Jug Face (2013) is a backwoods Southern Gothic horror tale that revolves around a cult religion based on a bloody pit dug in the earth. It is unclear how it got there, but the film does show that its supernatural (likely demonic) power once saved its devotees from a “pox” that was decimating its population. While the Pit continues to offer healing to them, it also exacts a regular tribute payment. It demands human blood.
This blood comes from a sacrificial victim chosen indirectly by the local potter, Dawai (Sean Bridgers), through the Pit’s mystical transformation of the earthen jugs he makes on his wheel. When they come out of the kiln, they bear the face of the Pit’s choice for its next victim. The local people have come to accept this as a natural part of life. Their usual response: “The Pit wants what it wants.”
So what happens when somebody doesn’t want to die when s/he is chosen? This is the conflict that drives the plot of this movie. Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter), a teenage girl who has developed a friendship with Dawai (who is both a shaman and an outcast, the latter because he is simple-minded), discovers her face on a jug when she surreptitiously looks into Dawai’s kiln. She steals the jug face and hides it in the woods.
Learning that she is the next sacrificial victim is the toxic frosting on the putrid cake of her life. Only moments before, she submitted to her brother’s incestuous urges. Then she learns that she has been pledged in marriage to an odious local boy. Unfortunately, she is no longer a virgin, which is a social taboo that results in sadistic punishment from her mother. Finally, she discovers that she has gotten pregnant, which gives her one more reason to want to defy the Pit and run for her life. The rest of the movie narrates her attempts to escape from her fate, the Pit’s wrath at being denied its victim, and the turmoil that these events cause in her inbred, backward, cultic society.
The basic history of this cult is cleverly told through an animated series of primitive-appearing paintings that are shown during the opening credits. Another clever device is the naming of characters. Ada’s name could be an allusion to the character of Ada in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). Although Nabokov’s own pronunciation of the name rhymed with “ardor,” his Ada also had an incestuous affair with her brother (although she first does so unwittingly). The novel is set in an alternative Earth, called “Antiterra” or “Demonia” and describes a cult that believes in the existence of a parallel world, Terra. Similar to the possible associations of Ada’s name, Dawai can mean “medicine” in Hindi. He is, in fact, his small society’s “medicine man.”
Although the film’s writer/director, Chad Crawford Kinkle, might not have had the conscious intention to make these literary and linguistic references, devices such as these serve to convey a lot of information in a very economical way. The result is to allow Kinkle and his cinematographer, Chris Heinrich, to free the camera to show what it wants about Ada and her world.
That world is cruel and gory, but it is not one full of jump scares. Its horror is more psychological in nature. The most terrifying moments occur when Ada is immobilized by the Pit’s supernatural powers and forced to see through its eyes while it executes retribution for her disobedience. Unfortunately, as Nick Schager points out in his review on the Dissolve Reviews website, these “schizoid hallucinations” prematurely close “the early, intriguing question of whether an evil spirit exists within the pit, or it’s just a vehicle for these hayseeds’ cultish lunacy.” This removes dramatic tension from some of the most horrifying moments in the movie, which result from the actions of humans — particularly those of Ada’s own parents, Sustin (Larry Fessenden) and Loriss (Sean Young).
Still, this is a well-done indie horror film. The cast members (particularly Carter) are convincing in their portrayals of the members of a rural cult. Kinkle and his crew capture their story, which is complicated despite their simplicity, with skill. Finally, Jug Face is an example of how good horror can be done with simple, inexpensive settings and props.
FRISCO KID’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars