As a horror movie that feels more like a mumblecore drama that a serial killer passes through, A Horrible Way to Die is a film that’s deaf to its own shifting tones. A camera with the point of view of a drunken stalker with narcolepsy follows two sober young romantics, Kevin (Joe Swanberg, approaching the role casually, as if he was in his own movie) and Sarah (Amy Seimetz, whose performance is like a desperate audition for Scream Queens) that meet at an AA group; cut into this are scenes of Garrick Turrell (Aj Bowen, playing a charismatic, sweet-dude serial killer) inexplicably killing people while driving back to Missouri after escaping from jail and flashbacks of him and Sarah from when they were a dysfunctional couple—his unspeakable reasons for coming home late mistaken for infidelities. The adventitious use of loud and strange blasts of music may theoretically make sense to heighten the film’s creepiness, but here, like everything else, they don’t exactly make a perfect fit and serve more as the final nail in the coffin for the film’s lack of tonal cohesion.
While the film never apologizes for the distracting, sea-sick camera work, out-of-focus lens flares, and abstract zooming-in-and-out transitions that can obscure what’s actually taking place in the story, its mismatched, grating performances are at least interesting in their refusal to mix together (they could easily be taking place in separate films), and when the story finally twists at the end, the performances make more sense. Simon Barrett’s screenplay finally brings us, after a slow-burn, to a point that allows A Horrible Way to Die to drop its baggage and, in an instant, re-conceptualize itself into a fresh take on the serial-killer genre. This twist doesn’t explain everything (the reasons for Garrick to kill seemingly random people and the attraction his fans have to him, besides his charisma, are never explained), but this film isn’t interested in the psychology behind action; it’s story might be concise, but formally it lets itself go into too many dead ends that only seem to want to distract and inebriate us until the story’s final, thankful splash of cold water in the face. A Horrible Way to Die is gothic mumblecore: Its serial killer is so gentle and understanding that he’s allowed to operate innocently (even during the brief spikes of shock and gore), like the way Swanberg can masturbate on camera in his own movies without seeming perverted.