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Jug Face
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by Jay Seaver

"Don't call it 'Jughead', because it's not cute teen antics."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 15: "Jug Face" is the sort of horror movie that I often have trouble with, where any hint of supernatural activity actually seems somewhat deflating, as there's plenty of real-world unpleasantness at work. It's done well enough to overcome that much of the time, in part because its mythology is at least original.

There is, it says, a community out in the Tennessee backwoods whose residents worship at a pit of what looks like blood - which, of course, demands regular sacrifices. That's where Ada (Lauren Ashley Carte) has grown up, but now she's in trouble, betrothed to an unexciting neighbor by her parents (Larry Fessenden & Sean Young) but quite possibly pregnant from her brother Jessaby (Daniel Manche). The blind artisan Dawai (Sean Bridgers) has made a jug with her likeness, generally taken as a sign of who should be fed to the pit next.

So which is scarier - a pit that contains a demonic presence which will kill whoever is nearest when not given its tribute, or a reasonably intelligent young woman surrounded by people who think that a hole in the ground demands human sacrifices? There's not necessarily a right or wrong answer to this question, but it is kind of tricky to make both work at once, as the one tends to lessen the impact of the other more often than it reinforces the pair. That's less of the case here than usual, as writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle builds the earthly situation steadily before adding the paranormal elements to it in a similar slow burn, introducing new bits without often stopping to explain, so that the situation with the pit often feels part and parcel with the isolation as opposed to two different things going on.

And while sometimes that lack of explanation can undersell the tension, the general creepiness on display is impressive. Even putting aside the wordless illustrated history over the credits, Kinkle starts things off with illicit secrecy and lets things get even more off-center with strange names, actions that seem reasonable but still alien, and a lot of other weird and uncomfortable things before escalating to jumps, violence, and a little gore. This isn't necessarily the sort of horror movie that elicits screams, but it does manage a steadily approaching aura of wrongness and doom.

Ada is, in many ways, the closest thing to a character that many in the audience can identify with, but she's still of that environment, and Lauren Ashley Carter never forgets that even if she is portraying Ada as maybe just a little smarter or more like outsiders than the rest; she's a horror heroine with more than fear or tooth-gritting determination going for her. Or maybe she just seems familiar because of how Larry Fessenden and Sean Young play her parents - Fessenden with appealing restraint that becomes grim seriousness, and Young with over-the-top menace. Sean Bridgers, meanwhile, makes Dawai one of the most likable, awkward versions of the inbred backwoods types I've seen; he's got the wounded animal feel of someone who's mentally and physically disabled and thus an outcast even among this group but without quite feeling subhuman.

It's an interesting world Kinkle creates for them to live in; certain bits of southern-gothic style have the feel of authenticity while the mythology we can figure out feels wholly original. He and the design crew resist extremes; Ada's village is not an complete throwback to the nineteenth century while the nearby town is not hyper-modern, and the way Ada interacts with Christie (Kaitlin Cullum), a pharmacist who is roughly her contemporary, does a nice job of emphasizing the void between them while still finding common ground. Though there are some nice effects, the pit isn't an obvious, elaborate gateway to hell, with the very ordinariness of the supernatural helping it seem more real.

I must admit, I'd probably like "Jug Face" a little more if it was more thoroughly grounded in the world where demons are imaginary and human monsters are thus more frightening; trying to hint at a little of everything lets a little air out of the ending. Still, it's a testament to how hard that mix can be to pull off that this is an impressive example of it; it just does the job when other stories would be trying to justify themselves.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=24996&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/07/13 08:40:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Slamdance Film Festival For more in the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2013 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  09-Aug-2013 (R)
  DVD: 15-Oct-2013

UK
  N/A

Australia
  09-Aug-2013
  DVD: 15-Oct-2013




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