The backwoods trailer trash family has been a staple of horror through inbred decades, with variations told in Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn among many others, but all are seen from the outside looking in, the relatively sophisticated city folk who stumble in and are laid low by their country cousins. Not so with the directorial debut of Chad Crawford Kinkle, where the leafy dirt roads and dilapidated shacks are most definitely home.
Teenager Ada’s life is simple, taking walks in the lush woods with her brother Jessaby, visting her elderly grandfather, the only member of the family who cares for him, and being careful not to provoke her parents Sustin and Loriss. Into this imperfect but stable setting come two events, when her father informs her that she is to be joined with Bodey, a man she has no interest in, and her discovery that in a fugue state the potter Dawai has made a jug in her likeness, which she hides in the woods, for when the potter makes such a jug whoever is depicted is taken to the pit.
The importance of the pit is told in children’s chalk drawings over the opening titles, but it is a belief that carries on into their adult lives and shapes their actions. They believe the pit will heal them of sickness, but if the price it demands is not fulfilled it will take whoever is closest, their soul doomed to walk the woods for all time. Dawai is shunned for the connection with the pit which guides his hands as he creates from the mud, uncanny likenesses of the villagers with cold life in their glazed eyes, which is why Ada conceals that she also has visions, unwilling witness to the pit’s hunger.
As Ada, Lauren Ashley Carter’s expressive face carries the film; she has nowhere to run to, will not go to the police or child services because they are not concepts that exist to her; the only authority she knows is her family, the only justice that of the pit. Wholly believable as Ada’s terrifying mother due to their uncanny physical resemblance is Sean Young, giving an utterly fearless performance. Loriss loves her daughter fiercely, and her devotion is expressed in grim determination that she should be pure on her wedding night which will turn volatile should she discover that Ada is already pregnant.
Soundtracked by the ethereal distorted guitar of Sean Spillane and beautifully filmed entirely in natural lighting on location in Nashville, Kinkle’s script has aspects of that most revered of British horrors, The Wicker Man, but in his talk after the screening of Jug Face at Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn festival he confirmed an inspiration steeped in Americana, the short story that launched the legendary Shirley Jackson’s career, The Lottery, and the sense of inevitability that permeated that work is present here – when death comes for them, they do not struggle, because they have known their whole lives were only borrowed and could be reclaimed by the pit at any time.
It is the differential in length between that brief piece and this film that is its weakness, in that for all the atmosphere of moonshine fuelled hoedowns and laundry boards in the river and the authenticity of the performances, it needs more direction to carry the narrative and save it from becoming lost in the woods, though it could be argued that listlessness is another aspect of the sense of isolation which is so ingrained into the lives of the characters that that there is no alternative open to them, a feeling so pervasive that for the most part the audience are swept along without consciously realising it.