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Adam Wingard went from indie horror darling to a Blockbuster director, but before that, he was shocking audiences in “A Horrible Way to Die”

A Horrible Way to Die

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From the Golden State Killer Joseph DeAngelo to “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy, whenever a seemingly upstanding member of the community is revealed to be a monster, a common question emerges: how could their loved ones, their friends, and their neighbors have no idea what they were up to? Surely, nobody is that good at hiding their true nature, particularly when they’re harboring such an awful secret.

But really, the truth is possibly more disturbing: even the people closest to us remain, on some level, unknowable, which makes it easy to see whatever we want to see in them.

A Horrible Way to Die, Adam Wingard’s 2010 serial killer drama, makes that fact viscerally apparent.

The film represents the last of Wingard’s early low-budget indie era, before his 2011 breakout You’re Next and 2014’s The Guest brought in bigger budgets and bigger stars, leading to his eventual blockbuster coronation in 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong.

With the sequel Godzilla x Kong: New Empire currently rampaging through theaters, now seems like the perfect time to revisit one of his earlier, far more modest efforts.

If you only know Wingard from his work in kaiju action, the scope of this film may come as a shock.

While Wingard is decidedly a horror director, his early efforts occasionally overlapped with the similarly DIY mumblecore movement.

A Horrible Way to Die marks his first time working with some of the creatives who defined that scene, particularly actors Amy Seimetz and Joe Swanberg, both indie filmmakers in their own right, who would both go on to appear in You’re Next.

Here, Seimetz stars as Sarah, a nurse living a solitary existence in a small town, newly sober and trying to stay on track with AA meetings. At one, she meets a seemingly nice, ordinary guy named Kevin (Swanberg), and the two begin a tentative romance. It’s a little complicated, mainly because Sarah’s still a little hung up on her ex.

Complicating things further, her ex is the notorious serial killer Garrick Turrell (frequent Wingard collaborator A.J. Bowen), freshly escaped from prison and en route to blow up Sarah’s new life. Prison didn’t have much of a rehabilitating effect on him; he couldn’t seem to help himself from giving into temptation and murdering several people along the way to his destination.

Screenwriter Simon Barret, another frequent Wingard collaborator, uses Sarah and Garrick’s relationship as a lens to examine the complicated nature of identity and the way we often project our desires onto others.

The two actually seem to have a loving relationship, and even when Sarah discovers the horrible evidence of Garrick’s misdeeds, she can’t bring herself to believe he was involved. She still pleasures herself while having sexual fantasies about him, which complicates her mounting terror at the prospect of being found.

On the surface, Sarah saw a loving partner, and as monstrous as Garrick’s actions are, they don’t completely refute that.

Kevin, meanwhile, is a blank slate, one who seems supportive, but his true motives remain hard to ascertain.

Is he really just a nice, boring guy, or does his interest in Sarah come from something more sinister? Wingard frequently frames Kevin in the vantage of a predator, approaching Sarah as she gets into her car, reinforcing that duality, and Swanberg’s performance nicely treads the line between a “nice guy” and a threat.

Wingard keeps most of the violence offscreen, instead showing us the aftermath. I’m not sure if this was a budgetary choice or a creative one, but it’s effective.

The film takes a more lurid turn in its final act that didn’t feel completely earned after the more low-key naturalism that preceded it, but it does reinforce the idea that we’re unable to know anyone or their intentions fully.

With his big-budget smash-ups, Wingard has proven he can deliver the goods on a massive scale. But it’s interesting to revisit his earlier, quieter work, made outside the demands of the Hollywood studio system and endless IP brand extensions.

A Horrible Way to Die may not reveal much about its director’s future, but it’s an enjoyably disquieting film nonetheless.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

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