Just look at the title, A Horrible Way To Die, and I’ll bet you pretty much know what you’re in for. You could very well be expecting a gore-fest that borders on the torture-porn genre, and you might be preparing yourself for some imaginative and bloody kills. Looking at the title you’d have every reason to believe that’s what you were going to get. You might expect it, but that’s not really what you’re going to get. The title is quite misleading, in fact. Yes, it’s a horror tale about a brutal serial killer. No, it’s not the kind of film that lingers on mutilated victims or covers the surroundings in blood and guts. Instead, this is a surprisingly good tension boiler with tons of atmosphere and a few clever twists and turns. Your disappointment could turn into a rather pleasant surprise if you give this one a chance.
There are two stories going on here that are heading toward a climactic collision. The first involves incarcerated serial killer Garrick Turrell (Bowen). He’s about to be released for bad behavior. Okay, so “released” isn’t quite the word I was looking for. He kills a few guards and manages to escape. He attempts to change his appearance, but he can’t quite shake the habit of killing people. Habit is exactly the word I’m looking for here. Garrick doesn’t appear to kill in some passionate rage. He’s actually quite polite and even-tempered, for the most part, except for the ….you know… killing part. He’s working his way back home and leaving bodies along the way.
The second story involves Sarah (Seimetz). She’s pretty much a mess and is trying hard to get her life back together. She’s a recovering alcoholic who spends a ton of her time at AA meetings. That’s where she meets Kevin (Swanberg). He makes some rather awkward attempts to take her out. She finally accepts, and the two share a rather slow-burn romance. The real problem, as told in flashbacks, is Sarah’s last relationship, the one that drove her to drink and darkness. Her live-in lover wasn’t exactly who she thought he was. She grew suspicious and followed him. She found out that he was a serial killer. Yeah, you guessed it. Sarah is Garrick’s ex who turned him in to the cops.
These stories do collide, but thankfully not exactly the way you expect. The film throws a world of red herrings your way and has some pretty clever twists and turns along the way. While you might not be totally surprised by any of the ending, I think you’re lying if you saw the whole scenario coming. The film spends less time on Garrick and his murders than you might expect, again given the title. The film really delves into the mind of Sarah, who still hasn’t figured it all out for herself yet. Her relationship with Kevin is difficult to get really going because of the memories that still haunt her. While she’s trying to get clean, she’s really too messed up to ever be normal again. Here’s where the acting of Amy Seimetz really stands out. She does a wonderful job of playing this complicated character and her emotional shortcomings. It’s actually a performance that might also benefit in contrast to AJ Bowen who plays Garrick. You might think of him as the lead here, but it’s really not the case. Bowen is actually pretty weak here and always looks like he’s reading his lines. Perhaps part of that is intentional. Seimetz is surrounded by mediocrity but manages to make this a far more interesting film than it could ever have been without her.
If the film has a strong weakness it has to be the pacing. There are moments when that slow burn turns into more of a fizzle. I love the psychological aspects of the film, and it is truly what sets it apart. But there are times that director Adam Wingard lets things get to slow and plodding. I chalk it up to relative inexperience. His career to this point had been mostly in the short-film form. I suspect he is not yet used to filling so much time. Fortunately, these moments are balanced enough by some original work that rewards you for sticking it out.
A Horrible Way To Die is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 36 mbps. This is one of those movies that doesn’t really benefit from a high-definition release. The image never really sports a lot of sharpness and detail. There is an intentional gritty nature that accounts for some of the weak image, but there’s too much video noise and not enough clarity to be strictly artistic choice. I have seen levels of noise here that I’ve never seen before and can’t completely explain. There is a digital blur that obscures the picture at times. There is also a feeling as if you’re watching through a somewhat dirty window at times. I’d love to know where these issues come from and how much of it is indeed intentional. The image is often dark with weak black levels that don’t offer much in the way of shadow detail. The film deserves better than this image provides.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is only marginally better than the video. At least here you’ll find clarity. I can live with the claustrophobic use of surrounds as a point of atmosphere. The dialog comes through clearly. Surrounds are used primarily for the score and very little else. Again, I’m fine with this presentation. It doesn’t distract from the film and serves the intent well enough to satisfy.
There is an Audio Commentary with writer Simon Barrett and director Wingard. It’s quite conversational in tone and provides a good look into exactly what these guys intended to do. They willingly talk about the film’s flaws and offer up a ton of insight. You’ll hear a lot about earlier drafts, as well.
Behind The Scenes: (7:13) Pretty much unguided raw footage with a few interview clips.
On the surface I can understand why many viewers might not have enjoyed the film. The title really prepares you for something completely different from what you get here. Unfortunately, that bit of marketing never really works. I know what they were thinking. Let’s get the hardcore fans to watch because of the title, then we can “educate” them with our more sophisticated movie. Sorry guys. That never works, and it takes away from how good your movie actually was. Here’s an example. Did you ever reach for a glass of, let’s say tea, and find out it was cola? While you might like cola a lot, that sip wasn’t what you were prepared to taste and so it tends to taste bad for a second. That’s the problem here. Fortunately, for you. I’ve learned over the years not to rely very much on expectations. Yeah, I know …“It’s pretty messed up.”