J: Jug Face (2013)

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After the last two less-than-satisfying (to me, anyway) horror movies, it was nice to find one that hit a number of sweet spots for me: well-made, novel, compelling, and unnerving.

Jug Face starts with the neat trick of giving us the backstory during the opening credits (in my experience, only used heretofore in The Boogens, Screams of a Winter Night, and The Incredible Hulk). Presented in Grandma Moses-style rustic art, we’re given a backwoods community being ravaged by some sort of pox. One fellow makes an urn out of clay from a nearby pit; the urn bears the face of the local clergyman, who is sacrificed bloodily to a nearby pit, and everyone is cured.

Which brings us to the present day, in that same backwoods community. Teenager Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) has sex with similarly teenage Jessaby (Daniel Manche), and not for the first time. This is going to cause problems for her later because by the cult rules of the community, she has to be a virgin when “joined” with another local youth, the doughy Bodey (Mathieu Whitman). And only Ada knows she is pregnant – she keeps stealing paint from her friend Dawai to make it look like she is till having her period.

The rather simple Dawai (Sean Bridger) is the village’s potter. Every now and then The Pit demands a sacrifice by possessing him, and while in a trance he makes the jug which bears the face of the chosen sacrifice. So Ada’s other problems recede to the background when she looks in Dawai’s simple kiln and finds out the next jug face is hers. Panicking, she steals the jug and hides it, but The Pit is not to be denied, and starts killing people randomly, while Ada, in a trance similar to Dawai’s, sees the bloody murders. She uses Dawai’s longtime love for her to cause him to make another jug face, this time with Bodey’s face – which only makes things worse for everybody.

There’s a certain understated, otherworldly realism to Jug Face‘s portrait of a community controlled, somewhat willingly, by a malign entity. Before you ask, no, we never see exactly what it is that lives in The Pit, and we don’t need to. The conviction of the cast that says things like “The Pit wants what It wants,” is often horrific enough. Ada’s parents are played by Sean Young and horror legend Larry Fessenden, and their experience and professionalism prove to be the mortar that glues the movie together.

Jug Face can be read as a more demonic, southern variation on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with a feature-length signaling to the ending, now not so much shocking as inevitable and tragic. Even at a trim 81 minutes, though, it feels a bit stretched at times, but not unworkably so. As a portrait of fear-based religion and as a horror movie, it is fairly unique and well worth checking out.