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Horrible Way to Die, A

Starz / Anchor Bay // R // September 6, 2011
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 3, 2011 | E-mail the Author
"Don't bump your head," softly cautions Garrick (AJ Bowen) as he carefully pulls the bound-and-gagged brunette out of the car trunk. Garrick then massages the young woman's
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shoulders as he assures her that everything will be alright. One moment, you hear him quietly, tenderly encouraging her to relax, and the next you hear the snap of her neck as it breaks. The first scene of A Horrible Way to Die immediately sets the tone that the rest of the film will follow. Yes, the movie revolves around a legendary serial killer, it has a shamelessly exploitative title, and there's a good chance that genre fanatics will recognize AJ Bowen from the stack of other horror films he's starred in over the past few years. Serial killer movies have to open with a brutal murder, complete with some wildly over-the-top psychopath, thundering bass stings in the score, a cat-and-mouse chase through the woods or a dingy, decaying building, and then a stream of blood spews out right before cutting to the opening titles. A Horrible Way to Die, meanwhile, is quiet and kind of intimate. Garrick doesn't revel in the's a compulsion, not some kind of thrill ride. The camera -- jittery and falling in and out of focus -- doesn't linger on the killing stroke or the lifeless body that's left behind. A Horrible Way to Die makes it perfectly clear in its first couple of minutes that it's not another serial killer flick rehashing the same stale, familiar formula. If you're intrigued by the opening sequence, then great! -- you have a lot to look forward to over the next eighty minutes. If not, then...well, consider it fair warning. No matter what its title might lead you to expect, A Horrible Way to Die by design isn't some sort of visceral, pulse-pounding slasher flick. It's a story about love and addiction that just happens to tally up a fairly significant body count.

The other addicts in the film are Sarah (Amy Seimetz) and Kevin (Joe Swanberg), recovering alcoholics in the same smalltown AA group. Kevin awkwardly asks Sarah out one night, and some sort of romance starts fumbling its way out of that. Kevin's a perpetually smiling nice guy who never really seems sure what to say, and everything that eventually comes out of his mouth makes him want to recoil in shame afterwards. Sarah's not quite as chatty, still struggling with some of the demons from her past. There's the alcoholism, yeah, but the last relationship Sarah was in still has her reeling. Her ex-boyfriend wasn't the man she thought he was...but his secret life didn't involve a secret spouse or anything blandly ordinary like that. No, it turned out that
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Garrick's a serial killer, and Sarah had played an integral role in keeping him locked away for a long, long time. A modern day Ted Bundy prone to preying on young, pretty women, Garrick even wound up becoming some sort of national celebrity once he was captured. When he saw an opportunity to escape, he took it, and now Garrick is carving a bloody path back home to catch up with his ex...

It's mentioned in the disc's audio commentary that some of the key inspirations for A Horrible Way to Die weren't straightahead slasher flicks but mumblecore. It definitely has that same fascination with what's real...what's natural. While most serial killer movies stick to an unwaveringly steady, predictable rhythm -- to the point where you can practically set your watch to when the next kill or jump scare will roll around -- A Horrible Way to Die is slower and more methodical. The dialogue shies away from the usual sort of cinematic polish, instead littered with false starts and uncomfortable pauses. That's spot-on; Sarah and Kevin don't know each other, they aren't really sure what to say or how to respond, so of course it's going to come across as awkward. That's how it works in the real world, all the way down to Kevin's frustrated groan to himself when a few stabs at telling witty jokes sputter and die. The voyeuristic camerawork feels like someone's peeking around behind corners, constantly jockeying for a better view. The violence is gruesome but generally only glimpsed in quick flashes. The awkwardly framed sex scene looks as if it's from a peeping tom's point-of-view rather than carefully blocked by a seasoned cinematographer. Unlike seemingly every other serial killer movie out there, you're not meant to get off on the screwing or slashing.

Again, even Garrick -- an infamous serial killer -- is quiet, polite, and repentant. The most extreme emotion that spirals out of him for much of the movie is mild annoyance at a victim who won't shut up, but even then, he really doesn't snap...he runs about as hot as someone who's been waiting in line at the supermarket for too long. Until his pent-up compulsion to murder is unleashed, there's nothing at all about him that so much as hints that he's deranged, and A Horrible Way to Die even plays that for laughs when the not-at-all overtly insane Garrick suffers through a
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crazy old man's incoherent ramblings. Garrick doesn't enjoy killing any more than Sarah or Kevin enjoy drinking; it's just something he has to do. When, in a soothing voice, he assures the women he's kidnapped that it's all going to be alright, he may even mean it at the time, the same as Sarah thinks she can pour some bourbon in a glass and just look at it, as if it's some kind of comfort blanket. They both unavoidably succumb.

