United States. Directed by Chad Crawford Kinkle, 2013. Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Bridgers, Sean Young. 81 minutes.

The pact the backwoods community have with the pit has been in place for generations.

Every so often, the pit demands a sacrifice. The simple-minded Dawai (Sean Bridgers) enters a trance; the pit shows him a face of a member of the community. He crafts a jug bearing that person’s face, remembering nothing afterwards. Then he takes the jug to the elders. The elders take the sacrifice to the pit and slit his throat, his blood flowing into the pit. In return for sacrifices, the pit heals injury and sickness.

One day Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) discovers Dawai’s latest jug. It bears her face.

That’s enough to scare any young woman, but Ada harbors a dark secret–she’s pregnant. Two additional factors complicate things. First, the father of her child is her brother Jessaby (Daniel Manche). Second, her parents Sustin and Loriss (Larry Fessenden and Sean Young, respectively) have arranged for her to be “joined”–married–to a boy from another family.

So she steals the “jug face” and hides it. Understandable, perhaps–but she doesn’t know what happened the last time the pit didn’t get the sacrifice it asked for. She doesn’t just put her own life, and her unborn chil at risk. Her family, her friends and her neighbors will all pay the price for what she does.

A terrible force has been unleashed in this small rural community…and it will not stop until its desire has been sated.

As a rule of thumb, the more obvious a horror trope seems, the harder it is to get right. All too often, creators depend on the tropes themselves to provide the scares instead of actually investing them with anything the audience might care about. “Put a clown in it,” they think, and that’s all they need to do, because everybody’s scared of clowns! By this principle, “hillbilly horror” is one of the trickiest subgenres to pull off. (Or at least I think it is; whoever it is that keeps greenlighting Texas Chain Saw Massacre reboots/remakes/sequels/prequels clearly disagrees.) And let’s be honest, the entertainment industry’s characteristic contempt of any place that isn’t New York or California doesn’t help.

Thankfully, writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle actually bothers to develop his backwoods community beyond the level of “religious zealots with Hee Haw accents.” The characters have more to them than typical yokel ignorance, and even less sympathetic characters such as Loriss operate on understandable, relatable motivations. Kinkle wisely avoids making the community’s pit-worship an obvious Christian allegory, allowing their religion to stand in for any unquestioned received wisdom.

I also enjoyed the characterization, for the most part. Most of the parts are written well (we’ll cover the exception in a bit), and characters who easily could have been comedy yokels instead have genuine personalities.

I appreciated how the film portrays the incestuous relationship between Ada and Jessaby with sensitivity, not sensationalism. The story places Loriss, not Sustin, in the obligatory abusive-parent role without letting Sustin off the hook for his actions. Not only is this a refreshing twist on the usual dysfunctional-family dynamic, it also strengthens the social commentary (conscious or otherwise) by detailing how both male and female roles perpetuate unjust social systems.

That’s pretty heavy stuff for a low-budget horror flick, but Jug Face delivers plenty of entertainment value in the form of solid plotting, creepy middle-of-nowhere atmosphere, and what the MPAA describes as “bloody violence, language and brief sexuality.”

It’s clear that Kinkle has ambitions beyond making a run-of-the-mill hillbilly horror picture, and he mostly succeeds, but a couple elements of the production stymie his vision somewhat. The direction and cinematography are competent and occasionally impressive, but occasionally fall prey to editing and effects that make it look like SyFy schedule spackle.

Relative newcomer Lauren Ashley Carter and onetime child star Daniel Manche have the wrong kind of chemistry with each other. This is a huge problem as Ada is apparently supposed to be in love with Jessaby. From the actors’ dynamic, I’d assumed what little consent she granted in the incestuous relationship was grudging at best. Sean Bridgers, hewing more closely to Deadwood’s Johnny Burns than The Woman’s Chris Cleek, also seems a little off.

The exception, and the cast’s weak link, is Sean Young. I feel for her somewhat because Loriss is the least developed of the main characters. But it can’t be denied that she plays Loriss exactly as the the shrill and unsympathetic caricature that was written.

None of these performances are bad, not even Young’s, but they’re just not entirely convincing.

Jug Face is an enjoyable horror flick that at least tries to do a little something different. Kinkle swings for the fences and though he doesn’t hit a home run, I appreciate the effort.

Jug Face poster

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