Jug Face (2013)

Jug Face is a difficult movie to review. On the one hand, as a film, as a work of cinema, it’s kind of beautiful: beautifully shot, well-written and acted, and the pacing is perfect. It suffers from some weak special effects, and is in no way scary (except in its implications), but as a whole it’s very well done. On the other hand, it may be the single most disparaging-towards-American-rural-culture piece of film I’ve ever seen, with its entire premise based on the assumption that American mountain folk are backwards, incestuous, superstitious monsters. Everything that the excellent Tucker & Dale vs. Evil lampooned is presented here without irony.

I really don’t know what to do with this film. It’s a great film, make no mistake. Everything about its composition is just superb. On the other hand, holy crap. Moonshine, incest, human sacrifice–wow. This is Deliverance times ten (though I haven’t actually seen deliverance, so I don’t know what I’m talking about.) But on the other other hand, the whole point is that the “superstitions” these backwoods folk cling to are actually real, so I guess that excuses some of it. I don’t know. What were we talking about?

Alright, before I roam too far afield, here’s the premise. Ada lives with her mom and dad and brother Jessaby (wow) in an isolated mountain community. The exact location isn’t specified, but it’s pretty clearly in southern Appalachia. The first scene is her, ahem, consummating her relationship… with her brother. So, that sort of sets the tone here. We quickly learn that her town, or community, or whatever, are a bunch of rural folk who believe that their fortune hangs on the pleasure of “the pit.” And they’re right: Ada soon witnesses another woman being dismembered by whatever it is that lives in the pit. So the supernatural stuff here is real, and this community’s seemingly deliberate “backwardness” is justified.

When Ada is chosen as the next sacrifice–signified by the local potter, Dawai’s, unconscious creation of a face jug that looks like her–and tries to fight it, her exercise of independence leads to a number of other deaths. The pit wants her, and will accept no substitute. So she and Dawai make a break for it, fleeing to town and the apparent refuge of modernity. But they’re caught, and brought back to the community, and whipped, and–you know, it just goes downhill.

What trips me up here, again, is the portrayal of rural people as ignorant, dirty devil-worshipers. This kind of conceit is, of course, extremely common in horror fiction, and Jug Face has a decidedly Lovecraftian feel. The community Ada lives in could easily be a mountain version of Innsmouth or, closer still, a Southern Dunwich. And of course, Lovecraft was a crazy racist, so that comparison brings a certain amount of baggage. Are the producers of Jug Face really painting rural America as a barbarous, incestuous cesspit of moonshine and demon-worship? I don’t think so. Things have to be contextualized. For instance, the incest is extreme even within the film’s fictional world: when Ada’s family finally learns about it, they’re furious. So it’s not as if incest is accepted in this community. Ada is a weirdo among weirdos. And their weirdness is a direct result of the powerful supernatural knowledge they possess. The film doesn’t explicitly state it, but my sense was that these people have no choice but to stay here, in this crappy little mountain village, because the pit demands sacrifice, and when it doesn’t get fed it gets very angry. In a twisted sense the villagers might even been seen as the protectors of the rest of the world.

Those concerns aside, though, Jug Face is just a very good movie. It has problems, among them the egregious stereotyping of rural US communities, and some really crappy special effects (every time the creature from the pit attacks, it’s this weird yellow early-90’s effect that’s just awful), but if you can get past these issues, it’s just good. Lauren Ashley Carter as Ada is awesome, taking on what must have been an extremely uncomfortable role and doing just about the best anybody could have done. And Sean Bridges as Dawai, the hapless potter whom everyone regards as mentally deficient, is brilliant, injecting a little extremely unlikely humor into what would otherwise have been a relentlessly bleak movie.

Ultimately Jug Face is actually a subtler exploration of human motivations than it at first appears. It’s grotesque, but doesn’t revel in its grotestqueness. It’s just good, despite my best attempts to argue otherwise.


As a side note, face jugs (the film calls them, of course, jug faces) are a real thing, well known to folklorists who study material culture (though they’re not usually anywhere near as elaborate as the ones Dawai makes in the film). Henry Glassie, a major figure in American folklore, has this to say on the subject:

Needing money, just as you do, potters work to the market. In the past their customers wanted many churns and crocks and jugs, and the potters for sport made a few comical pots, at once jugs and grotesque human heads. Collectors might term them face vessels, but the potters call them ugly jugs, and “face jug” is the usual compromise. From their customers, the potters have learned a history of the form, and they repeat it during commercial exchange. The story is that the face jug was developed by slaves who worked as potters in South Carolina. Then the idea was carried up to the highlands and assimilated into the Appalachian cultural mix. [1]

Less dramatic, perhaps, than the film. Then again:

Face jug, 1862-70. Chipstone Foundation collection. Image from UGA Today.

[1] Glassie, Henry. The Potter’s Art. Material Culture. Philadelphia; Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999, 39.

8 thoughts on “Jug Face (2013)

  1. Interesting write-up; I tend to look the other way when it comes to horror’s representation of backwoods Americans as very backwoods, so I’ll have to hunt this down.

    • Thanks! And I’m with you, to a certain extent: you really have to look the other way to be a genre fan. But I think if you parse through this one in particular, there really is something subtler going on than simple stereotyping. At any rate, it’s a great movie, and it has the added bonus of spurring this kind of conversation about representation in film. So, win-win.

  2. Always interested in things that are subtly Lovecraft flavored as opposed to “Lovecraft referential,” which occasionally end up being unconscious parodies. I’ll have to check this out.

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