Every Tuesday, The Post's critics highlight original movies that are being streamed and made available on demand. Here are this week's picks.
One advantage that indie horror has over its studio-financed counterparts is, for lack of a better word, heart. And I’m not just talking about the still-beating kind, ripped out of someone’s chest. I’m talking about sincerity, as measured by the earnest desire to not just gross you out, typically expressed by throwing buckets of blood (and money) at the screen, but to creep you out.
That’s what “Jug Face” tries to do, with mixed success.
Set in an unspecified rural backwoods community, the feature debut by writer-director Chad Crawford Kinkle centers on one of two things, depending on your preference for human or inhuman protagonists. On the one hand, there’s Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter), a young woman who’s pregnant by her loutish — but nevertheless Abercrombie and Fitch-y — brother, Jessaby (Daniel Manche). On the other hand, there’s the Pit, a muddy hole in the ground that seems to be inhabited by some unholy spirit that’s both worshiped and feared by the villagers, who periodically sacrifice one of their own to it, in exchange for access to the healing waters that burble up at the bottom of it. Victims are chosen by the village idiot, Dawai (Sean Bridgers), who translates messages from the Pit into crude renderings of the faces of its victims, which Dawai casts as head-shaped ceramic jugs.
Next up: Ada, who discovers her face on the jug that’s currently baking in Dawai’s kiln.
Ada precipitates a chain of unfortunate events by stealing that jug from Dawai, who also happens to be her best friend. Her goal is to hide her fate from her father, Sustin (Larry Fessenden), the moonshiner patriarch of the community.
So far, so good. And I mean so bad it’s good. The premise is more than faintly ridiculous, but at least it’s kind of original. The film’s low budget actually serves it well, since its frights depend more on mood than special effects. The relationship among Ada, Dawai and Sustin, which is, needless to say, complicated, is well drawn by Carter, Bridgers and Fessenden.
There are, however, a few problems. Sean Young, for example, is a bit over the top as Ada’s mother, Loriss, who is not above torturing her daughter with a lit cigarette or knife. And what’s with all these crazy names? I know the characters are supposed to be country folk, but a little Cajun seasoning — if that’s what it is, and not some generic Southern spice — goes a long way. Maybe it’s necessary to make Sustin a moonshiner, but does he really have to be missing a front tooth as well?
The appearance of a ghostlike boy — apparently one of The Pit’s previous victims — is also a mite cornball. The ending of the film is disappointing, too, especially considering the fact that Kinkle manages to gin up a fair amount of suspense until that point.
That said, “Jug Face” is a refreshing departure from the lock-step parade of mainstream horror. It doesn’t rewrite the rules of the genre, but it does thumb its nose at a fair number of them. -- M.O.
R. 81 minutes. Contains gory violence, crude language, nudity and sex. Available on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, Xbox and on-demand cable.
For bereft "Top of the Lake" fans jonesing for a fix of Antipodean mystery, help is at hand: “Jack Irish,” a stylish but reassuringly un-edgy series of mysteries from Australia starring the yummy Guy Pearce (“L.A. Confidential,” “The Hurt Locker”). But don’t get too hooked. There are only three installments in the offing, albeit each crafted as a satisfying, high-production-value feature film. (“Bad Debts” and “Black Tide” are currently streaming on Acorn TV; “Dead Point” will be shown at a later date.)
Pearce plays the title character, a former criminal lawyer who, after a personal tragedy and subsequent breakdown, is finding his feet again as a sometime private investigator, racetrack sharpie, apprentice cabinetmaker and pub rat. Based on the highly regarded crime novels by Peter Temple, “Jack Irish” plunges viewers into the alternately colorful and drab environs of Melbourne, which comes in for lots of private jokes that will likely sail over the heads of American viewers just as dizzyingly as the Aussie vernacular.
But even with the frequent cultural disconnects, “Jack Irish” is enormously engaging viewing, thanks largely to Pearce’s funny, sexy performance as a flawed hero whose vulnerabilities are his strongest suits. Just when you thought the world-weary gumshoe was an exhausted archetype, here comes a protagonist who’s both classic and bracingly original, his quiet, witty asides always carrying a tinge of something deeper and sadder underneath.
The supporting performances are just as winning, from Marta Dusseldorp’s slinky turn as a reporter who generates immediate sparks with Jack to John Flaus, Ronald Falk and Terry Norris, who play three elderly footie (er, soccer) fans at the pub Jack slips into as comfortably and frequently as a pair of house slippers. Most refreshingly, “Jack Irish” dispenses with the gratuitous gore and perversions that have become so distressingly de rigueur in crime thrillers. Although far from cozy, it nonetheless possesses a fundamental, classical humanity that feels like a welcome return to basics. “Jack Irish” proves that just because you’re gritty doesn’t mean you have to be grumpy, grim and gruesome. -- A.H.
Unrated. Contains profanity, violence, sexuality, adult themes and some nudity. Available via Acorn TV, which can be found on Roku and at www.acornonline.com/tv.