Before I get started with today’s topic, the 2011 British horror masterpiece Kill List, I need to come clean and admit to you all that I am powerless in the face of its brilliance. I watched it again last night so it would be fresh in my mind for this essay, and yet again I was sucked completely into its peculiar vibe. Most horror movies are worth a single watch (if that). A select few are worth a couple viewings, but then pale a bit each time. And then, for me, there’s the rarified air that Alien lives in–I could literally watch that movie once a week for a year and never get tired of it. As far as I’m concerned, Kill List is the first horror film in years that is as mysteriously great as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece.
So, where to start? How’s about with its director, Ben Wheatley!
For me, there are only a handful of directors that are currently batting .1000. Kelly Reichert is one (Sea of Grass, Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves). Bong Joon-ho is another (Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer). Shane Carruth is yet another (Primer and Upstream Color). It’s pretty rare, since the kinds of directors that make spectacular films are also the ones that are willing to take the biggest risks, and high stakes risk taking quite often leads to noble failures.
Ben Wheatley is four films into his epic run, and is on an extremely hot streak. His first film, the REALLY REALLY DARK comedy crime drama Down Terrace is pretty incredible. It was shot in 8 days for very little dough and is so well-layered that it feels like a peek into the life of an actual low rent dysfunctional crime family.
His second film is the topic of today’s post, so more on that in a moment. Third film is Sightseers, a more blatantly comedic road trip movie featuring a serial killer and his girlfriend (who doesn’t quite know she’s a sociopath yet) and their adventures in backwater England.
His latest film is the psychedelic freakout/historical drama A Field in England, which takes place in the 17th century during the English Civil War and involves alchemy, insanity, and loyalty.
I LOVE all of his movies, but Kill List is the one I would elope with if it showed up one night with a ladder. Why is it so perfect? Let me count the ways:
1. It’s not classifiable in the regular sense of genre compartments. Yes, it is obviously a horror movie with a feeling of creeping dread from the beginning. BUT, it starts out like a domestic drama, turns into a hit man road movie, and then FREAKS THE EFF OUT for the final stretch. It isn’t easily described in one sentence.
A quickie synopsis: Jay (Neil Maskell) is an ex-soldier living with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring), and young son. The family is experiencing money problems due to Jay not having worked in 8 months. His old comrade Gal (Michael Smiley)–pronounced “Gail”–comes over for dinner with a sexy new girlfriend, Fiona, and tries to convince Jay to take a new job that’s been offered to them. Eventually, Jay agrees. It turns out that they are professional assassins and “the job” is a kill list of three individuals given to them by a very creepy new employer. They embark on this job and the deeper they go, the stranger things get, and the more erratic Jay’s behavior becomes. I don’t want to say much more, but rest assured that the list takes them into places most unexpected.
2. Exposition or lack thereof. On a deep personal level, I absolutely HATE exposition for the most part (exposition being “a literary device used to introduce background information about events, settings, characters etc. to the audience or readers.” Thank you literarydevices.net.
H.P. Lovecraft most famously opened his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature with the immortal line, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” YES! Not quite knowing what’s going on is one of the most delicious aspects of horror for me, and a complete requirement for any work of art to be scary. To understand the whys and wherefores of something is to no longer be afraid of it. Since horror as a genre is all about the frisson of dread, it makes perfect sense to me that the more a plot explains everything to the letter, the less scary it will ultimately be.
We don’t know shit about the family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, other than the moments we spend with them through the eyes of the film’s heroes. These glimpses are so tantalizingly awful that our brains try their damnedest to fill in the background, which leads to an unequaled feeling of terror. Likewise with Kill List, it’s pretty apparent right from the get go that Jay and Gal are pawns in a larger game. Their first target, a priest, actually thanks them for killing him. In the locked safe of their second target they find documents pertaining to Jay and Gal’s checkered past that no one should have, etc. Wheatley and his co-writer (and wife) Amy Jump parcel out these little hints and clues throughout the film, which keeps us on our toes while simultaneously leaving us in the dark. It’s awesome…
3. The characters act like real people. One of the unfortunate hallmarks of “genre fiction” in the eyes of the literary establishment is stock characterization. How many horror films have you seen that are peopled not by humans but by “types”. The brooding hero with a secret. The mean jock. The wise yet inscrutable scholar. Etc., ad infinitum. In Kill List, all the characters seem like living, breathing, people first and foremost. Jay is a bit of a psychopath, true, but he also has a tender relationship with his son and a real bond with Gal. He and Shel fight one minute, and kiss the next–just like real life. It’s a rare film in any genre that nails such a human vibe, and even rarer in a horror piece. Yet, it’s this humanness that let’s us walk in Jay’s shoes and sympathize with him, even as we know him to be a professional killer.
4. Lastly, it’s SCARY! Yahooooooo!!! When was the last time you were actually frightened or creeped out or emotionally drained by a horror film? If you are anything like me, it’s a rare piece that really connects like that. From the moment we see Gal’s new girlfriend Fiona do something strange in the bathroom towards the beginning of the film, a palpable sense of dread kicks in, which only gets worse as the film goes on.
I was struck in this latest viewing by how the whole thing feels like a vortex almost from the beginning, one that sucks Jay (and us as viewers) toward an inevitable, horrifying climax that is impossible to see coming. Ben Wheatley has gone on record talking about how much of the film’s imagery was taken directly from his nightmares as a child, and it really shows.
If you haven’t seen Kill List, man you are in for a treat. It’s potent, scary, alive, and made with intelligence and creativity from all involved (and also available on Netflix). I’ve watched it a silly number of times now, and the magic still hasn’t worn off. If you take no other movie suggestions from me, at least give Mr. Wheatley and Ms. Jump’s masterpiece a try.
See you tomorrow with another ghoulish goulash of alarming abhorrence…