An auspicious contribution to the subgenre of low-budget hillbilly horror flicks, weirdly exploring its themes of sex, ritualism, and mortality, Jug Face vividly conveys the lifestyle of an insular community in backwoods Tennessee that bows to the power of a mysterious pit in the ground. In order for balance to be maintained in this woodsy dominion, and for the muddy hole to maintain its medicinal healing powers, it occasionally requires a human sacrifice. The ravenous pit selects its victims by having their faces appear on jugs made by a dim-witted oracle, Dawai (Sean Bridgers), and if its bloodlust isn’t satisfied, its wrath will be felt inside the community.
The film opens with a startling juxtaposition of pottery spinning and incestual lovemaking, actions that would appear to seal the fate of saucer-eyed Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter), who discovers her visage on a newly kilned jug and then learns she’s pregnant with her brother’s baby. She’s also set to be “joined with” pudgy Bodey (Mathieu Whitman) in an arranged marriage and, given the premarital chastity rules of their commune, she must convince her tradition-bound bumpkin family that she’s still a virgin. Suitably panicked by the idea of having her throat slit to please the bloodthirsty hole, Ada steals her jug face out of the kiln before anyone knows of its existence and buries it, much to the dismay of the gurgling, aggressively god-like pit. From here, director Chad Crawford Kinkle, with the help of the immensely expressive and angsty Carter, delves into a moonshine-spiked psychosexual drama that morphs into a unique coming-of-age tale of a girl attempting to break free of depraved customs.
Jug Face’s plot is primarily built on whacked-out absurdism, but Kinkle impressively imbues this supernatural world of backwoods mysticism with a plausible milieu while still staying committed to the film’s own brewing insanity. Though the director is more interested in developing atmosphere than character, Ada’s emotionally fraught journey, of being driven by human urges and haunted by an insidious ancestry, still exudes a strikingly rich and credible sense of nuance. Of course, when Kinkle isn’t focusing on the girl’s psychodramatic dilemmas, the film begins to indulge in ear-splitting and visually uninspired shock devices (Ada suffers from epileptic possession episodes) and slasher-flick tropes (the spirit of the pit, once angered, picks off the townsfolk one by one without much creativity).
By the end, Jug Face can feel a bit like a short film stretched thin, yet its loaded commentary on an offbeat, allegorical world governed by evil remains fascinating—loopily confronting a group that’s less afraid to commit sacrificial murder than it is to question the faith of their lineage. With the mania and communal entropy that ensues from Ada’s decision to hide her jug-decreed destiny, Kinkle subversively hints at a need to honor tradition, but thankfully he—much like his brazen main character—finds it best to frequently follow risky, uncharted paths.