London’s annual long weekend of gore and terror, Frightfest, is a mecca for UK and European horror fanatics. Sadly due to other commitments, this particular writer was only able to attend one afternoon’s worth of big screen thrills. Happily, from the reports of friends and colleagues, it appears I caught the best of the bunch. Very few people differed from the opinion that Kill List was the best picture of the festival. Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine you’ll see many better films this year, across any genre.
Anyone who saw writer and director Ben Wheatley’s first feature, the very-black gangster comedy Down Terrace, will know the man has talent, and initially Kill List seems to occupy the same world, as ex-soldier-turned-hitman Jay struggles to pay the mounting bills and comes under increasing grief from his wife to play it straight and provide for his young son. We learn of a hit that went sour in Kiev that has added pressure to Jay’s worries, and a disastrous dinner party gets a shot of physical and verbal violence in some of the best written dialogue you’ve heard since In Bruges. Following this, a desperate Jay is persuaded by his partner Gal to take on one last job (In the first of many thriller clichés that Wheatley polishes fresh); a bunch of hits that form the list of the title, but when Jay agrees it’s here that things turn out to be less than straightforward. Even early on there are clues – one of the dinner guests draws a strange symbol on the bathroom mirror – that this isn’t going to be an obvious ride, but when Jay and Gal meet their employer the film splits into chapters checking off the items on the list (The Priest, The MP, The Hunchback) and each episode gets stranger.
Up until now Kill List has been an excellent thriller, but after our duo check into a hotel and perform a pivotal and shocking act of violence the film dips a toe into the horror waters, and then simply dives straight in. Wheatley sets up a series of superb mysteries. Just why do the victims thank Jay for their executions? Why won’t his doctor pay attention to the symptoms of a rotting disease that spreads on his skin, contracted from a victim? A Hunchback, really? And what the hell is Gal’s new girlfriend up to? If you imagine Get Carter crossed with Clive Barker and a generous helping of David Lynch you’re only halfway to realising exactly where Kill List is heading. What is does lead to is a cracking, almost gothic climax that is brave enough to answer (nearly) all your questions while very cleverly leaving you to draw your own conclusions. Crime and horror are often comfortable companions but the way Wheatley blends the two together and, even more impressively, produces something so original from well-worn materials is very impressive.
Neil Maskell as Jay totally binds this movie together, a protagonist that you’ll fear and love equally (a scene where he attacks a group of evangelical Christians is a genius study of repressed fury and hysterical delight). Michael Smiley as Gal provides a certain amount of comic relief… until things turn serious, and Jay’s Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Burning from The Descent) is far from the typical abused wife seen in most gangster fodder. She’s an integral part of the movie and an easy-to-miss plot point that reveals she is also an ex-soldier is crucial. Along with the two leads she’s given a brilliant script to work with that, like the rest of the equal superb undercast, reveal the cracks under the surface. Watching these quirky characters is a pleasure, an investment you’ll appreciate when the going gets nasty.
Shot on a budget of just over a $1.5 million (although you wouldn’t guess – it looks fantastic), this is a movie very much grounded in British culture which manages to totally reinvent a much maligned genre. Pray, write to your local theatre, whatever you need to do and hope this gets a cinema release in the U.S. Brutally funny, nasty and totally original, this has got cult stamped all over it, and establishes Ben Wheatley as one the most promising talents working. With a left-turn you won’t see coming and a final act you absolutely will not predict, Kill List is a total fucking joy from start to credits.