A Horrible Way to Die / Adam Wingard / 2011 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Characters; Pacing; Dramatic story
Side Effects: Distracting cinematography; Lack of suspense

Horror films today, it seems, focus almost exclusively on situation, completely neglecting character. Perhaps it’s nothing new. The slasher films of the 70s and 80s, even the good ones, are known for atmosphere and suspense rather than compelling characters. Maybe it’s the impressive indie pedigree of A Horrible Way to Die, then, and not its horror elements that account for its attentive portrayal of effective characters and the story they’re involved in.

A fragile and emotionally scarred woman attends AA meetings to improve her life. Meanwhile, a killer has escaped from jail and is leaving a trail of bodies across the south. Gradually, through flashbacks, we come to understand the connection between the two characters, one addicted to alcohol, the other addicted to killing, and await the intersection of their stories.

Director Adam Wingard exhibits a skill for structure and pacing, assuredly unfolding the story and controlling the audience’s involvement. Aided by strong acting, Wingard paints a convincing world populated by believable characters. The structure might be so sound, however, as to stifle any true tension. The arch of the film and its characters is so clearly drawn that we know to wait for its resolution. The cinematography also stands in the way of effectively communicating the film’s good ideas. Scenes begin and end with blurry swirls of light as the camera bounces around and looses focus. The soft focus seems to represent the confusion and fragility of the characters, but the technique is overused and distracting. Still, A Horrible Way to Die is a mature and effective film, and while it may not deliver big scares, it brings a skill and sensibility to the genre when it needs it most.

[A Horrible Way to Die comes to DVD and Blu-ray September 6th.]