Garrick is a convicted serial killer. He’s being transported from prison to a secure unit when an opportunity for escape presents itself. He then makes his way cross-country, trying to get back to see Sarah, the girlfriend who put him away when she testified against him. On the way, Garrick continues his old habit of killing people: a couple of guys outside a sleazy bar, and several trusting women he’s persuaded to drive him a few miles down the road, who he then chops up, dumping their body parts in back-alley trash cans.
Sarah is trying to make a new life for herself. She lives alone, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to try and keep off the booze she once relied upon to rid herself of the horror after finding out that Garrick was a serial killer. When fellow addict Kevin asks her out on a date, she’s at first dubious but then starts to cling to the normality he seems to offer. He’s a nice guy; he cares about her. When she discovers that Garrick has escaped, and might be on his way to kill her, Kevin slowly comes to represent her only real source of safety.
The stories of Garrick and Sarah are told in parallel arcs, the script flitting between the two individuals as we piece together the overall story. As their paths begin to converge, the scene is set for a twist ending that tries to subvert everything that’s happened prior to that point.
A.J. Bowen’s Garrick is a cold, hard killer. He has little dialogue, but he manages to convey the character’s bloodlust through his steely eyes, his movements, the tiny gestures he makes as he moves through the towns and cities of America. Amy Seimetz deserves particular mention for her role as the battered, bruised Sarah, a woman who once saw things she wasn’t equipped to face, precipitating a descent into a state of addiction, paranoia and loneliness. Seimetz’s performance is subdued and affecting yet we are given glimpses of the quiet devastation at her core.
Adam Wingard’s economical direction shows enough to suggest that he might be capable of producing a major contribution to the horror genre a little further down the line. He has a nice sense of pace, refusing to rush things and instead giving us the story in fragments. Some of the violence is unconvincing, and the killer’s motivation is underwritten, but the film still manages to hold the attention and get under the viewer’s skin. In fact, the sections that focus on Sarah are the most rewarding: here the film shifts away from the bloodshed and concentrates on showing us the after-effects of such traumatic events, making us empathise with a woman who has been forced to confront truths about human evil that have damaged her beyond repair.
A Horrible Way to Die isn’t a great film – it’s shallow and slightly absurd, and compares unfavourably to the kind of films it’s trying to emulate: the brilliant Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a particular comparison that’s difficult to ignore. The recent UK production Tony also treads similar ground and offers us a much more profound meditation on modern urban alienation. It’s also a big ask for a little film like this to go up against the magnificent Snowtown, released on DVD in the UK on the same day. Nonetheless, this is definitely worth seeing.
In spite of the film’s flaws, there’s something that resonates about Sarah’s sad, ultimately tragic story, and the twist ending – although obvious – does achieve a level of pathos that adds to the overall effect.
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