Earthenware turns ominous in Jug Face. The feature-length debut from writer / director Chad Crawford Kinkle is a nifty little backwoods horror film that looks to unnerve us by treating its outlandish premise as matter-of-factly as possible.
Before I go any further, let me answer the question that you're surely asking yourself: what the hell is a jug face? Well, it's a clay jug that's carved to look like a face. Okay, that's not terribly helpful. You see there's this community of hillbillies whose way of life revolves around a pit in the woods. They believe its muddy waters have healing powers. In return the pit only asks for a human sacrifice every once in a while. It communicates its desires through a special potter. The pit appears to the potter in his dreams and shows him a face. When he wakes up, the potter is compelled (in a trance-like state) to craft a jug that looks like the face he saw. The jug face is revealed to the community at large and the chosen victim is sacrificed to the pit. Life carries on…until the next jug face comes out of the potter's kiln.
Butting heads with this long-standing tradition is our young heroine, Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter). She looks innocent enough, if you ignore the opening scene where she lets her brother (Daniel Manche) impregnate her behind the bushes. Her pregnancy is going to pose a problem since she has been chosen by her parents (Larry Fessenden and Sean Young) to wed Bodey (Mathieu Whitman), the son of another prominent family in the community. To make matters worse, the pit's favorite potter, Dawai (Sean Bridgers) just made a jug face that looks an awful lot like her. Fortunately for Ada, she intercepts the jug face before it can be presented to the community and hides it in the woods. From that point on, the mud quickly hits the fan as people start dropping like flies while Ada desperately searches for a way to save herself and her unborn child.
As horror movies go, Jug Face is a self-contained and thoroughly strange experience. Chad Crawford Kinkle presents us with such an insular reality that even the fantastical elements of his character's lives almost start to make sense (almost). If you lived next to a pit with magical healing powers, of course you'd oblige with the occasional request for a human sacrifice. The outside world barely features in the film and the few scenes that show Ada interacting with someone outside the community leave her frustrated and defeated. Her life may suck but it's the only one she's allowed to know. Besides giving the film a sense of doomed inevitability, it also ratchets up the tension by systematically closing off every avenue for Ada's escape.
Kinkle also handles the pit's powers very intelligently. When Ada resists her sacrifice, people around her start dying. While some of these deaths fall on Ada and Dawai (he's impressionable and she's not so innocent after all), a large number of them are supposedly caused by the pit. At some point, there must have been an option to turn this into a creature feature with a pit monster ripping people from limb to limb. While that would have sort of worked in a schlocky B-movie way, I'm glad that Kinkle and co. took the path they did. What we have here is more subtle and sinister with only Ada witnessing the murders in her mind's eye. To top it all off, I'm not sure we ever see the pit actually heal anyone during the film casting into doubt the very foundation that all this blood is being spilt on.
The final piece of this cinematic oddity, the primary asset that really sells the film's strangeness is its cast. Lauren Ashley Carter is stellar in the lead role. Despite being responsible for some unsavory events and manipulations over the course of the film, her projection of quivering innocence keeps us on her side. Sean Bridgers is equally strong in the role of Dawai. He turns the slow-witted potter into a three-dimensional character with a will of his own. He is capable of kindness, evil (subconsciously) and most importantly, love. Thanks to him and Carter, the film's climax takes on the quality of a skewed love story. It is a welcome surprise. While the supporting cast is perfectly capable across the board, Larry Fessenden and Sean Young really pull out all the stops as Ada's parents. Fessenden is sensitive in his cruelty (if that makes any sense) while Young is downright ferocious (her gynecological exam of Ada using only her fingers and a lit cigarette made me wince).
So there you have it. I've said as much as I can about Jug Face without spoiling it outright. With strong performances and an internally consistent story, it is the best film about a possibly murderous pit and the people that love/fear it that I've ever seen. To be fair, it is also the only film about a possibly murderous pit and the people that love/fear it that I've ever seen. If you're a genre fan and in the mood for something a bit off the beaten path, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
The image is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. For the most part, the image is clear and sharp. I noticed some noise and grain in a few shots but the effect was fleeting. Black levels and shadow detail are reasonable. As a film largely set in the woods, the color palette is dominated by deep greens and muddy browns. The earth tones feel natural and not oversaturated. Altogether, this is a perfectly acceptable presentation for the material.
The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround with optional English SDH subtitles. The audio mix comes through with clarity in support of a score that is just as moody as the film. A few brooding guitar pieces stand out in my memory for their eerie simplicity. This is a low-key film (for the most part) so the rear surrounds don't get much of a workout although they do come alive in the few scenes of implied carnage. Dialogue is clear throughout.
The primary extra is a documentary called The Story of Jug Face (28:27). This behind-the-scenes featurette includes interviews with much of the cast and crew. Director Chad Crawford Kinkle discusses his inspiration for the film as he thinks back to the time he first encountered face-shaped jugs in a museum. We also get to hear from producer Andrew van den Houten about what sold him on Kinkle's concept. The casting process and location scouting is also covered in some detail. Special mention is made of Lucky McKee's role as executive producer and his contribution to the film.
An interesting supplement is offered in the form of Organ Grinder (6:11), an early short film by Kinkle. It is decidedly more gory and overt in its approach but still demonstrates Kinkle's love for the off-kilter. We close things out with a Trailer (2:06) for our feature.
Jug Face could just as easily have been the start of a new slasher series with the tagline When Good Pits go Bad. Thankfully, director Chad Crawford Kinkle and his talented cast play it much straighter than that. This is a wonderfully weird bit of suffocating horror that doesn't overstay its welcome. Highly Recommended.