The opening minutes of Chad Crawford Kinkle’s debut film Jug Face might feel familiar. We have the backwoods community with its archaic customs, we have something sinister and supernatural in those backwoods, and we have the wide-eyed ingénue who is probably going to be put through hell before the whole thing is over. But Kinkle is all too aware of his genre-savvy audience, and subverts our expectations to deliver one of the most engrossing, surprising and rewarding horror films of the year.
Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) lives with her family deep in the woods as part of a small community that prays to an entity living in a nearby pit. When she hears that her parents (Larry Fessenden and Sean Young) are going to marry her off to one of their neighbour’s sons, she’s frightened that her pregnancy, courtesy of her illicit relationship with Jessaby (Daniel Manche), may be discovered. However, those fears pale into insignificance when she sees that the group’s potter Dawai (Sean Bridgers) has made a jug in her likeness; indicating that she has been chosen as the next sacrifice to the pit. When Ada disposes of the jug, she sets off a chain of events that will tear her community apart.
The closest thing we come to simple exposition in Jug Face is an animated opening credits sequence which gives us a bit of childlike visual history. Once the film starts, Kinkle puts the viewer into the middle of an established world where everyone knows the rules and there’s no need to repeat them. By refusing us an outsider identification point, our only judgement on the characters in the film comes from us as viewers. For Ada and her family, their traditions are there for a reason. There’s no sense of redneck horror tourism here; this is a far more interesting proposition.
It’s difficult to sum up the mythology created in the film without doing it a disservice. The script drip-feeds us information rather than relying on unwieldy clumps of back story, allowing Kinkle to sculpt his dark fairy tale at his own pace. We can see where it’s going, but it’s the teasing out of details and history that makes the worship of the pit so fascinating.
Then there’s the complex Ada. Carter, who was fantastic as the abused daughter in Lucky McKee’s The Woman, delivers a stellar lead performance. She’s strong, determined and certainly no saint, and she’s driven by an urgent self-preservation and the need to protect her unborn child. It’s wonderful to see a horror heroine this complex; as an audience we’re rooting for her, but her actions put everyone else at risk. Once crossed, the community responds violently but, like her, the locals are acting out of self-preservation. The pit wants what it wants, and it won’t stop until it gets it.
Carter is backed up by excellent performances from indie horror godfather Fessenden as Ada’s father and community leader Sustin, and Bridgers (so fearsome as Carter’s psychotic paterfamilias in The Woman) as the simple, kindly potter whose connection with the pit leads him to sculpt the likenesses of upcoming sacrifices, while the long-absent Young sinks her teeth into her role of Ada’s hot-tempered mother with glee.
The presence of both Carter and Bridgers cements the Lucky McKee connection (as does Sean Spillane, who wrote the music for both films), and there’s a similar sense of twisted humour that comes from struggling to make sense of a situation we don’t immediately understand. There’s also a surprising amount of humour from Bridgers’ Dawai, who understands both the absurdity and tragedy of the town’s traditions. McKee aside, the film’s illustrious touchstones include Angela Carter, Robin Hardy, Guillermo del Toro and Lewis Carroll.
It’s rare to find a film with such a confident and convincing mythology that has such complicated characters inhabiting it. There are one or two hiccups along the way and, inevitably, some effects shots show a lack of budget (not imagination), but Jug Face is an excellent debut from Kinkle with a superb performance from Lauren Ashley Carter, and we urge you to seek it out.
Jug Face is playing at Grimm Up North Film Festival in October. You can buy tickets here.