It’s true that Jug Face is one of the finest indie horror movies to come along in years. It’s also true that Jug Face is one of the best horror movies of 2013 regardless of budget (it shares poll position with The Battery in my Top 10 of 2013). It’s becoming increasingly apparent that if the devout, discerning genre fan wants to find a movie that is both effective as a horror film and contains even the smallest shred of originality they must be prepared to look beyond the deluge of lacklustre bilge that Hollywood has been force feeding audiences for far too long now. The most successful mainstream horror film of 2013 was The Conjuring. I liked it quite a bit but even I have to admit that it was woefully lacking in the inspiration department. Jug Face is one of a handful of low budget horror movies that went some way toward redressing the balance and making 2013 something less than an almost complete washout for the horror genre.
There is an overabundance of horror movies today that coast by on their ability to make an audience jump out of their seats and/or try to trigger their gag reflex by throwing an abattoir of blood soaked viscera at the screen. I’m not denying that this approach can be fun. The Conjuring is a great example of the jump-scare thing being done well but it’s doing nothing that hundreds of movies haven’t already done before. I’m also fond of well-staged carnage but too often it’s used to prop up a dismal script with nary a new or interesting idea to be found. So it’s truly a relief to discover a horror movie that isn’t heavily weighted in favour of jump scares alone and has more ideas than gore. Too many movies forget entirely that a creeping sense of gathering dread is a far more effective way to unnerve and/or scare an audience. This is an area where Jug Face (and many other indie horror movies) succeeds. Perhaps it’s something that comes with a lack of money. If you can’t scare an audience or make them throw up by launching moderately expensive set pieces at them then you have to rely on their imagination. And a person’s imagination, guided skilfully in the right direction is a far more powerful way of scaring the shit out of a viewer.
Which brings me back to Jug Face; the brilliant directorial debut of Chad Crawfod Kinkle who, armed with very little money, a clever script (which he wrote) and a supremely talented cast has put together a tale of backwoods terror that not only works as a horror movie but also provides much in the way of riveting drama. The story focuses on a tight knit community who worship a pit in the woods that surround their village. Once in a while they have to make a sacrifice to this hole in the ground with the victim being selected when one of the villagers fashions a jug out of clay that bears the face of the chosen one. When Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) discovers not only that she is pregnant but also that she is next in line for sacrifice she hides the jug bearing her likeness in the woods and starts making plans to escape. Things do not go according to plan.
The performances in Jug Face range from good to quite exceptional. I first encountered Lauren Ashley Carter in Lucky McKee’s The Woman where she gave the sort of performance that made me sit up and take notice. In Jug Face she builds on the promise already shown to provide a perfectly pitched, subtle and at times heart-breaking performance. She’s one of those special actors who can do more with her eyes than some actors can do with everything they have at their disposal. She’s incredible here and although much of what makes Jug Face so special rests upon her capable shoulders she has impressive back-up from genre regular Larry Fessenden as her father and, surprisingly, Sean Young, who is terrifying as Ada’s granite hearted bitch of a mother. Also of note is Sean Bridgers in the role of Dawai. I was surprised to discover that he had a regular role in the HBO western Deadwood; a show I drank in like the heady, addictive brew it was. He’s unrecognizable and thoroughly remarkable here.
There’s very little to criticize about Jug Face. Given the budget it’s no surprise that the special effects, few though they are, aren’t terribly special. But that’s not important because this isn’t a horror movie that relies on showy effects to succeed. The community that the story centres upon is brought to life with a keen eye for detail and as a result feels totally authentic. It’s the authenticity of this backdrop and the plight of Ada that drew me into the story and had me gripped right from beginning right up until the gut wrenching conclusion. Those who have been raised on nothing but the wham, bam, thank-you ma’am (or no thank-you if you please) MTV pacing of the majority of mainstream horror movies would perhaps complain that Jug Face is slow. Utter bullshit. Jug Face is methodically but perfectly paced and understands that the best movies, regardless of genre, work when the audience is invested in the fate of the characters. This isn’t achieved by racing from scene to scene like a cheetah on amphetamines. This is accomplished by taking the time to tell the audience enough about the characters to allow a bond to develop.
It’s truly sad that it takes a first time director working on a shoestring budget to show us what a horror movie can be when it’s produced by a group of people with the ambition to create something that isn’t a facsimile of everything that’s gone before. Jug Face is a unique movie, that, in a year that cannot be described as anything other than disappointing where genre offerings are concerned should, along with a handful of its peers (all low budget, indie movies), be held up as proof that US horror is not as uninspired as mainstream Hollywood would have you believe. Highly recommended.
Interview with Chad Crawford Kinkle
AOTD: Your script for Jug Face won the Slamdance Screenwriting Competition back in 2011. Did your original vision make the transition from page to screen intact or did you have to scale things back a little to accommodate the budget?
Chad Crawford Kinkle: I tell people that maybe 40% of what I wanted is in the movie. If I had the experience that I gained from making Jug Face, my first feature, I could have added about 30%. The rest was due to budget and other reasons that were out of my control.
AOTD: On Jug Face you were blessed with a talented group of actors to work with. What was the casting process like? Were there specific actors you had in mind for certain roles or was the movie cast entirely through auditions?
CCK: Andrew van Den Houten, the producer, really lead the way as far as casting was concerned. He would come up with names and pass them by me. The only one of the major roles that I came up with was Ada, Lauren Ashley Carter. But of course, I was familiar with her only after watched a blu ray of The Woman that Andrew gave me. We did have auditions for the secondary roles.
AOTD: Are there any past masters of horror cinema whose work you particularly respect and who have had an influence on your approach to film-making?
CCK: I respect them all. Even the ones who didn’t make great movies. They all set out to make horror films the best that they could. But my favorites would be Argento, Hitchcock, Hooper, Polanski, Friedkin, Browning, Bava and so on.
AOTD: Did the central conceit of the clay jug faces and the pit spring entirely from your imagination or did something inspire you? It has the feel of something from folklore.
CCK: Face jugs are a real part of souther folk art for the past 160 years. I saw one for the first time at a museum in the north Georgia Mountains and came up the concept for the movie on the spot. The jugs were used to hold moonshine and poisons for farming.
AOTD: The sense of place, customs and history of the community in Jug Face is vital to the movie's success. How did you go about ensuring that this felt authentic?
CCK: For one, I shot the movie in the area where the story’s culture comes from. Basically, the region of Tennessee where I grew up. But a Director’s job is to control the “vision” of the film so that it feels whole and concrete.
AOTD: US indie horror is creatively far more interesting than anything mainstream Hollywood is producing at the moment. Why do you think this is the case and what movies and/or directors from that scene have made a real impression on you?
CCK: You can be more adventurous with the subject matter if the budget is low. Big budget movies have to get people into the theaters so those ideas need to be more mainstream to make back all the money. Film making is a business at any level. Ben Wheatley is someone that comes to mind who I admire.
AOTD: What should we expect from your sophomore effort and do you have anything on the go yet?
CCK: I’m trying to finish up my next screenplay, another southern gothic horror film. If that doesn’t go anywhere, I have a number of other horror ideas that I want to explore.
AOTD: What horror movies are you looking forward to in 2014?
AOTD: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.