and
reluctant to uphold any serious social contacts. The two are destined to
meet, but things are never as clear or easy as they seem.
While Wingard turns the strobes, glitches and other funky visual
trickery down a couple of notches, that's not to say that he completely
ignores the film's visual impact, on the contrary. Wingard plays a lot
with focus, keeps his camera close to his characters and operates it as
if slightly drunk. The camera sways through the film, shifting focus all
the time, sometimes completely losing track of the main characters only
to find them again a couple of seconds later. Add to that some stellar
play with lighting and color and you have a film that deserves to be
applauded for its visual identity, even if it's not as outspoken as in
The soundtrack too is familiar territory for Wingard. A smart mix of
more traditional film music blended with dark drones and moody ambient
make for the perfect ambiance and add an admirable level of dread and
uneasiness to the reigning atmosphere. Again the score is not as sharp
or overly present as it was in Pop Skull, but as the director clearly
puts more focus on the story here, it's a perfectly understandable
choice. In the end it still beats many other films out there who try to
do similar things with drones and soundscapes.
AJ Bowen takes up the role of serial killer and does so with great
conviction. He is perfect for a man living on the verge of society,
struggling with his own natural urges which turn him into a ruthless
killer when push comes to shove. Swanberg and Seimetz take up the roles
of the supporting characters. They do a pretty decent job but remain
somewhat overshadowed by the presence of Bowen. Especially Seimetz
fights to uphold the strength of her character, who from time to time
seems to wallows a little too much in her own sorrow.
The film has little regard for telling its story in chronological
order. Wingard isn't helping much either by upholding a consistent style
and hardly giving any indications or clues when time jumps occur.
Clothes and hairdos are the biggest giveaways, but apart from that he
leaves it up to the audience to figure out the details. I actually
appreciated this extra level of vagueness as it kept the story (which is
rather basic) interesting throughout. People who want to know what's
going at all times should know that all things are properly explained
during the course of the film, but mind that you could still feel
considerably lost in several individual scenes.
I still need to see Home Sick and You're Next, but it seems that Wingard
is using his talent for horror to create films that transcend simple
genre cinema. Both Pop Skull and A Horrible Way To Die definitely
deserve their horror classification, but only as a secondary genre.
Don't expect an average slasher or simple serial killer flick here,
Wingard aims higher and succeeds remarkably well on both accounts. It's
good to know that there are some talented people out there dedicated to
making a little more out of the horror genre than simple genre fare and
Even though similarities between this film and Pop Skull are rather
slim, there's still an underlying signature style that clearly belongs
to Wingard. His films are intimate, raw and combine a solid sense of
realism with strong and outspoken styling. A Horrible Way To Die turned
out to be a classy, gritty and nuanced serial killer flick that deserves
a loving, appreciative audience. What side of Wingard you like best is
mostly dependent on your own feelings of what good cinema is supposed to
be, but if you like your films a little different there should be more
than enough here to deliver an enjoyable and powerful evening worth of
serial killer material.
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