Long time readers know that when Halloween rolls around, I usually like to recommend a few religious themed genre movies that manage to avoid the standard trappings of exorcism and/or miserable priests on the verge of losing their faith. Alas, thanks to the art project I mentioned in my last post, I don’t have the time to do a full blown film festival this year. Still, its finished now, so I think I can squeeze in at least one holy horror. Past entries in this series have included The Wicker Man, Bless The Child, The Believers, Brimstone & Treacle, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, and one of my favorite Christopher Lee movies, The Devil Rides Out. This year, I think we’ll go with the oddly titled Jug Face.
“A pregnant woman fights to avoid being sacrificed to the demonic beast that protects her backwoods village in this earthy tale of terror featuring Larry Fessenden and Sean Young. When the pit beast selects its victim, entranced potter Dawai (Sean Bridgers) creates a jug featuring the likeness of the chosen one. Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) is pregnant with her brother's child when she discovers that she is next in line for sacrifice. Determined to give her child a fighting chance at life, Ada resists with every ounce of her being. Meanwhile, without a sacrifice, the dreaded creature will emerge to slaughter the entire terrified village.” ~ AllMovie Guide
“The Pit wants what it wants.”
“Whatever is, was long ago given its name, and human nature is known; mortals cannot contend in judgment with One who is stronger.” – Ecclesiastes 6:10, NABRE
If you’re looking for a scary movie to watch with the whole family this Halloween, you might want to give Jug Face a pass. Not because it’s excessively gory (there’s only a few stray intestines here or there) or overly frightening (I can’t recall a single jump scare), but simply because any film that begins with its teenage heroine willingly having incestuous sex with her brother out in the middle of the woods is probably not the one you’ll want to share with the kiddies.
Of course, you might be wondering why you’d want to watch Jug Face yourself given the distasteful subject matter of its opening. Well, because the fact that it is distasteful is central to the whole plot. You see, intercut with the young couple’s, er… coupling are scenes of a shallow pit full of muddy water and a potter sculpting something out of clay. The meaning of these images is quickly revealed as we learn that the teenaged Ada is something of a rebellious misfit in the isolated backwoods community in which she lives, primarily because she doesn’t want to follow the tenets of her people’s religion. On the surface this seems reasonable, seeing as how said religion basically involves worshiping the thing which lives in the aforementioned mud hole because it heals people and occasionally providing it with a human sacrifice so it won’t stop.
Reasonable or not, however, The Pit does not suffer dissent lightly. Therefore, it’s no surprise when the face on the jug being sculpted by the mesmerized Dawai in the opening scene is revealed to be none other than Ada herself. As luck would have it, though, Ada manages to stumble across the jug while Dawai is still in a trance, affording her the opportunity to hide it before anyone realizes she has been chosen. Relieved that she has avoided a smiting from her god, Ada moves on to other, more normal backwoods teenage concerns, things like how to avoid her arranged marriage to the local doofus and how to hide the fact that she’s pregnant with her brother’s child when she’s supposed to be a virgin.
The Pit doesn’t take kindly to Ada’s attempt to avoid her appointment with the ceremonial dagger, though, and begins punishing the rest of the community in grisly fashion. Hicks though they may be, it only takes one disemboweled corpse for the community to realize something fishy is gong on. From that point on, the rest of the movie involves Ada’s efforts to escape to the outside world before she can be identified as the fugitive jug face and dragged before The Pit to have her throat ritualistically slit from ear to ear.
Jug Face is writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle’s freshmen effort and it definitely has its flaws (the lil’ dead boy who keeps popping up to talk to Ada has some particularly ineffective CGI), but for a hillbilly horror movie made on half a shoestring budget, it’s pretty effective in establishing a creepy atmosphere. Plus, Hinkle’s script has more on its mind than just being another creature feature (which is good since we never actually get to see the creature), as there’s quite a bit of critique of religion going on in the story. Now, if you’ve run across Jug Face on any horror blogs, the sense might be that the critique is mostly negative. Take these comments, for instance…
“There are few things more frightening than those unwavering in their beliefs, especially when it comes at the expense of their loved ones.” Brad McHargue, Dread Central
“At its roots, it's a relatable scenario that people in plenty of walks of life may face: gay teens who risk being disowned by their parents should they come out, family members shunned when they choose another religion, etc. Should you choose the family and friends who choose their faith and beliefs over you?” Stacie Ponder, Final Girl
“They deem this life normal with blind devotion to this creature and this could feasibly be a damning sub-textual commentary on how religions handicap followers from being able to think critically.” Dave J. Wilson, Cinematic Shocks
So yeah, based on musings such as those, one could be forgiven in thinking that Jug Face is an outright condemnation of all religion.
I’m not so sure, though. The thing is, even if such an interpretation was Kinkle’s intention, the ending of Jug Face plays a very mean trick on those who would hold such an opinion. You see, while a lot of folks are comparing Jug Face to The Wicker Man (the original, not the one with the damned bees), the movie actually has a lot more in common with Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing. Both films are ostensibly anti-religion, but both have a denouement which seems to indicate that the religious loonies were right all along, that their tradition is best maintained and that their God cannot be denied.
The dirty truth of the narrative is that Ada brings her death sentence upon herself. Though the movie doesn’t explicitly state that Ada’s actions mark her as the next sacrifice, the juxtaposition in the opening montage between her incestuous dalliance and the making of the jug with her face on it strongly suggests that is the case. And then, of course, her actions to escape her ordained fate directly lead to harm for everybody else, thereby condemning her even more. This part might seem unfair to the uninitiated, but any good Catholic should be able to tell you there is a communal aspect to every sin. Even our most secret indiscretions harm others. That’s one of the reasons we have confession in the first place.
But nobody wants to hear that kind of stuff anymore. Really, when you come down to it, I believe a lot of the uncomfortable feelings which Jug Face provokes stem from the fact that while its sympathies lie with Ada, it doesn’t flinch from the notion that her sins have a price which must be paid. I imagine most viewers would feel a lot more comfortable seeing Ada receive her god’s mercy rather than its justice.
That’s the real horror of Jug Face, though. It’s pit god demands justice, but never evidences any sign that it can be merciful. It’s the knife and nothing else. And that’s why whatever religion Jug Face is critiquing, it’s a false one. Real life Christianity isn’t supposed to be like that (not when it’s done right, anyway), as it should offer both justice and mercy. Not that too many people want the justice part, mind you. “Today in broad circles, even among believers, an image has prevailed of a Jesus who demands nothing, never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything, who no longer does anything but affirm us.” wrote a pre-Pope Cardinal Ratzinger. “The Jesus of the Gospels is quite different, demanding, bold. The Jesus who makes everything okay for everyone is a phantom, a dream, not a real figure. The Jesus of the Gospels is certainly not convenient for us…. We must again set out on the way to this real Jesus.”
Jesus talked about Hell more than any figure in the Bible; he was all about justice. And yet, he’s also the one who died on the cross and willingly paid the price for our sins so we could all avoid Hell, so he pretty much had the mercy thing down as well. But let’s never forget that he performed that act of mercy precisely because the demands of justice had to be met, not shoved aside and ignored. We do ourselves no favor when we demand mercy, but deny that we ever did anything to require it in the first place. Even Ada learns that hard lesson in the end.