A teen, pregnant with her brother’s child, is trying to escape from a backwoods community when she discovers that she must sacrifice herself to a creature in a pit.
Any horror film that connects with its viewer on a personal level is an anomaly in its basic priorities. So often in the writing process, the creation of empathetic characters becomes a hindering afterthought, at times an avenue never explored at all in the process. Though this practice wouldn’t be tolerated within the narrative of any other motion picture genre, it is not only acceptable, but even appreciated in the fruition of many independent thrillers. Partial reason behind this, I suspect, is that half of the writers of these particular entries have never actually met a real human being.
Another rarity in film making is the ability to introduce us to a universe once completely concealed, but could easily exist beyond the comfort of our own cozy properties. This is no small feat for any movie, and is precisely what “Jug Face” accomplishes admirably. However, unlike the secretive island Scots in “The Wicker Man” or even the suspicious Amish community of “Witness,” there is no Edward Woodward (Nick Cage, for those of you who happen to be ingrates) or Harrison Ford to serve as the audience’s eyes here. Writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle’s skillful lens provides the only fly on the wall of his tiny backwoods clan, an intimate religious cult that worships a crude hole in the ground. This is weird, intriguing stuff.
Following an eerie animated opening credit sequence, we are introduced to the inner circles and daily grind of the society in fascinating detail. They all seem to reside either in dilapidated mobile homes or constructed shanties, living an elemental life off the grid. They wash their clothes in a nearby creek and venture into town only for necessary supplies, selling moonshine to local merchants for spending cash. This simplicity would be idyllic if it weren’t for the exalted mud pit occasionally demanding a sacrifice of one of the members. This is decided in the creation of a jug bearing the likeness of the next blood offering, fashioned by the slow-witted Dawai (Sean Bridgers) whilst in a trance state.
Soft-spoken Ada, underplayed to perfection by Lauren Ashley Carter (“Premium Rush”), begins with the weight of her secluded world already on her shoulders. She is betrothed to the densely amiable Bodey (Mathieu Whitman), but secretly carrying her brother’s child. A bout of curiosity leads her to discover her own countenance molded into the latest jug, and she promptly hides it before Dawai can notice its absence. Up until this point, “Jug Face” plays like a slice of strange life, cut from the same fabric as 2010’s brilliant “Winter’s Bone.” Once the pit’s word is disobeyed, it awakens with a malevolent vengeance. Soon, members of the cult begin brutally dying at the hands of an unseen presence, “taken” by the hole and becoming “the shunned,” spirits who wander the woods in an anguished limbo.
The most impressive trick “Jug Face” turns is how it suddenly veers from character study to horror flick with the fluidity of a well-placed dissolve. It never once allows itself to become mired in the violence it depicts, affording us only quick flashes of the monster that roams the forest, searching for innocents to feed its master. Roused from its hibernation and pissed off, the pit itself transforms into another entity within the framing of the picture, bubbling angrily and emanating guttural, indecipherable speech. This could have come off as a bit silly (which is precisely the point in movies like “Rubber”), but a mere muddy hole in the ground is given a distinctive personality compliments of Mr. Kinkle, and makes for a truly frightening villain in the piece.
Kinkle could not have prayed for a better cast to assist him in the daunting task that is making this nonsense all work. Carter encompasses Ada with a rebellious melancholy, eliciting sympathy she truly doesn’t deserve from the viewer while never allowing us to forget that she’s brought this all upon herself. Genre lifer Larry Fessenden gives his very best performance in the largest role I’ve seen him play to date as Ada’s stern yet doting father Sustin. Sean Young, whose name alone used to serve as a warning to stay away from any title bearing it, is equally excellent as Loriss, Ada’s chain-smoking serpent of a mother. The standout, apart from that creepy damn hole, is Bridgers as the childlike Dawai. He is the tragic heart of “Jug Face,” and an actor I hope to see expand his portfolio in the future. Young, on the other hand, may feel free to return to whatever shadow she emerged from to make this movie. Good as she was in the role, she’s still Sean Young.
The only misstep the film took for me was the introduction of a shunned soul (Alex Maizus), who serves as the voice of Ada’s conscience and to plainly spell out any confusion about the proceedings to the thicker audience members. With unnecessary “Lord of the Flies” make-up and accompanied by a dark aura too closely resembling Pig Pen’s dirt cloud from the “Peanuts” strips, this character could have easily been made more ethereal, another vague apparition in the woods like the creature. Based on the strength of everything else entailed within “Jug Face,” I wanted to be on board with this concept, but think it would have served better purpose as a side note in the director’s commentary.
Others may be left cold as well by the rather anticlimactic ending, but it is both sad and fitting. Above all else, it’s a finale that remains true to the film as a whole. This is what sets “Jug Face” apart from so many other low-budget thrillers lining the shelves today. It is idiosyncratic in its unabashed honesty, and that’s what makes it a true original. It offers no cheap thrills and certainly no easy answers. Best of all, not an underdressed and oversexed spring breaker to be seen in this woodland setting. For that fact alone, the realm of “Jug Face” is more than worthy of a visit.
Jug Face (2013)