As Jug Face begins, it toes the line between thoughtful indie thriller and B-movie schlockfest. Very quickly, it fully crosses over into the latter category. Not merely because the film is amateurish, though it unfortunately is — there are only so many legitimate thrills that can be created by shaking the camera and layering cheap digital effects to obscure the action — but because very little effort was applied to evoke the kind of gothic eeriness that would make this story compelling.
The opening credits sequence is artful and effective, as crude animation based on crayon drawings conveys the cult-ish history that permeates the film’s environment. There is a backwoods community, there is a deep pit in the middle of the forest, and there are human sacrifices made to feed said pit. If the ensuing film communicated those ideas as effectively as the hand-drawn opening sequence, you might be reading a very different review. Unfortunately, once the actual story begins, any sensory or thematic intrigue quickly evaporates in favor of broad caricatures and confused storytelling.
Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) lives among the filth and dread of a relentlessly backwards community in a remote section of the deep woods of Tennessee. Her extended family whittles, makes moonshine, and gathers roadkill for food. As if all that wasn’t terrifying enough, there is an apparently evil force embedded in the forest that holds the fate of the community in its grasp. It’s a… pit, deep and menacing, and it’s thirsty for blood. Evidently a creature, never seen and only vaguely mentioned, resides in the pit, demanding human sacrifices at random. These demands are communicated through — you guessed it — pottery. Ada’s best friend, Dawai (Sean Bridgers), is the town potter, and when the pit creature determines the next sacrifice, Dawai is possessed to craft a “Jug Face,” which is just what it sounds like. Whomever the Jug Face resembles is the next in line for sacrifice.
The twist? Well, there is none. This film is startlingly light on suggestion and subtext. There are no buried messages or elegant intimations to be culled from this story — it’s just a flick about uncultured people sacrificing themselves to a hole in the ground. I might question the merits of any group of people who would so swiftly and completely kill their own just to appease an unseen spirit, and why no one would ever think to simply move out of town, but we are not supposed to worry about such things. We’re just supposed to be sad that Ada, our inbred heroine, discovers her face on the latest jug, and hides it so as to avoid her lethal fate.
Unfortunately, as the characters reiterate time and again, the pit wants what it wants. Hiding the Jug Face is essentially delaying the inevitable, but while the pit waits, it starts consuming others. Apparently this unseen creature is a gothic slasher, ticking off people at random because it was deprived of its desired sacrifice. Ada must weigh the guilt of causing so many deaths against the desire to save her own life.
The notion of guilt versus survival is an interesting one, but this screenplay, by first-time feature director Chad Crawford Kinkle, fails to explore all its implications. Instead, Jug Face just feels like a B-grade experiment, playing out a straight story with no surprises, ticking off horror conventions with little ingenuity, and leaving us to yearn for a more serious version of this story.