Indie horror flick A Horrible Way to Die is a great example of how a moviemaker can misunderstand what’s so special about his idea. The basic story of the film is straightforward: A woman tries to settle in to her new life in a new town, but her serial-killer ex (whom her evidence put away) has escaped from prison and is on the road heading back to her. There are some twists and turns, because Not Everyone Is What They Seem, and then there’s a final confrontation between killer and girl.
But the flesh on this skeleton is made up of three big ideas. In order from least to most fascinating: 1. The internet celebrity of the killer. He’s got this whole fan club, which sends him letters, marriage proposals, etc., and they play a role in the plot twists. The thing is, I don’t actually think anything was being said with this plot element other than, Gee, people are crazy. It didn’t serve to illuminate the killer’s character; the groupies were just outlines, not fully-developed characters; the cultural commentary was minimal, which is fortunate because we’ve all heard the Evils of the Internet speech a million times from horror.
I think there are probably cool things you could do with this concept. Maybe the internet allowed people to pretend to be kill-groupies, and even convince themselves that they were groupies, but then reality intruded? So just as the killer was safely confined in prison, but now comes back, out of the heroine’s past, he also escapes the confines of the computer screen and forces his groupies to live with the consequences of a time in their lives which they thought they’d put behind them. There’s an echo here of the way the stupid stuff you do online when you’re 16, say, can haunt you forever. There are probably other interesting ways to play this concept, but I don’t think AHWTD found them.
2. Super-artsy direction, using lots of dissolving shots of glowing lights in the darkness. In theory I like this idea, since it is an attempt to capture the disorientation and sensory distortion of drunkenness (see point #3!) and it creates some lovely moments. But overall the movie is just way too dark. I mean physically, visually dark. I couldn’t always tell what was going on, to the point that I don’t think it was an intentional stylistic choice. There are also lots of strings of Christmas lights, which are pretty cliche for horror I think, and lots of shakycam, which I don’t mind but which many people hate.
3. The character of the girlfriend. This is the really innovative, thoughtful bit: She’s an alcoholic in very early recovery (yes, now you know why I watched this, I am nothing if not predictable), and one reason it took her so long to realize that her boyfriend was a serial killer was that she was almost always drunk. So she carries an enormous burden of regret: Could she have stopped him earlier if she’d been more aware?
I’m not sure I’ve seen a serial-killer flick which centered on regret for not stopping the killer earlier, especially not from someone who was an ordinary person rather than a cop or investigator. The girlfriend’s desperation and her sense that her past is so shameful and awful that she can’t even reveal it in AA come through really clearly; I was totally compelled by her. Unfortunately, this aspect of her character never receives any payoff! The last act of the movie is pretty much entirely about the killer and his fan club and their past relationship, not about her guilt and recovery. The last half-hour or so would have played out exactly the same if she had been a super-responsible woman who had just gotten mixed up with a really bad guy. Neither her history nor her personality matters very much to her overall fate; only the killer’s beliefs and emotions about her matter to the outcome. That was a real disappointment.