Friday 14 July 2017

We Don't Go Back #55: Jug Face (2013)

An obscure gem, this, an intelligent horror film with an angle fresh enough that it seems old and familiar. Chad Crawford Kinkle's Jug Face (released on DVD in the UK as The Pit) doesn't hang around: at a slim 75 minutes, it clings tightly to its premise, and if its ending is inevitable, the route Jug Face takes to get there is scattered with grim delights. What could be a box-ticking exercise (and don't get me wrong, Jug Face assiduously ticks all the boxes) is tense, eerie and well-played.  
We start with the supernatural horror front and centre.
With no wasted time, the animated opening credits tell, in a naïve outsider art style drawn with chalks pastels, the story of an isolated community that falls into a sort of paganism. There's a plague. A potter has a vision, and draws clay from a pit in the ground, and makes a jug with the face of the local Christian minister on it. They sacrifice the minister to the Pit, and wash in the bloody clay in the pit. They're healed. And it's near that same deep pit, half full of reddish, stagnant water that teenager Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) agrees, somewhat reluctantly, to the advances of a young man. While they have furtive, awkward sex against a tree, we see, elsewhere, a bearded potter become overshadowed by some supernatural force. Not in control of his actions, he fashions a jug with Ada's face on it.

In a very few minutes of film time, we are given a bucketload of things to process.

We are shown that whatever it is that lives in the pit demands sacrifices, and that it tells the community whose blood it wants through the potter, Dawai (Sean Bridgers), who sculpts an ornamental jug with the next victim's face on it. Ada finds the jug, which Dawai has no memory of having made, and in horror hides it in the woods. Ada's parents Sustin (Larry Fessenden, who has made a career playing rednecks in horror films) and Loriss (Sean Young, light years from Blade Runner and Dune) are the nearest thing to religious leaders the town has. And the first thing they tell her when she gets home is that she's going to be "joined" to fat, undesirable Bodey (Mathieu Whitman). But Ada suspects she is pregnant, and we soon discover that the no-good boy she's been meeting in the woods, Jessaby (Daniel Manche), is her brother. And the father of her child.
I swear, your skin feels hotter than usual.
And with that set up, the film gets going, as Ada, With the help of Dawai, tries to escape the fate in store for her, the community tries to figure out what has angered the inhabitant of the Pit, and the Pit tries to get her back.

It goes where you'd expect, but aside from the overused Shunned Boy, a semi-spectral figure who lives in the woods and appears every so often to pronounce doom, every choice Kinkle makes with Jug Face is an effective one. Carter's distinctive face and huge eyes make her a striking protagonist, and while the small ensemble cast doesn't have a duff player in it, she carries the film, inspiring sympathy and identification in a role that it would be very easy for the audience not to care for.

Jug Face is a very Lovecraftian film. And here is where I suppose I have to talk about Howard Philips Lovecraft. And if you care about horror fiction of whatever kind in the twenty-first century, you know about Lovecraft, so I won't go too far into it, but the pertinent points here are that Lovecraft was not tremendously successful in his lifetime, and hugely influential after, and that his ideas basically inform most western horror and science fiction in some way.

But the infuriating thing about Lovecraft is that he had as many terrible ideas as good ones, and generally his terrible ideas are given just as much reverence as his good ones. The three things that Lovecraft found most repulsive were miscegenation, marine fauna and poor people (and one of his most inexplicably beloved stories is "The Shadow over Innsmouth", which is about poor people engaging in miscegenation with marine fauna, which I reckon is the hat-trick. Nice one, HP Lovecraft). I suppose this explains why our Howard is so uncritically beloved by Pepeheads in hats, but that's by the by.

Now if we set the obsessive racism1 and the shuddery fascination with bug eyes and tentacles out of the way, we get a canon of stories, some of which are very good – and don't get me wrong, the fact he was an awful person aside, he'd never have gotten so famous and influential if he wasn't pretty much the best at what he did2 – which features as one of its motifs inbred backwoods rednecks interacting in some way, usually in worship, with nameless alien horrors.

And that particular intersection of Lovecraft's prejudices is pretty much the foundation of a lot of what looks like American folk horror. While in British movies, pagan village conspiracies and witch covens worship (not always real) pagan religions of the past and/or Satan himself, in its American expression, the pagan cult worships something from the outside, something alien. You see this in Children of the Corn, for example, which is perhaps Jug Face's most obvious predecessor and genre counterpart.
Note Rachael from Blade Runner, bottom left.
And this is where this is relevant to Jug Face. We never once see the inhabitant of the Pit, we only see what it does (which is the best possible way the film could have played that), but nonetheless it's framed as something to which the obvious thing would be to attach adjectives like "nameless", "unknowable", "weird". Lovecraftian adjectives.

And the characters in Jug Face are very much Lovecraftian poor people: inbred, uneducated, blinkered, a bit stupid.

