A doomed character can compel an audience to follow, even if his or her fate is sealed from the outset. Consider The Wicker Man (1973). In Robin Hardy’s classic occult film, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) – steadfast in his commitment to solving a missing child case – is condemned to be sacrificed as a symbol of purity by the film’s end. As an outsider in the pagan community of Summerisle, Howie’s virtue and naiveté leads to his undoing. Chad Crawford Kinkle’s unique rural horror film Jug Face shares some common traits with Hardy’s film, but takes a decidedly different thematic route. Kinkle’s film drops the invasive outsider angle for a protagonist looking to change tradition from within.

The sacrificial lamb in this case is Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter), a pregnant young woman betrothed – against her will – to a man she doesn’t love, and who is incidentally not the father. Ada lives with her family as part of tight-knit and secluded rural community, all of whom are devout worshippers of a mysterious pit dug deep in the woods. The pit has blessed them with generations of health and stability, but at a severe price. Prophetic pottery – shaped as the face of the chosen one – determines who must be sacrificed to appease the blood-lusting pit. Ada discovers she is the next Jug Face, and in a desperate act to save herself, buries the jug – along with her secrets – deep in the woods.

Jug Face operates with an eerie supernatural ambiguity. The origins of the pit are oblique, and the only thing we know for a fact is that “the pit wants what it wants”. It’s a mantra that serves to drive home the point of the film – one that explores unwavering, unquestioning devotion to faith, and the ramifications of insubordination. Try as she might, Ada cannot resist the constricting bonds of her upbringing, and any means of resistance ends in suffering for the rest of the community. No one truly escapes the pit, and any who try are doomed to an afterlife of misery, haunting the woods as “one of the shunned”. It’s a device that’s been criticized by some reviewers as shoehorned into an already terrifying look at backwoods life. It does, however, provide a metaphor – however cynical – of the shackles restraining the resourceful and capable Ada from simply walking out of the woods.

Kinkle mercifully doesn’t populate his film with paper-thin caricatures of rural folk. These aren’t the typical “dumb hicks” found in backwoods horror films, and Kinkle treats them reverently, despite their flaws. He employs rich characterization to cultivate pathos, even when folks are slaughtering their own children. Though Ada’s acts have serious repercussions, we never feel vindication when members of the cult are punished for transgressions against the pit.

Jug Face’s casting is superb, and the performances by Larry Fessenden (I Sell the Dead) and Sean Young (Blade Runner) as Ada’s parents are inspired. Fessenden’s nurturing but firm portrayal of Sustin provides the yin to Young’s yang as Ada’s pious and callous mother Loriss. Lauren Ashley Carter is a revelation as the willful Ada, a young woman who takes a defiant stance against the chains of blind faith. The cast is rounded out by Sean Bridgers as prophetic potter Dawai, a man who is reluctantly involved in the perverse religion. The dynamic of their relationships is the driving force of Jug Face’s narrative, one that successfully represents a number of complicated viewpoints.

Jug Face may not wholly satisfy everyone, especially with its downbeat ending. That shouldn’t discourage adventurous viewers from experiencing it. Although not as patently weird as its reputation, Jug Face is a thought provoking and frightening character piece that thrives on Kinkle’s precision and respect for the inhabitants of his rural microcosm. Though the film doesn’t resolve the issue of self – righteous ultra conservatism – it paints a balanced portrait of the challenges of overcoming its pervasiveness. Instead, fundamentalism is exposed as a dismally unbreakable cycle where everyone pays a price, a much more realistic interpretation than any uplifting climax can provide.

– By Chris Hallock