Fantastic Review: A Horrible Way to Die

By  · Published on October 5th, 2010

We’ve all had bad relationships wherein we naively overlook some major flaw in our partner. The bad news is that sometimes even when we are freed from that relationship, either by mustered gumption or serendipitous intervention of fate, that past comes back to haunt us. Such is the case with Sarah and Garrick. Toward the end of their relationship, Sarah began to suspect Garrick of being unfaithful; his late night excursions and evasive explanations seeming to paint no other conclusion. But these accusations turn out to be an unfair attack on Garrick’s fidelity as he was not, in fact, cheating on his girlfriend…he was killing people. Ultimately it is Sarah who makes this discovery and informs the police; putting Garrick away for life. But one day, while being transferred between prisons, Garrick escapes and begins a bloody journey back to Sarah.

A Horrible Way to Die is a step in the right direction for independent horror films. In fact, so much of its appeal comes from the intimate, well-constructed character study that perhaps the moniker of thriller would better suit the film. However the question of semantics is settled, A Horrible Way to Die is a wonderful film. Writer Simon Barrett, whose efforts on this film netted him Best Screenplay at the Fantastic Fest Awards, weaves a taught, but still slow-burn, collision course on which he sets these two characters with the ever-looming certainty of confrontation. Though quiet and introspective, Simon’s script delivers the nightmares when it needs to in order to effectively build his antagonist as well as ratchet up the suspense for the audience that knows more than Sarah regarding Garrick’s progress.

The performances in A Horrible Way to Die are, quite simply, fantastic. AJ Bowen knocks this one into next week with his layered, strangely vulnerable portrayal of Garrick; a performance that won him Best Actor this year. He is a marvel of coiled menace and his actions communicate what his strikingly limited dialogue does not; a powerful choice that really allows the masterful subtleties of his performance to shine. Director Adam Wingard makes some terribly interesting choices with the cinematography that, while not always perfect, nicely underscore the film’s central story. The angles he uses, the dim lighting, and the the withholding tight shots all emphasize the secrets these characters keep from one another and how reclusive the truth can be. I also love the way Wingard directs the ending, a perfect climax to the character arcs that is very close-quarters and reserved all the way up to the moment of impact.

The psych nerd in me loves the fact that much of the inspiration for Garrick’s actions came from Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me”; possibly the most definitive book on Ted Bundy ever written. To wit, so much of Bowen’s character and performance are not only disturbing, but disturbingly accurate from an academic perspective. This is quite the esoteric compliment to pay the film, and its absence would not have detracted in the least, but I still appreciated it. All in all, a powerful, cerebral thriller that actually allows the character development and storytelling to supersede gimmick or shock. This is an addiction story that is equal parts frightening and beautiful.

A Horrible Way to Die has been picked up for distribution and I can’t recommend more strongly seeking it out.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.