I'm gonna say something kind of surprising here. I dunno, maybe it's not a surprise to you, but it's a big surprise to me. I think there just might be a good trend that has risen from the ashes of the "torture porn" subgenre that gave horror a bad name over the last decade or so. Films like Saw and its followers - which combined society's cravings for blood with the childhood game Mouse Trap - showed young filmmakers just how much brutality they could get away with on screen. And lately it seems like there are a lot of directors that are able to take that kind of ultraviolence and put a pinch of it into a movie and still manage to HAVE A FREAKING POINT.
A Horrible Way To Die is one of those movies. Despite its grandiose title, I want to say that the actual manners in which people die in this film are NOT that physically horrible. No one is tied to a jungle gym while hyenas who have previously eaten wolverines charge their barbecue sauce covered flesh, or anything like that. But what director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett do offer the viewer is a trio of realistic human characters who, for the most part, are put through emotional hell for 87 minutes.
The non-linear film weaves together the lives of three characters, two of whom are dealing with the disease of alcoholism and one of whom is a convicted-yet-escaped serial killer. The latter is played by the rising horror star AJ Bowen - who you might remember as the "Are you not the babysitter?" guy in my favorite horror movie of the last decade, The House of the Devil - who continues to be a fantastic "Oh, that guy seems so normal and ordinary and so polite and OH MY GOSH WHY DID THAT NORMAL GUY JUST DO THAT???" presence in the horror scene. The former duo of alcoholics are played by Amy Seimetz and Joe Swanberg, who each have their own demons to face. Seimetz' character's demons are a little more demanding - because she also happens to be the escaped killer's ex-girlfriend.
So, the killer begins to track his ex and her new AA beau, and bodies start to pile up. But these aren't Saw-ified bodies, they're just bodies of people who are in the way and get stabbed or bludgeoned or shot until they are dead. Don't get me wrong - the way they die is certainly horrible - but it's not something modern horror fans would call the most horrible use of gore on film.
No, A Horrible Way To Die is kind of restrained when you think about it next to the bloodsoaked films that have come before it. But it holds nothing back when it comes to dealing with human characters. Bowen provides that same violent unease we get from his character in movies like House of the Devil and The Signal, but also gives his character a few interesting personality twists. One late film scene - in which he talks about his experiences in prison and his motivation for escape - is a perfect example of just how "outside the box" this film and this character are, and Bowen's performance in that scene alone had me seeing the actor in a new light. It's a fascinating performance that is well worth the viewer's applause.
Seimetz and Swanberg do their best to play more sentimental people on the other side of the film, and their performances also draw out a positive reaction. Seimetz takes on the role of the vulnerable woman with ease and does a good job of keeping us interested in her character, even though it seems like the type of "survivor girl" we've seen a few times before. Swanberg's character is kind of the film's wild card - a seemingly kind and caring love interest who makes a couple of choices that raise doubts in the viewer's eye - and I was pleasantly unsure about what to think of his character as the film moved along. The film also does a great job of setting these two characters and their budding relationship against an Alcoholics Anonymous setting, which allows them a few moments to let loose their characters' feelings and give the viewer a glimpse inside their trouble minds.
The film winds to a fitting conclusion that features more than enough violence to punctuate the characters' path to its final moment, which arrives rather abruptly. I was stunned as the credits rolled - the film had done a lot to get me interested and finished things up rather quickly - but the longer I sat and considered what I had seen, the more I was impressed by it. This might not be the most violent or most grotesque horror film I've seen this year, but that's not where it keeps its horror. The film's ability to involve us in these three lives and make us concerned about what comes next is very admirable - thanks to the combined efforts of the cast and filmmakers - and that's a great reason to recommend A Horrible Way to Die to the horror fan who is looking for something that values the fear of death over the act of death.