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A Horrible Way to Die Review: High Concept, Low Value

By Alex Goldberg | Film | August 5, 2011 |

By Alex Goldberg | Film | August 5, 2011 |

The director of A Horrible Way to Die, Adam Wingard, and writer, Simon Barrett, made appearances before the screening of the film. Wingard has two other movies showing at the Fantasia Film Festival (Pop Skull and What Fun We Were Having: 4 Stories About Date Rape), and he described this one as his first attempt at directing non-supernatural horror. He went as far as to say that the original idea for making A Horrible Way to Die was to create a Gus Vant Sant serial killer movie. He finished up his short speech by handing the mic to his writer, who didn’t say very much and proceeded to sign off by informing the audience of a Q&A session that would be held after the film, and then saying, “enjoy the movie, we hope you don’t hate it.” The good news, Mr. Barrett, is that I didn’t hate it. The bad news is that I didn’t quite like it much either.

The movie centers around a simple enough plot. A woman, Sarah (Amy Seimetz), is getting back on track with her life after leaving her deranged boyfriend Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen), a famous serial killer locked away in prison at the beginning of the film. She attends AA meetings every week, trying to recover from her stint of alcoholism during the time she was seeing Garrick, and she befriends another member, Kevin (Joe Swanberg), who takes a liking to her and eventually asks her out. Things seem to be getting better for Sarah, albeit slowly, until Garrick breaks out of prison, and comes heading right back to his ex-girlfriend, leaving a trail of torture and death in his wake.

Straightforward enough story, right? Imagine you’re a producer and someone pitches this idea to you, and says “We’d like to make a tense relationship-driven thriller.” Sounds like a good idea, with lots of potential, no? One can visualize the ideas that the director wanted to explore: the pain of recovering from alcoholism, the issues inherent in trusting people once that trust has been broken, the relationship between a killer and his victims. In this sense, and this sense alone, this movie is successful. The ideas are there, they just weren’t implemented properly, and the execution is entirely amateurish and sloppy.

So where to begin? For starters, the cinematography is the aspect that suffers the most under Wingard’s direction. The story, without much humour or lightheartedness, calls for something subtle and intimate. I’d qualify it as such, were it not for the excessive movement of the camera and focusing in and out of random objects at random times. Instead of allowing the lens to focus on the personalities at play, which would’ve worked to force the audience into absorbing whatever painful emotions were being strewn about by the characters, the camera is constantly shifting and moving erratically, as if this was some sort of effect to tell us, “look how the camera shifts, how deep and excruciating!” No, Mr. Wingard, quite the opposite, in fact. I could go on and on about the misuse of camera angles but there’s much more review to write and, aw screw it. Let’s make a list:

  • Kevin approaches Sarah next to her car, conversation ensues while the camera, AS KEVIN IS SPEAKING, moves to the ceiling of the car, across to the side, down to her legs, unfocuses, then moves back to his head in time for him to finish whatever he was saying (I forgot because I was so drawn to wherever the hell the camera was going).

  • Sarah and Kevin are out on a date at a fancy Italian restaurant, and again, midsentence, the camera starts to swerve towards an assortment of random wine bottles for a good two minutes (exaggerating, but it felt like it). Again, I have absolutely no idea what the conversation was about during that time.

  • In one of the worst sex scenes ever conceived, the camera focuses on Kevin’s ass, only to twirl around in circles, eventually landing on… nothing. It just kept twirling.
    Sarah finds out her ex-boyfriend is back in town, leading to an extended shot of… I’m not sure. I couldn’t really make anything out. Maybe her apartment? I could’ve swore I saw a hamster in there somewhere.

  • Similarly, the music provides a similar function as the cinematography: to distract and manipulate instead of letting the viewer observe the action unbiasly. Each time the body count piles up, a screeching chord echoes over the already dead body as if to signify that, yes, this is a CRUCIAL moment, and look how he killed that person! How shocking! Unfortunately, it’s Fantasia, and everyone who buys a ticket has already seen horrible killings many a time, in the act, in a much more gruesome fashion than what’s shown in this film. It’s neither impressive nor does it remotely shock anyone. And telling the audience that it’s supposed to be shocking sure doesn’t get you any favors.

    So the cinematography and score sucked. It drew attention to itself, and took your attention away completely from the characters and dialogue, basically sabotaging the rest of the film. Which is a shame, because the rest of the movie never had a fighting chance. The acting was pretty passable for a low budget movie, with AJ Bowen giving a creepy turn at a serial killer, and Seimetz as the former alcoholic in distress. The script, though it has a couple major flaws, is relatively serviceable, albeit a little on the dreary side. Even the twist ending, which really ought to not work at all, is mildly creepy. But trying to ignore its faults is nearly impossible when what you’re interested in looking at is being constantly swirled around and toyed with. Maybe that was the point, that our relationships are always being twisted around, so we can never see them clearly. Unfortunately, people like to see things as clear as possible, no matter how badly we might be duped into seeing something false. And it sure doesn’t change when we’re watching movies.

    Alex Goldberg is currently reporting from the Fantasia Film Festival. He hails from Montréal, Québec, and is a Ph.D. in the field of molecular and cell biology. He’s an expert in the fields of aging and cancer research and table soccer. His organization, Québec Table Soccer Federation, can be found here.

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