On the night before its UK release, I popped along to a screening of low-budget British shocker Kill List, followed by a Q&A session with director/co-screenwriter Ben Wheatley and the film’s lead actors, Neil Maskell (Atonement), MyAnna Buring (The Descent) and Michael Smiley. Skitting through genres with nonchalant ease, from observational marital drama to violent hitman thriller to grubby pagan horror, Kill List built up a fair head of steam following appearances at SXSW and London’s recent horror-themed Frightfest, and it’s fair to say the hype is fulfilled. The small crowd of industry folk I watched it with were literally speechless as the credits rolled, still in a state of shock when Wheatley et al gingerly stepped out of the dark to answer a few questions.
What Wheatley has concocted (with the able assistance of his wife/co-writer Amy Jump) is a strange, frightening, deeply unpredictable chiller about an ex-British soldier (Maskell) suffering post-traumatic stress, locked in a volatile relationship with his wife (Buring) and embarking on a series of professional hits with his best friend (Smiley). It sounds straightforward enough but Kill List is eerie from its opening frames and marks its maker out as a talent to watch. Wicker Man is an obvious influence, and Wheatley also cites Parallax View, Race With The Devil and Don Siegel’s The Killers, but much of Kill List’s cleverness comes in its expert use of jarring time lapses and fragmented storytelling to thoroughly upend audience expectations.
“I conceived it as a horror film but one that looks at genre through the filter of social realism and ’70s and ‘80s British teledramas,” Wheatley told us. “The horror crowd seem to love it but then it’s got other stuff for other tastes.”
It’s not without its flaws. Wheatley doesn’t worry much about dangling strands or unanswered questions but it doesn’t make his second feature (following the 2009 crime drama Down Terrace) any less compulsively hypnotic. Like the three perplexed leads, you’re compelled to keep following the clues to see where Kill List leads - no matter how unpleasant the journey becomes along the way and how horrible you just know the final outcome is going to be.
Wheatley isn’t planning to back up Kill List with further shockers. He’s had enough of hardcore for now. “I’m traumatised by this film; I want to do something funny and life-affirming next,” he says. That’s most likely to be Sightseers, a comedy that Edgar Wright is executive producing. Wheatley says he’s also in development on a Claymation feature set in a mixed prison called Mega-Evil Mother Fuckers. We’re sure he wasn’t joking.