A kindred spirit to the works of co-star Larry Fessenden (Wendigo) and executive producer Lucky McKee (May), Jug Face locates horror in the mysteries of nature and the wombs of women. Chad Crawford Kinkle’s feature debut opens with a beautifully animated sequence that wordlessly lays out a backstory whose specifics will be teased out in small increments, providing only as much information as is necessary at any given moment. That canny storytelling restraint serves Kinkle’s story well, as it generates a consistent sense of mystery and malevolence that makes up for the fact that, at heart, the film is a mood piece more interested in chilling atmospherics than actual scares.
In an unnamed backwoods community, Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) is first spied running through the forest, pursued by a young stud named Jessaby (Daniel Manche), who talks her into some quickie sex. Such relations, it turns out, must be kept secret, both because Ada is being married off against her will by her father (Fessenden) and mother (Sean Young) to a slobbery hillbilly, and because Jessaby is her brother. Forbidden carnal relations compounded by incest turn out to be only part of Ada’s real troubles, since she lives in a village where everyone worships an unholy pit that hungers for blood. The pit chooses its sacrificial victims via visions sent to simpleminded Dawai (Sean Bridgers), who then fashions jugs with the face of the person next destined to satiate the pit’s appetite.
That process comes across as not only more than a bit complicated, but hopelessly prone to abuse, so it’s no surprise that when Ada discovers she’s the next “jug face,” she abandons custom and hides the damning evidence from her clan. In doing so—and concealing the fact that she’s pregnant with her brother’s baby—Ada sets in motion a chaotic turn of events that Jug Face handles with inconsistent grace. While Kinkle’s cinematographic eye is keen and Carter has a doe-eyed franticness that grounds Ada’s plight in relatable human emotion, a series of schizoid hallucinations renders moot the early, intriguing question of whether an evil spirit exists within the pit, or it’s just a vehicle for these hayseeds’ cultish lunacy.
Without that central ambiguity, Jug Face is left to generate suspense through more straightforward plotting in which Ada and Dawai attempt to escape the community’s true believers. Sadly, those twists and turns are routine, and do little to enliven the issues cursorily addressed by Kinkle’s script: free will vs. predetermination, and the cost of selfishness vs. the nobility of altruistic self-sacrifice. Intriguing without ever proving insightful, the film nonetheless has a formal patience and meticulousness that sets it apart from its jump-scare-loving mainstream-horror brethren. And while never truly terrifying, it still manages to drum up unease through its fondness for rituals and totems, its ominous reverence for the power of those forces found in the dark unknown, and a nasty performance by Sean Young that’s all sinister, cigarette-smoke gnarliness.