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Monday, August 29, 2011

A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE -- DVD review by porfle

Director Adam Wingard's low-key chiller A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE (2010) looks like it's going to be another torture fest, but the brief, sometimes subliminal gore shots are secondary to the film's unsettling atmosphere and steadily mounting suspense.

The story is simple--a serial killer named Garrick Turrell (A.J. Bowen) escapes from custody and makes his way cross-country to rejoin his girlfriend Sarah (Amy Seimetz).  Or does he intend to get revenge on her for discovering his grisly hobby and turning him in to the police?  Meanwhile, Sarah has just begun a tentative romance with fellow Alcoholics Anonymous member Kevin (Joe Swanberg), a mild-mannered sort who has no idea that Sarah's homicidal ex-boyfriend is on his way.

Flashbacks of Sarah's former life with Garrick bubble up to the surface amidst present-day scenes that switch between her current furtive existence and the escaped killer's body-strewn journey to reunite with her.  Often it's up to us to put it all in chronological order (our main timeframe reference seems to be Garrick's beard or lack thereof).  The shaky, documentary-style camerawork lends a roughhewn intimacy--it sometimes resembles a home movie and is only occasionally annoying--while the blur-in, blur-out transitions give things a hazy dreamlike quality.

Among other creative visual effects, Wingard shoots an awkward sex scene between Sarah and Kevin through a constellation of Christmas lights that she has hanging in her apartment.  Everything is imbued with a wintry gloom that adds to the film's downcast mood along with its mundane sense of realism.  Performances are naturalistic as is the dialogue, with Seimetz particularly good at portraying an everyday woman haunted by the past and responding to Kevin's stumbling overtures with some small hope of future happiness.  

Bowen, on the other hand, offers a disturbing depiction of a coldblooded maniac who looks outwardly normal and often seems reluctant to give in to his evil impulses.  We see behind this bland exterior during his Hannibal Lecter-like escape and dread the fates of those women whom he forces to drive him through police roadblocks despite calm assurances that he's going to let them go.  We're never quite sure what he's capable of until we see the ample bloody evidence, which heightens our concern for the unsuspecting Sarah. 

A brutal murder close to home drives Sarah and Kevin into hiding at his parents' cabin in the woods, which is where A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE takes its most nasty turn.  In the final sequence, writer Simon Barrett has some startling surprises in store for those of us who don't see everything coming, as Sarah finds herself in a hopeless situation that generates a good deal of gripping suspense.

The DVD from Anchor Bay is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 and subtitles in English and Spanish.  Extras consist of a director/editor commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Somehow, the climax of A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE isn't quite as powerful as it might have been--it's told so matter-of-factly that it seems to go by without delivering the shattering impact we expect.  Maybe one reason is that the current crop of horror films are so rigidly lock-stepped into giving us the most arbitrarily grim, downbeat endings imaginable that when this doesn't happen, it seems like something new.

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