This column has of late become more a forum for straight film reviews rather than a place to set current releases within pre-existing cinematic trends, movements and schools of thought. As much as it has been greatly personally pleasurable to narrow my focus and dive into the riches of individual films to fully mine the wealth of creativity they possess, this wasn’t quite what I intended these writings to be about, even if this detour has been as informative and engaging as I hope. This week’s piece, then, will take the first steps towards a reversion back to the initial purpose of my writing this column.
Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List,” much like his debut work “Down Terrace” (highly recommended) demonstrates three things in a remarkably affecting, unsettling and cinematically visceral way. Firstly, it is possible to craft edgy, original and professional pieces of worked armed with very little financial resources. “Down Terrace” was funded to the unbelievable tune of less than £10,000, and whilst the money behind “Kill List” is certainly more substantial the piece is still very much classifiable as a low-budget effort. One of the classy idiosyncrasies of “Kill List” is the way the limited locales available to the filmmakers on such a budget contributes immensely to the grungy realism of the film, which renders the whole story much more believable and disturbing: from the claustrophobia of the lower middle class house ex-hit man Jay (the intensely vitriolic Neil Maskell) and his family, to the soulless grays and impersonal clean whites of the motel Jay and Gal (the charismatic and affable Michael Smiley) occupy as they hunt down their various targets.
Secondly, Wheatley has taken quite an American/Continental theme in the assassin narrative and synthesized it into something unmistakably British, and it is partly how close to home the action of the film seems to be which makes this story such a tough one to bear witness to. These two assassins may suffer from various murderous psychoses, and in Jay’s case not a small amount of bloodlust, but their journey into this profession of contract killers is actually quite logical, almost sensible in British terms: two former servicemen, scarred by what they’re seen, forced to find as legitimate an outlet for their psychological strains and violent memories as possible. Yet this allows Wheatley to ponder the morality of the assassin when other cinematic presentations of the hit-man usually veer not only on the glamorous, but on the heroic. Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name may be justified as an avenging angel crusading through Leone’s brutally violent portrayal of the Old West, but the price on Eastwood’s head must surely be greater to the true forces of law enforcement than those of the men he pursues. Jean Reno’s Leon is suitably charismatic and tormented by his self-inflicted isolation, and audience empathy is of course generated by the softening of his heart when charged with a twelve year old girl’s life, but we are still very reliant upon the suspension of moral disbelief: namely, that regardless of our personal opinions of capital punishment we accept that our protagonists are only charged with killing truly despicable enemies to decency, morality and the law. Alternatively, as with Tarantino’s Bride and Rodriguez’ El Mariachi, we are enjoying the fight too much to care about something as trivial to the general sense of fun as moral ascendency. Wheatley offers neither glamorization or moral pacification: we don’t know what the three targets have done, why they deserve death (despite the middle victim apparently being involved in horrific snuff videos), who is hiring our two protagonists, and indeed how unsavory Jay and Gal’s past exploits have been: although we do get an idea from the verbal abuse Gal heaps upon his Swedish wife.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Wheatley has moulded “Kill List” into a perfect vehicle to remind us that horror does not need to be graphic and bloody to disturb us: it should instead infect our minds, play with our darkest thoughts, and finally shake us into trembling submission through the creation of sheer sensual terror. The atmosphere throughout “Kill List” is palpably intense and unsettling: the light-hearted conversational dialogue and black humour of Jay and Gal is not dissimilar to the verbose jousting of wit between Travolta and Jackson’s assassins in “Pulp Fiction,” but whilst Tarantino indulges in the tension between dubious actions and comically pop-culture heavy verbiage, Wheatley enhances audience queasiness by building and maintaining an atmosphere of dread. The creepy, eerie and disjointed sound design throughout the film is haunting in the extreme, and forces the audience into genuine discomfort as the film progresses towards its shockingly unexpected and utterly terrifying denouement, in which the shroud of fearful suspense created by the sound design suddenly falls to reveal a visually and aurally devastating horror.
