Jug Face (2013) aka The Pit
Dir. and written by Chad Crawford Kinkle
Starring Laura Ashley Carter, Sean Bridgers, Larry Fessenden, Sean Young
One thing to immediately like about JUG FACE? No juggalos at all. That’s always something I look for in a movie, and the title here was definitely making me nervous on that front. No, this is a rare movie with no obvious connection to Insane Clown Posse at all. Not so much as a drop of Faygo in the whole thing.
JUG FACE centers on teenage country bumpkin Ada (Laura Ashley Carter), a young woman just on the cusp of adulthood who has a lot of problems. First, she’s stuck in some backwoods nowhere, an insular community who stay to themselves and don’t appear to have evolved much for the last 200 or so years. I think a lot of folks in middle America can identify with that. Also, she’s pregnant, and the father is her asshole brother who has no interest in helping her at all and just wants to cover his own ass. OK, a little less relatable there, but you know, unwanted pregnancy is scary, we can still get with her on that. Also, and maybe I should have mentioned this first, the community is some sort of murderous cult, who worship a backwoods mud pit and have to make periodic sacrifices to it or face the wrath of the mysterious forces within. They know who to sacrifice because the local half-wit (Sean Bridger, managing to commendably hold onto his dignity in a very tricky role) goes into a trance and makes a ceramic jug with the chosen victim’s face on it. And Ada is next on the chopping block. Can this girl catch a break or what? Admittedly this particular issue is probably not in the experience of most of my readers here, but I would argue it is probably the most interesting of Ada's problems, the real "hook" as they call it out in Hollywood I think. At least in the top three, anyway.
|Ada gets a little head.|
This first feature for writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle has some rough edges, but still manages to create a pretty compelling portrait of rural desperation, and coasts a very long way on its weird and interesting premise (the supernatural mudpuddle god, is specifically what I’m referring to). I love the idea of this totally unexplained mysterious local force in the woods, unknown to anyone but the adherents of this tiny, isolated religious community. There’s a pretty cool opening sequence explaining the history of this phenomenon from the perspective of children’s drawings, presumably as they’re taught the old ways by their parents. The details of this dark backwoods religion feel very believable and lived-in, so the whole world of the movie feels unexpectedly rich and weighty, even when the actual narrative doesn’t necessarily always support it. And as an added bonus, it proves beyond any doubt that THE VILLAGE is an idiotic piece of shit. So, you want to live a cloistered, quarantined* existence away from everyone else, huh? Well, just fucking do it, you don’t have to buy authentic 16th-century hats and pretend it’s hundreds of years ago. Just don’t leave, worship your goddam mud puddle and stop being such a bunch of drama queens. Everyone here is AWARE of the outside world, they just don't GO there, because their home is all they know and it's immediately clear they're woefully unprepared to live anywhere else. See? No fucking monster suits required, you overcomplicating jackasses.
Anyway, this is obviously better than THE VILLAGE, but so is a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, which at least doesn't condescend to you. JUG FACE has its problems though. The biggest is that this creepy, elegant concept of the mysterious pit in the woods is weakened somewhat by crappy effects and a pervasive lack of atmosphere. Kinkle strikes me as a talented writer, but his visual sense is disappointingly literal, point-and-shoot kind of stuff that doesn’t manage to draw much tension out of the endless-seeming woods or manage to do much with the few interesting visual icons the movie offers. This is mostly not an enormous problem, but a few times when the movie attempts effects probably beyond its budget, it looks chintzy and ridiculous. The scenes where Ada has visions of people dying in the pit are a painful combination of tired EVIL-DEAD cams, cheap color filters, and muddled chaotic editing, basically the three most played-out horror tricks in the trade. They actually manages to diminish what should be, by all rights, a pretty disturbing idea. Horror fans are used to having to deal with a few concessions to a punishingly low budget, but a more troubling problem is that despite a well-written script scene to scene, the whole enterprise lacks a suitable structure, resulting in a scenario that never escalates satisfactorily, and consequently builds to a bit of a shrug for the climax.
|Sean Bridger has some nice jugs. Huh, didn't figure this topic would lend itself so easy to sex puns.|
Still, it's an ambitious and unique effort overall, and its flaws aren’t serious enough to overwhelm the obvious good. The cast --including this year’s Chainsawnukah VIP Larry Fessenden** as Ada’s Dad and the World’s-Biggest-James-Woods-fan Sean Young as his mom-- are uniformly strong, and contribute to that believable backwoods aesthetic. Even while the visuals may not convey it, the performances and production design do a lot to convince you of the authenticity of this tiny, insular throwback. Through sheer willpower more than effective filmmaking, the thing eventually manages to cultivate an acceptable sense of doom and isolation. Creepy detail abound (I especially enjoy the stylized "jug faces" that spell doom for their living doppelgangers, and are ritualistically preserved afterwards) and even though I wish the film was a little more stylish, in a way, the lack of style and atmosphere actually gives the whole thing an unsettling sense of banal reality. There’s nothing gothic or dramatic about this damn hole in the ground, it's just an ordinary, unimpressive fetid mud puddle. Except that it controls life and death. In some ways, that's a lot scarier than it would be if they tarted it up with a lot of horror film fanfare and rigamarole.
There's nothing especially perverse or evil about the community, either; they're just a bunch of average, mostly well-meaning hicks doing this because it's their stupid religion, handed down by generations of other hicks just like them. The only difference from other hill people all over this country is that if anything, this bunch are way much more justified in their religious beliefs than their evangelical contemporaries. Kinda makes me wonder if there's a religious allegory here somewhere, but if there is I can't quite see it. Rather, I think the real effort here is to create a potent cocktail of helpless, remorseless persecution with no way out, and on that level, the film succeeds handily. We may not exactly be able to exactly identify with Ada's specific problems, but the film makes the loneliness and desperation of her situation all too clear. On the obvious merits here, I'm definitely looking forward to Kinkle's next film; hopefully by the time he gets to that one he can hone his visual skills a little bit and come up with a look that suits the unnerving themes of his stories a little better. Either that, or switch to an all-pottery storytelling format. He's already got that one down cold.
**Winner of the Chainsawnukah 2014 "Yo go, girl!" award for unexpected greatness in BENEATH.
|Ada has conversations with a female cashier, and a long scene where her mom screams at her that she's a slut but isn't specifically referring to any particular man. Progress, here we come!|