Judge Gordon Sullivan is in the pits. Someone get him a ladder.
The Pit Wants What It Wants.
In his treatise on horror in fiction Danse Macabre, Stephen King usefully distinguishes between terror, horror, and revulsion. Revulsion is the easiest effect to produce. Most of us have shared reactions to gore, death, and things that crawl out of the earth. Show one on film and you can be pretty sure that you'll turn the stomachs of your audience. Horror is a little harder. We feel horror, according to King, at that moment when the monster is revealed to us, so filmmakers have to work a little harder to actually show us a monster that will horrify us. That's not much more difficult than showing us something disgusting. Terror, however, is harder to achieve, especially for the filmmaker. To achieve terror, we must fear the monster, but more importantly, we must fear the monster before we see it. The filmmaker who wishes to strike terror in our hearts must suggest without showing. First-time filmmaker Chad Crawford Kinkle took this lesson to heart, crafting a first-rate horror film in Jug Face by suggesting so much more than he ever shows. Though not a perfect film, Jug Face is an auspicious debut that horror fans should check out.
Facts of the Case
Jug Face takes place in the world of a forest community. An inbred clan worships a pit in the ground that seems to have healing powers. Several members of the clan have varying kinds of psychic ability, including Dawai (Sean Bridgers, Sweet Home Alabama). Dawai makes clay jugs, and when the face of a member of the community appears on the jug, the community must sacrifice that person to the creature in the pit. Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter, The Woman) is a young woman in the community who finds herself pregnant. When her face appears on a jug, she has more than one reason to want to escape.
Through a strange trick of geography, Baltimore is considered part of the South despite its proximity to bastions of the North like Philadelphia and New York City. Because of this, and his time in Richmond, Edgar Allan Poe is sometimes considered a Southern writer despite his more cosmopolitan leanings and associations with New England. I point this out because Jug Face feels a bit like a Poe story if Poe had been writing in Tennessee or Kentucky instead of Baltimore or NYC. Like the best of Poe's work, Jug Face opens onto a world that runs parallel to our own, just out of reach. Also like the best of Poe's work, Jug Face inspires terror not by what we see, but by what's suggested.
We've seen inbred clan types before, from The Hills Have Eyes to Wrong Turn. We've also seen religious types cause trouble before, but usually they're of the Christian variety (however whacked a Christianity it may be) or Pagan-ish. In Jug Face, we instead get a fervent group centered around a geographic anomaly, the pit. Kinkle wisely makes the pit just a hole in the ground. Rather than trying to imbue it with otherworldly menace, he gives it a kind of normalcy, so that we see it as just as much a part of the world as the characters do. These small details are enough to create a dread for the audience: What's in the pit? What will Ada do about her face on the jug? How will she escape whatever lurks in the pit? The enclosed nature of the clan's world, the anomaly of the pit, and our identification with Ada and her predicament combine to give us a horror film that's more atmospheric than most. This is not gore-soaked backwoods horror, but a kind of slow-burn weirdness that piles detail upon detail as we worry about the protagonist.
Jug Face is anchored by its excellent performances. Carter as Ada is impressive, selling herself as the product of the weirdness of her family while still remaining sympathetic. Sean Bridgers as Dawai has to play the backwoods psychic, and he takes the role in intriguing directions rather than relying on stereotypes. Genre stalwart Larry Fessenden pops up as the patriarch of Ada's family, and his performance is more subdued than usual.
Jug Face (Blu-ray) is also decent. The 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is great. Detail is strong throughout in both closeups and wider shots of the forest environment. Colors are well-saturated, skewing a little towards the browns and greens, which feels right for the setting. Black levels are deep and consistent, and I didn't notice any significant artefacting. Audiophiles will be slightly disappointed that the 5.1 audio track included here is standard Dolby Digital and not a lossless track. However, it's still a strong track that keeps dialogue audible, filling the soundscape with subtle atmospherics.
Extras start with a 30-minute making-of documentary that does a good job of giving viewers a peek behind the production of Jug Face. We also get director Kinkle's previous short "Organ Grinder," which shows all the potential that no doubt led to his feature debut. Finally, the film's trailer is also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, those looking for a more visceral horror experience will be disappointed by Jug Face. Though there is some strategic nudity and gore, Jug Face is not in line with contemporary trends in horror filmmaking that try to outdo one another with more scenes of torture. The film can also seem a bit uneven at times, like a really promising short film that was expanded without enough prep, or perhaps like a screenplay that could have been even better as a novel.
Jug Face is a fantastic offbeat horror debut, showcasing a new voice that isn't afraid to do something different with the genre. Even if not every note the film hits is quite on key, the film is still worth seeking out for horror fans. Even if Jug Face isn't your cup of tea, you're going to want to be able to say "I remember him" when Kinkle eventually busts out with a masterpiece in a film or two.
Not conventional, but not guilty.
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