The Deep South can be a very strange place for outsiders. Mired in traditions and rituals that may now seem foolish or outdated, it is still a ripe place to cull old legends anew, projecting them up on the silver screen for a scare or two.
The familiar, often sensationalized, role that cultish backwoods communities have played for decades in horror films is inverted in Chad Crawford Kinkle's feature debut Jug Face. Moving away from the usually gruesome antagonistic role they have been known to play against often bright-eyed and bushy-tailed northerners out 'a frolicking, Kinkle instead focuses his sympathies squarely on the tight-knit community itself, and how such a twisted, insular folk can be born.
Grim and heavy in atmosphere right off the bat, the opening credits run over a simple animation giving us the history of how a small community came to deny their Christian God and gave themselves -- mind, body and spirit -- over to The Pit, and to the healing powers of the creature that resided within. But to keep the people healthy, The Pit every now and again requires a human sacrifice. The chosen one's face is fashioned on a moonshine jug by the community's possessed potter. This pact has remained intact, bonded by the blood of generations, all the way up to the 21st century.
On the same day she finds out she is to be married off to an eligible young man in the community, the teenaged Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) discovers her own face on the jug that is baking in the oven of current potter Dawai (Sean Bridgers). In a moment of panic, she hides the jug face in the woods and joins her engagement celebration. Unbeknownst to her parents ( indie horror guru Larry Fessenden and the now matriarchal Sean Young), Ada has been impregnated by her brother, and is determined to survive and bring the baby to term.
But, as they say, "The Pit wants what it wants", and when she is unwilling to cooperate The Pit begins to kill, in particularly gnarly Evil Dead-fashion, other members of the community. Shame and judgment swell in Ada as she is possessed by the creature of The Pit during each attack, cursed to view each and every gory demise from its warped perspective. Even as her community begins to fall apart around her, Ada is steadfast in her plans of escape.
As it is, Jug Face is not the sum of its parts. While steeped in thick atmosphere and anchored by some interesting riffs on classic horror tropes, the film is far more underwhelming in execution than it is dynamic and provocative -- elements that feel largely left on the page.
Running only 80 minutes, but feeling much longer, it is the clunky pacing that readily kills any sense of dread and desperation that should be fueling Ada's journey either to, or away from, The Pit.
Still, one can't entirely shun an earnest talent while it is still developing. With another movie or two under his belt, Kinkle should be primed to join the current ranks of the smart, subversive horror directors.
Review originally published in slightly different form during the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2013. Jug Face is currently available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms and opens in limited theatrical release on Friday, August 9. Visit the official site for more information.