What is horror? As covered in many of my reviews, it is such a broad topic open to an enormous expanse of diverse interpretations. Horror movies cater to so many different tastes too; from bloody gorefests, through creepy, atmospheric ghost stories, to slow burn, psychological head scratchers, somebody somewhere has it covered. But what do these movies, often at polar opposite ends of the genre spectrum, have in common? I would argue that, regardless of the niche in which it may sit, all horror movies – every single one – boil down to the suffering of others, the vicarious thrill of watching other humans in peril, in danger, in pain. The variety comes in the implementation; the application of the various genre tropes to the characters they paint. Whilst my chosen sub-genre, the oft-maligned slasher flick, arguably deals with the more far-fetched and implausible end of things, upcoming release from 101 Films ‘The Pit’ – which may be on your radar under the more interesting US name ‘Jug Face’ – deals with the polar opposite; the banality of suffering, the human and moral cost of faith, and the evil people do to each other under the banner of tradition.
In the American backwoods is a small community unchanged for over a hundred years. Having suffered from an unknown plague when it was established, the villagers turned to a supernatural creature living in a pit in the forest; in exchange for the sacrifice of certain people, the pit healed the sick and kept the community safe. In the present day, simple-minded villager Dawai receives visions from the pit of the offerings it wants; he, in turn, sculpts clay pots of their faces and the sacrifice is made. When young girl Ada is the next face out of the fire she takes the opportunity to spare herself and hides her effigy. The pit, however, is most displeased, and a sequence of tragic and bloody events is set in motion.
‘Jug Face’ is a very strange film. The script is deceptively dense, covering a range of philosophical questions of love, family, tradition and faith, whilst at the same time juggling the pressing issue of a murderous supernatural pit out in the woods. It is testament, then, that the plot never feels baggy or slow; an achievement given the room that each of these ideas is given to breathe and develop. More impressive still is that whilst the characters are instantly familiar – over-zealous parents, simple but good natured friend, creepy neighbours, and innocent main girl – the script allows space for them to become three dimensional people, and that even when some actions are their most deplorable the motivations are always clear and logical. All characters, bar the ‘Holy Fool’, are painted in shades of grey too, and their interactions make for interesting and engaging viewing.
The cast of ‘Jug Face’, whilst small, is uniformly great. ‘The Woman’ alumni Lauren Ashley Carter and Sean Bridgers are reunited here as appealing lead girl Ada and simpleton Dawai, and whose previous dynamic as father-daughter is subverted to some extent here. Carter is excellent, delicately balancing wide-eyed terror with a burgeoning adult perspective on the unfolding tragedies. Further credit must go to the actress for creating a character whose strength is entirely believable and whose more emotional moments come across as neither whiney nor annoying. On a parallel with Asta Paredes star-making turn in ‘Return to Nuke ‘Em High’ Carter establishes herself firmly as a star ready for mainstream success. Bridgers also puts in a stellar turn; gone is the simmering brutality and casual sadism of Chris in ‘The Woman’, instead portraying the child-like Dawai as both charmingly innocent and eminently likeable. A role of this kind often descends into parody territory, with many actors gurning and laughing manically, but Bridgers’ performance is wonderfully nuanced and skilful; mainstream recognition for him, too, cannot be far away. The main supporting cast are also very solid. Sean Young (yes, that one) gives a great performance as Ada’s mother, whose frustration at her own life serves to mask borderline sadism simmering below the surface; Ada’s brother Jessaby is ably played by Daniel Manche, David from 2007’s ‘The Girl Next Door’, who creates a disconcerting screen persona, sexually threatening and emotionally manipulative; Larry Fessenden, Erik in 2011 genre mega-hit ‘You’re Next’, does an excellent job as Sustin, Ada’s dad, subtly balancing a man who is both driven by duty to his community and love for his daughter.
‘Jug Face’ is the feature debut of writer and director Chad Crawford Kinkle. Oftentimes, when someone tries to take on both of these important duties, one stands out as being vastly superior to the other but, to Kinkle’s credit, that is not the case here. His script is lively and he tackles familiar tropes in an engaging and nuanced way. His direction is similarly subtle, his camera being largely stationary and static; it becomes chaotic and jarring during the sequences showing Ada’s fits, but this is a deliberate technique; coupled with some painful, screeching sound effects, it serves to disorientate the audience at a time when our heroine is most vulnerable. There are also some interesting uses of POV shots, mainly as a mechanic for showing the pit in action, and his use of angles and natural lighting creates an alien, almost ethereal, feel to many of the scenes. Flesh this out with some solid special effects from the ever-reliable Robert Kurtzman, and ‘Jug Face’ takes on a feel all its own. There is some use of computer generated effects which, as usual, is weirdly fake-looking, and for my taste some of the disorientating spinning shots go on a tad too long, but Kinkle’s debut is an impressive announcement of intent.
I genuinely did not know what to expect when I sat down to ‘Jug Face’; I knew little about the movie and clearly this is the best way to maximise your enjoyment of it (note: beware of the précis on the back of the box in the UK – it gives away two or three spoilerific plot points). It is a difficult film to categorise too; part hillbilly horror, part ghost story, part commentary on the dark heart of family, but there is no doubt it is a skilfully acted, well-paced, and creatively assembled piece of work. More importantly perhaps is what it represents for stars Lauren Ashley Carter and Sean Bridgers; surely the final step to stardom and recognition, and for promising director Chad Crawford Kinkle, a herald that we have an exciting talent on our hands. We are in a boon time for indie horror, with seemingly the next big thing being touted month by month, but for me, Kinkle more than deserves his place on that list. His debut reminded me most of all of ‘Stake Land’, a delicate balance between the crowd-pleasing blood we expect and the more considered, personal take on evil that the very best of the genre deals with so well. For me, six months in, ‘Jug Face’ is my film of the year so far. Brilliant.
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