Backwoods cult communities – is there anything creepier? Just imagine a bunch of brainwashed radicals living miles away from civility, abiding by their own communal rules and ignoring the social norms that govern most “typical” Americans. I don’t know, that sounds pretty horrifying to me, right? People that make their own rules, justify them, and treat them as common law – especially when there’s a bloody pit holding a creature who is basically pulling all the strings? Oh, did that catch your attention? Welcome to the country bumpkin world of Jug Face, where if you see yourself sculpted into the water jug you’re drinking out of, then you’re shit out of luck.
Following the story of a young girl named Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) who lives in a backwoods community with her family and a few other followers, life is not easy for our main character. She’s being sold for marriage, barely has any connection with reality, lives by strange rules, and oh yeah – she just found out she’s to be scarified for the betterment of those around her. Talk about a rough upbringing. But Ada doesn’t take to kindly to finding out her blood is to flow into a muddy pit that houses some kind of protective force keeping all the townsfolk safe, so she hides the token that would reveal her selection, which starts a chain of events far worse than anyone could have imagined. Ada has a choice – does she keep her deadly secret hidden and endanger everyone close to her, or does she accept her doomed fate and save that crazy, backwoods community she calls home?
The strength of Jug Face exists in writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle’s morbidly original story, shining a new light on a rehashed story. We’ve all seen sacrificial cult stories where a character attempts to avoid their fate, but have you ever seen one where an enlightened ceramics worker becomes possessed and sculpts a pot to the likeness of the sacrificial lamb, like his hands are being guided by the apparition of Patrick Swayze in Ghost?
Sean Bridgers plays a simpleton named Dawai, the man who tells townsfolk who is to be offered to “the pit,” acting as our mystic guide into the spiritual forces overwhelming the community. It’s wonderful because the whole “jug face” appeal actually works quite well with the hillbilly aesthetic, and it’s not like Bridgers just becomes possessed and shouts out names. The jugs stick with the down-home and dirty appeal of Kinkle’s film, which is a wonderfully vibrant look into cult communities and supernatural forces. For a while, we actually question the powers of “the pit,” thinking some psychological twist awaits us, but then Jug Face takes a turn for the dark, and doesn’t look back.
The slow burn nature of Kinkle’s work will absolutely turn some viewers off though, as Ada’s story takes a while to build up. We learn very early in the film that she’s been chosen to give her life for the others, yet nothing controversial happens until about halfway through Jug Face. We watch as Lauren Ashley Carter tries to navigate her lies and trick people into thinking everything is perfectly fine, but for a while we’re missing a sense of danger and mystery. Ada is an engaging character, and one who becomes incredibly more valuable to us as time goes on, but her struggles don’t actually become overly exciting until everything hits the fan. Jug Face is undoubtably a slow-burn thriller covered in grime and mud, and Carter gives a wonderful performance, but Kinkle’s pacing could have used a kick in the ass durning some parts of his build-up.
Once the true nature of “the pit” is revealed though, there’s nothing stopping the horrors and dramatics that are unleashed. Taking full form, Jug Face goes from flickering flame to powerful blow torch, as Ada is forced to truly assess the value of her life over the value of others. The longer she stays alive, the angrier the pit gets, and the more innocent people are targeted by its actions. It’s a moral conundrum that benefits greatly from using the horror genre, as the decision is completely up to Ada as to whether she’s sacrificed. No one knows the jug was made of her – the only salvation for this poor community is Ada’s brave self sacrifice. Well, technically it’s not very brave because she hid the jug out of cowardly terror, but I mean, would you want to be sacrificed to a muddy pit? No, but that’s besides the point. The tension created through Ada’s decision process exploits the mental anguish of accepting your own death, which is honestly the most horrific thought for a young person to have. Could you look death in the face as a teenager and accept his one-way ticket willingly?
Jug Face becomes an extremely more powerful experience after your initial viewing, as all the themes can finally be pulled from its murky waters. Personally, as I was watching Kinkle’s film, I was more focused on the cult horror and angry pit action, and less focused on Ada’s journey. Now that I’ve had time to reflect though, this poor, innocent girl truly brings the horror to such a situation, as she has to mentally accept the ending of her life. And for what? A community of pit worshippers? Man, even if I was brought up on such teachings, I still don’t know if I could bend over and slice my throat open just to appease some dirty waters. Life, death, sacrifices, and violent maulings – just don’t travel too far into the woods, eh?