It is the rejection of American filmic attitudes to the horror genre, and specifically to the generation of fear and terror, that has always made British horror cinema far more distinctive and disturbing. “Kill List” is violently graphic and bloodthirsty at times, but never to the excesses of eighties American Slasher films, nineties teen horrors or last decade’s fetish for torture porn: and in confining such moments to short bursts the grizzly catharsis they provoke is all the more pronounced. When Wheatley finally allows the film to degenerate into hysteria and frightening chaos in the concluding fifteen minutes, it is the relief to what has been an hour and a bit of constantly elevating levels of tension, and is filmed in such a pulsating, forceful and overwhelming manner as to recall the avant-garde stylistic flamboyance of Dario Argento’s best horror films. It is not merely recent efforts, such as the claustrophobic and heart-pounding adrenaline ride that was Neil Marshall’s “The Descent,” or Shane Meadows’ grimily naturalistic and twisted “Dean Man’s Shoes,” which demonstrate the strength of quintessentially British horror: the tradition stretches much further back than this.
One cannot begin to consider British horror cinema without taking into account the impact of Hammer Studios’ best work. Simultaneously more faithful to its nineteenth century sources in the classic literature of Shelley, Stoker and others, and more modern and adventurous in the pursuit of break-thorough filmic scares than the high camp creature features of old Hollywood (think Karloff and Lugosi), Hammer horror at its best was gaudy, vibrantly visual, colorfully theatrical and genuinely bloodthirsty and violent. Hammer nailed both the emotional and sexual tensions, suppressed by Victorian sensibilities, of “Dracula” and the deific aspirations of Victor Frankenstein when creating his monster, yet at the same time bullets in creatures’ eyes leading to rich red spurts of blood down a face, and heaving breasts troubling coy and sexually frustrated and embarrassed British gentlemen were, at the time, bold pieces of challenging exploitation cinema. Another constant surprise of these films is the performance work of the two great Hammer stars: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Lee is of course synonymous with the famous monsters he created, but what makes his work so iconic is how imposing physical dignity gives way to sheer animalistic passion and brutality, and Cushing similarly allows charm, precision and intellect to ultimately degenerate into frenzied athleticism and obsession. Not dissimilar, I would pose, to how the verbally dexterous and humorous sparring of Jay and Gal gives way to often sadistic shows of violence, or to how the tenderness both men display relating to their girlfriends, and to each other, can fast deteriorate into disturbed abuse.
The two classic British horror films to which “Kill List” is most clearly indebted, in terms of its atmosphere and unexpected denouement respectively, are “Don’t Look Now” and “The Wicker Man.” Recently voted the greatest British film ever made, Nicholas Roeg’s masterpiece “Don’t Look Now” merges, as Wheatley does, profoundly menacing suspense with visually terrifying imagery. Again sound and pictures work in perfect fusion to chill our spines with moments of overwhelming agony when Donald Sutherland emerges from a dirty pond clutching his drowned daughter’s body, of creepy tingling when the girl’s image on a photo turns to a bloody smear, and of hysterical terror when the malevolent face of the dwarfish serial killer is climactically revealed to us. Distorted, synthesized soundscapes, erratic and unhinged performances and mesmerizing, nay menacing, images allow Roeg to turn the romantic city of Venice into a gloomy, murky cesspit of psychological terror. Similarly, Robin Hardy uses pastoral beauty in stark contrast to strange and unsettling Pagan rituals to strengthen the chilling, off-setting atmosphere of “The Wicker Man” before diving the audience of a cliff into a visceral maelstrom of religious fanaticism and gut-wrenching body horror. Whilst the impact of the Pagan terror in the climax to “The Wicker Man” is enhanced by the ironic futility of Edward Woodward’s deep-rooted Christian faith, in “Kill List” the power of the final shock comes again from how the forces of darkness have controlled Jay’s passage through the narrative, but also, most dreadfully, in how his violent nature is turned against him, his sadism into the most upsetting type of masochism, and his murderous impulses are turned upon the only characters he, crucially, has not previously physically harmed.
“Kill List” is a film I would urge you to watch: it is a hypnotic film in both its atmosphere and handling of a complex dramatic narrative, and is a horror film which is truly unnerving and leaves you trembling in your seat. Looking at previous British stabs at the genre, however, and we see that this is hardly surprising.