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A Horrible Way to Die: Denver Film Festival Watching Hour Review

NOTE: I will not give away big spoilers in this review. As long as you don't mind vague discussion of the ending, read away...

Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is a recovering alcoholic who meets a nice guy named Kevin (Joe Swanberg) in her AA class. Sarah and Kevin start to date, and we witness their awkward courtship dance up close and personal. But Sarah has a dark secret. Her previous boyfriend, Garrick Turrell (AJ Bowen), turned out to be a serial killer. He was caught and sent to prison, but he has since escaped and is in hot pursuit of Sarah, leaving a trail of blood and carnage in his wake. It’s an interesting enough premise that it got me in a seat, and for the first two-thirds or so of the movie, I thought A Horrible Way to Die might end up being something really interesting. The atmosphere is haunted. The three leads are fantastic; AJ Bowen specifically steals the show with his uncomfortably human, vulnerable serial killer. He seems as if he would be more at home in a Noah Baumbach movie. Then, so many lame and wrong moviemaking choices are made in A Horrible Way to Die’s finale, one and after another, that it ruins the whole experience.

The first turnoff for many will be Chris Hilleke and Mark Shelhorse’s cinematography, which bravely attempts to straddle the line between too stylish and just stylish enough. Shakey cam combined with shots going in and out of focus every two seconds should have annoyed me more than it did. Rather, it really helped me connect with the chilly, dreamy, haunted vibe I think director Adam Wingard was aiming for on purpose. Hopefully I’m not giving him too much credit. My moviegoing companion said it was some of the worst cinematography she’d ever seen. I can see where she’s coming from, I suppose. I did hope that the cinematography would somehow contribute to the movie’s overall thrust or meaning. This did not happen. The climax takes such a left turn, any innovative vibe is rendered moot.

The best part of A Horrible Way to Die is its music, a juxtaposition of Kryzstof Penderecki apocalypse strings with droning, dirty square-wave synths and a small horn ensemble straight out of Carpenter/Morricone’s score for The Thing or Howard Shore’s for Scanners. The soundtrack is oppressively loud without being overbearing. Though the music is minimalistic, it deserves to be heard as loud as possible. I can’t find a composer listing, so I’m not sure if the music is pulled together from different sources or the work of a single composer. Either way, it’s great.

For two-thirds of its run time, A Horrible Way to Die is moody, dreadful, and understated. It’s unfortunate that the big twist, while convincingly foreshadowed, requires Sarah to make such an unrealistic, unbelievable series of dumb choices (that don’t fit her character) it derails the entire experience. To me, there is a right way and a wrong way to treat your “final girl” in a slasher movie. Tobe Hooper had the best final girls; in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1 and 2, the final girl somehow manages to regain some amount of power and strength to fight back or escape or do something proactive. Part of the thrill of the final girl is witnessing the moment where she realizes her strength. She could win or lose, but she’s a fighter. A Horrible Way to Die does the worst possible thing you can do to a final girl by literally tying her up so she can’t be an active participant in the movie’s climax. I was wholly disappointed with A Horrible Way to Die’s conclusion, and what came before wasn’t good enough to salvage a frustrating ending.

For the record, my moviegoing companion claims that she was so bored, annoyed, and frustrated by A Horrible Way to Die that that she found it hard not to walk out on the screening. She says it should be called A Horrible Movie to Watch.


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