A Horrible Way to Die rarely tries to wring any tension or suspense out of the murders themselves. There are no frenzied cat-and-mouse chases or one of Garrick's prey all of a sudden fighting for her life. No, what drives the suspense is that there are these two very different stories running concurrently -- an awkward romance between two recovering alcoholics; a serial killer carving a bloody path of destruction on his way to find his ex -- and the complete uncertainty when those plotlines will collide and what'll spill out as a result. It's very much a character piece, not getting all that caught up in the mechanics of its plot, and the very non-linear storytelling has been carefully constructed to reinforce that. I'm sure by this point in the review that I really don't need to spell out that A Horrible Way to Die isn't at all conventional, commercial thriller. As much of a fan of dumb, formulaic slashers as I am, I can't help but be intrigued by a movie that plays with some of those same elements but in such an unpredictable and entirely different way. The naturalistic performances by Bowen, Seimetz, and Swanberg are remarkably engrossing, and I can honestly say that what happens when the three of them inevitably wind up in the same room together caught me completely off-guard. Admittedly, the violently shaky camerawork and the distracting overreliance on losing focus before fades could turn off some viewers. A Horrible Way to Die's methodical pacing and complete disinterest in slasher tropes mean it's by design not meant to play to a wide audience. Don't pick up this Blu-ray disc if you're expecting yet another faceless Friday the 13th knockoff. For adventurous genre enthusiasts hungering for something different, though, A Horrible Way to Die should make for a very worthy discovery on Blu-ray. Recommended.

The deliberately gritty, rough-hewn photography of A Horrible Way to Die doesn't make for dazzling high definition eye candy so much. Detail and clarity are lackluster at best, and the further the camera
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eases back, the less A Horrible Way to Die is recognizably HD at all. There's a lot of video noise, and the compression has an unfortunate tendency to choke on it. The noise is blocky rather than clear and distinct, and at times it even seems to clump together in a distorted blur. Sometimes the noise appears to be floating on top of the rest of the image, as if there's a slightly dirty plane of glass between the camera and everything else in the frame. There are some other strange artifacts, such as the heavy, distractingly digital pulsing near the close of the opening kill. On the upside, the palette appears to be rendered accurately, as gloomy and undersaturated as you'd likely expect for a film this bleak. A Horrible Way to Die will never and should never be a pretty movie, but I can't help but think that some sloppy authoring is preventing the film from looking the best it can.

A Horrible Way to Die arrives on Blu-ray at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The video has been encoded with AVC and fits comfortably on a single layer disc.

Since A Horrible Way to Die veers away from the usual stalk-and-slash tropes, its 24-bit, Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is more understated than you might normally expect. The surrounds are reserved primarily for reinforcing the keyboard-driven score as well as splashes of atmospheric color...howling wind, forks clinking against plates in a restaurant, and one early pan from the rears to the front channels. As it's not an action-oriented film, it follows that the subwoofer is also used somewhat sparingly, although the synth-bass does crackle with ferocity when appropriate. It's mentioned in the commentary track that the audio was recorded directly into the camera, and whatever setup was used does seem to be dragged down by some mild clipping in the dialogue. Subdued but effective.

The only other soundtrack on this Blu-ray disc is an audio commentary. Subtitles are limited to English (SDH) and Spanish.

  • Behind the Scenes of A Horrible Way to Die (7 min.; a mix of SD and HD): This Blu-ray disc's making-of featurette
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    alternates between candid, fly-on-the-wall footage from the shoot and more traditional conversations with the talent involved. There's some brief discussion about how A Horrible Way to Die is more of a relationship movie than a traditional genre flick, and there are also shots of the actors working out a couple of scenes as well as the crew toiling away on the gruesome makeup effects.

  • Audio Commentary: The commentary track with director/editor Adam Wingard and writer/producer Simon Barrett is kind of a blast to listen to. I mean, their commentary tackles everything from shoehorning in a Birdemic cameo that maybe eight people would get, an earlier draft that had Garrick butchering a baby, casting their sound guy's extremely bitter ex-girlfriend to play one of the victims, and a barrage of war stories about the grueling 24 hour final day of the shoot. Even though the two of them laugh their way through a lot of the track, there really is a tremendous amount of information in here, acknowledging the very shaky camerawork and possibly excessive blur-to-fades, running through some of the significant changes from earlier drafts, touching on drawing inspiration from mumblecore, making a movie they knew wouldn't be marketable and on a nearly non-existent budget to boot, all the way down to detailing precisely which camera and which lens were used. An absolutely essential listen for anyone picking up this Blu-ray disc.

The Final Word
I'll admit it: I grabbed a copy of A Horrible Way to Die expecting a straightahead, completely formulaic slasher flick, and instead I wound up watching a naturalistic, fiercely unconventional film about relationships and destructive compulsions that just happens to have a serial killer as one of its three leads. I've devoured more slashers over the years than I'd care to count, but I've never seen a genre film like this before. Because A Horrible Way to Die is a deliberately slow burn and doesn't get all that caught up in any of the usual genre theatrics, it's not the easiest movie to recommend. I don't mean that at all in a bad way...just that A Horrible Way to Die is the movie it wants to be, not the paint-by-numbers splatterfest you probably pictured from a quick skim of the title, and it has no interest in any of the standard issue formulas or conventions. I greatly respect what Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, and their immensely talented cast have accomplished here. Because it's so different than everything else out there, though, cautious viewers understandably may want to opt for a rental first. If you're a genre fan with a taste for something decidedly different, A Horrible Way to Die is well-worth hunting down. Recommended.
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