Note: I’ve done my best to avoid revealing any specific spoilers in this review, because Kill List is a film that will work best for those who go into it with as little knowledge as possible. The trailer included below gives a solid impression of the tone and content of the film without giving away explicit plot details, although there are a couple brief shots that hint at the direction the narrative takes. By no means would I recommend Kill List to everyone. It is a deeply unsettling horror film, guaranteed to leave a lasting impression long after the end credits roll. But for horror film fans and those not averse to challenging material, it is a film that shouldn’t be missed.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of grief from people about my love for horror films. No names will be mentioned, but the same arguments always pop up. “How can you watch all that excessive violence and gore?” “Why would you want to watch anything with such disturbing subject matter?” “These kinds of films are bad for your mind,” so the argument goes. I would argue back that the latest Katherine Heigl release has the potential to be much more damaging to a person’s psyche, but that’s an argument for another time and place. There seems to be an unwillingness among more general movie-watchers to accept that horror films can offer more than just bloody carnage and cheap jump scares. Sure, sometimes I’m perfectly happy with bloody carnage and cheap jump scares: Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies are great fun, plain and simple. But I find that the horror films that appeal to me the most are the ones that engulf the viewer with feelings of unease and terror.
And I’m not talking about waiting for the next obnoxiously loud “BANG!” in a Paranormal Activity movie or wincing through a torture sequence in a film from the Hostel or Saw lineage. I’m talking about the films that get at fears deep inside you, forcing you to invest on a deeper level with what is happening onscreen. Philip Kaufman’s 1970s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is flooded with paranoid intensity, with that feeling that something isn’t quite right and true horror is lurking right around the corner. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is an incredibly melancholic experience, a film that manages to be both intensely terrifying and surprisingly sad at the same time. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, once you get past Jack Nicholson’s amazingly over-the-top central performance, is filled with a mysterious and unsettling atmosphere, and you’re never 100% sure about what exactly is happening at the Overlook Hotel. I could name many more, but these are the kinds of horror films that stick with me the most, and I can add Britain’s Kill List to that lofty company.
The film opens by introducing us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a man in his mid-30s with a nice home and a family. For personal reasons, Jay hasn’t worked in nearly a year, and financial troubles appear to be looming in the future. At a small dinner party, lifelong friend and associate Gal (Spaced‘s Michael Smiley, in a strong dramatic turn) raises the possibility of returning to the work that Jay has abandoned. With some reluctance, Jay agrees to get back into the game. It is at this point that Jay and Gal are revealed to be professional hitmen, and they are given a list of three names to seek out and kill.
Revealing anything more would do a disservice to what Kill List has to offer. The film starts off very slow, giving plenty of time to introducing the main characters. The fact that our two “protagonists” are hired killers gives a good idea as to the dark places to which the film ends up traveling. Still, there is a general feeling throughout the first two-thirds of the film of something even more sinister lurking in the background. This is the real strength of the film. There are moments of strong and brutal violence, but for the most part these moments do not linger on any gruesome details. Kill List is most notable for presenting a consistently uncomfortable and unsettling atmosphere. Whether it’s through the moody direction of Ben Wheatley or through the film’s chilling score and sound design or a combination of many factors, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that is so overwhelming with feelings of dread and anxiety.
Now, I understand that not many people are going to be willing to sit through something like that. For me, it’s what horror cinema is all about. By the time the film reaches its terrifying conclusion, I was genuinely stunned and worn out by the experience. Very few horror films are capable of producing that kind of reaction from me. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of horror films in the last decade that have had a similar effect. Forget all the PG-13 remakes of Japanese ghost stories and juvenile “torture-porn” nonsense; you want a true example of horror cinema, watch Kill List.
-Kill List is available through various Video On Demand services.