So Loriss is a chain-smoking matriarch who tortures her daughter to find out if she's been sleeping around. Sustin uses the garbled, half-remembered cadences of a church pastor to describe the Pit's desires and needs. Dawai is clearly possessed of some kind of learning difficulty; his talent as a potter is innate, not learned. And the only outsiders we meet, the father and daughter who run the store at the edge of the nearest town, keep the woodland folk at arm's length, know that something is Not Right with them. And Ada and Jessaby engage in incest because there is no one else worth fooling around with. These are all stereotypes.
The Pit speaks to Dawai.
And on the one hand, this is one of the laziest tropes of backwoods Lovecraftiana, but what Jug Face does is make every major character in the film someone who has grown up in the cult and accepts it as a fact, as a truth: the Pit takes sacrifices, the Pit heals their injuries and sicknesses, and both of these things are literal and magical. It heals their sicknesses, and if it does not have the sacrifice it wants, its unseen inhabitant comes out and takes its bloody, messy toll. 

So within the dialogue and the framework of the film, the cult is basically just how it is. This is the situation we find ourselves in, and unlike other folk horror narratives (and again, I'm thinking of Children of the Corn here) we're not looking at this from the point of view of an outsider. We're looking at it (largely) from the point of view of Ada and Dawai, who find common cause in a community that is destroying them, and by doing this, Jug Face manages to get out of the "stupid poor people are stupid and monstrous" trap by encouraging us to recognise these people as people.

Right from the beginning, we have this community that is run by a murderous religion, and the immediate parallel we draw is with the basically heretical Manichaean sect that calls itself Christian across huge swathes of the USA, and the way it shapes communities. Without the framing of an outside point of view, the viewer (and of course the assumed viewer is an American) identifies with people who have to live in this horrible system.
The Jug Face.
Ada is neither clever nor imaginative. She hides the jug rather than throw it away, and I kept asking myself why she doesn't smash it, and of course there are two reasons for that, and the most obvious one is that she can't smash it because it is important to the plot that it is eventually found, but the perfectly sensible diegetic reason is that she recognises the jug with her face on it as a sacred thing and it literally hasn't occurred to her to abandon the religion of her parents. She still believes (because it's easy to worship a thing that has literal, tangible actions); she just doesn't want to be the next one having her throat slashed and her blood fed to the Pit, and her sacrilege has to happen within the context of her religion (i.e. it's only sacrilege if you still believe; otherwise it's apostasy).

I am a strong believer in the value of having relatable and believably stupid people in films. Not so stupid they do things only to advance the plot, but unimaginative, irrational and silly people. Actual people. 

No one in Jug Face is really a villain. Loriss is perhaps the closest you get, but she's just a hard woman (and that's what poverty does: it makes you hard). Sustin is a believer. Jessaby is as much of a selfish jerk as any small-town Golden Boy will be. They're people. The evil is in the Pit, but the issue of what the thing in the Pit is, that's irrelevant to the film, and it would diminish Jug Face if it were explained. It's just the Pit. The horror in this film is not that the god in the Pit does hideous, violent things for inscrutable reasons, but that not one of the main characters, not even Ada and Dawai who come into conflict with it, recognises it as evil, and no one can see that the foundational beliefs of the community are toxic and destructive. It is the context in which they live.
You wouldn't realise just how icky this part is.
In Jug Face, the supernatural horror is laid out front and centre before the film even starts, and you instead get a story about people who live inside it. And the brilliant thing about Jug Face as a film is that it encourages you to identify with people who are condemned to live in a world with small horizons, and like a lot of the best horror films, and expecially folk horror films, it has something much deeper and trenchantly political to say about how communities of good people who believe evil things can choke the horizons of their children, and drive them to destruction. To someone watching in a place as far away, for example, as Wales, Jug Face could just as easily be a parable for the USA itself.

Want to see these film essays in print? Well.  

We Don't Go Back is going to be a book and it's still funding on Kickstarter.  

1I've quoted this before, but here's Lovecraft. Writing on Hitler:
As for the Nazis—of their crudeness there be no dispute, yet in many ways the impartial analyst cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for some phases of their position. They are fighting, in their naive & narrow way, a certain widespread & insidious mood of recent years which certainly spells potential decadence for the western world—& one can't help respecting that however ugly & even dangerous some of them may appear to be. Hitler is no Mussolini-but I'm damned if the poor chap isn't profoundly sincere & patriotic, it is to his credit rather than otherwise that he doesn't subscribe to the windy flatulence of the idealistic "liberals" whose policies lead only to chaos & collapse.
Lovecraft, Collected Letters #621
I mean, "Basically, that Hitler bloke has the right idea," is not something that's hard to get out of his stories anyway, but the man spelled it out. (back)

2I'm actually, honestly, pretty fond of Lovecraft's stories. "The Colour Out of Space" is a great story whatever, "The Call of Cthulhu" is beautifully executed, regardless of the icky bits, "Pickman's Model" was my favourite horror story when I was a teenager, and I have this great redemptive reading of "At the Mountains of Madness". Ask me about it sometime. (back)