What can be said of the British horror film in recent years? Resigned largely to straight-to-video doom, those few lucky films deemed good enough to make it to a theatrical release have typically been shot with a low budget and big ideas; observe recent hits like Monsters and Eden Lake, mindful iterations of thorough genre works, shot on a shoestring, but successful because of their self-assured, go-for-broke attitude. Kill List, the sophomore feature from Ben Wheatley – whose ultra low-budget debut Down Terrace was a major hit on the festival circuit – joins the ranks of the aforementioned films as an extremely confident, ecnomical, well-crafted horror feature that in the least deserves your attention and just might be audacious enough to kickstart a New Wave of British horror.
Essentially three films for the price of one, Kill List begins as an authentic kitchen sink drama, with ex-soldier and family man Jay (Neil Maskell) returning home from Kiev and struggling to adjust to his old life, failing to find a job, much to the chagrin of his wife, Shel (Myanna Buring). From here it transforms into a hard-boiled crime thriller as Jay’s old friend, Gal (Michael Smiley), suggests a way out of his financial troubles; teaming up to become contract killers for a mysterious client, who serves up targets one at a time, and finally, as Jay’s bloodlust begins to spiral out of control, the film transforms into something that’s simply too delicious to spoil. Needless to say, Kill List is a corker of a horror-thriller and fans of the genre positively must see it.
Written with an ear for authentic dialogue which ably captures the ebb-and-flow of strained relationships, Wheatley’s script is also imbued with a sly sense of humour, best realised through Jay and Gal’s bloke-ish banter during the downtime between hits. Smartly, the grimness of the overall narrative is broken up by countless moments of comic relief, though they are never incongruent to the film’s real aim of disturbing the Hell out of you, and boy, does the film do that. While it evidently runs the risk of becoming repetitive through the monotonous nature of kill, rinse and repeat, the strange and diverting behaviours of their targets as they realise their numbers are up rouses plenty of intrigue; one victim accepts his fate without a moment of hesitation, while another thanks Jay for coming to do the deed. It all creates an extremely uncomfortable air which, when combined with some disarmingly effective non-linear editing, keeps the viewer on their toes and will probably prevent them from anticipating the third-act plot twist.
Much has been said of the film’s conclusion but frankly, Kill List is a film best watched without knowing too much at all. The final-reel conceit could very well have derailed the film altogether, though the tone changes in a subtle way that never feels incongruent to what has come before. It also gives way to a sequence that’s unquestionably the most intense and terrifying that any British film has delivered in years; it gets the blood pumping and builds to a thoroughly disturbing climax which recalls more than a few of the best horrors of the 1970s.
Wheatley’s project is immensely ambitious, not only because it dares to take what could have been a relatively routine hitman thriller into a more chilling and daring direction, but because it carefully balances its constituent elements – the dramatic, the thrilling, and the horrific – with a deft hand, and miraculously, never loses sight of an overall texture and tone. Rewarding as an intense family drama, a gory thriller (look out for the most convincing murder scene in recent cinema, as Jay smashes a paedophile’s skull to pieces with a hammer in one nauseating, seamless take) and as a more offbeat horror, Kill List is superbly acted, beautifully directed, masterfully edited, and importantly piques interest from its first frame until its terrifying, ambiguous last one. Even with a predictable final twist, this is the most terrifying and audacious British horror film in years.
Kill List is released in the U.K. on Friday.