Hammer Horror: Ben Wheatley’s Kill List

By Adam Nayman


The claw hammer that makes mulch of an amateur pornographer’s skull in the midpoint money shot of Kill List is a blunt instrument wielded with purpose. It’s the perfect avatar for Ben Wheatley’s style in his astonishing second feature. Working with cinematographer Laurie Rose and editor Robin Smith, both of whom worked on—and the latter starred in—his impressive debut Down Terrace (2010), Wheatley weaponizes the widescreen frame. The editing is jagged and relentless, and at times the in-camera movements are as jarring as a shock cuts. A simple side-profile of a character staring out the window is rendered hair-raising by the slow elevation of his hand to wave at someone outside, a mundane gesture that feels oddly like an apparition floating into view.

Context, of course, is everything, and I suspect that by the time this scene comes around, about an hour into Kill List, Wheatley could have showed us anything—an empty parking lot, a lonely lighthouse, a litter of adorable golden retriever puppies—and it would scan as completely creepy. The film, which strikes me as the key horror movie of the new century so far, gets scarier as it goes along, but it’s less a matter of escalation than mutation, a dual shift from a vague but comprehensible narrative about a pair of ex-military men-turned-contract-killers on assignment into an insane pagan scenario, and also from a skillfully wrought realist presentation into something wholly hallucinatory. Trying to pinpoint the exact moment of this slippage is next to impossible, because Wheatley has designed the film so that the two modes complement and even heighten one another. There are trace elements of the first half’s nervy naturalism in the crazed climax just as surely as tuned-in viewers will sense something uncanny intruding on those early everyday passages. In lieu of any sort of trendy bifurcation, Wheatley bleeds it all together.

Actually, Kill List just bleeds a lot, period. The violence, when it comes, is intense and brutal, the equal of anything in the New French Extremity or South Korean New Wave. Wheatley’s influences are more local—this is probably the only film ever made to simultaneously evoke Robin Hardy and Alan Clarke—and yet one of the other things that makes Kill List singular in the contemporary horror canon is its lack of overt referentiality. Wheatley, who honed his comic chops directing episodes of the oddball sketch comedy The Wrong Door, is pals with Edgar Wright (who isn’t in UK cinema?), but he doesn’t share his executive producer’s fondness for generic quotations or allusions. He’s tilling a more solitary path: it takes considerable brio for a British director to try to redefine “hammer horror” in a film set in its homeland.

And make no mistake, Kill List has its eye on the State of the Union Jack. Watching sallow Jay (Neil Maskell) as he skulks about his suburban home, his body aching from some old injury, it’s clear that he’s meant to be a plausible representative of the harried, house-poor middle class, if not an everyman. He’s also possibly a PTSD nutcase, just like his pal Gal (Michael Smiley), who seems similarly trapped by circumstance. The two men are haunted by memories of their military service and also some unofficial predations—including a botched manoeuvre “in Kiev”—but their guilt doesn’t outstrip their need for cash in the present tense.

“Tense” is definitely the operative word when they get together for a dinner party at Jay’s house. For one thing, Gal’s new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer) is a saucer-eyed weirdo whose dark hair and sexualized manner serve to unnerve Jay’s blonde, Nordic wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) right off the bat. For another, Jay seems to be barely restraining something homicidal in between each tight-lipped smile and furtive bite of barbecued ribs. Not knowing anything about Kill List going in except that it was supposedly terrifying, I was admittedly very susceptible to the razor dance of these first scenes, which are thick with verbal and emotional battery, shadowed by intimations of the real thing. The partially improvised acting is brilliant, adding to the sense, already embedded in the editing, that anything could happen at any moment. When the guests eventually go home without any casualties it’s almost a shocker in and of itself. There’s a sense in which Wheatley is laying the ominousness on a bit thick here, but he’s also anticipating Kill List’s big theme—and big twist—which is the way that the deceptively arbitrary, mysteriously subsidized violence practiced by Jay and Gal can’t help but come home to roost.

But before it gets there, it has to get out into the world—or more specifically, the rest of Sheffield. Jay and Gal have been given a roll call of locals to pick off, and I’m surely not the first critic to point out that the people they go after represent different institutional authority figures. Wheatley helpfully underlines this by inserting title cards in advance of each assassination: “The Priest,” “The Librarian,” and “The MP.” The stridency of this set-up is belied by specific details: the Priest is caught sneaking a cigarette outside his chapel before getting capped; the Librarian, whose extra-curricular activities are far more depraved, smiles his way gratefully through incongruous last words. A marvellous, distanced shot of a single light burning in a massive rural estate en route to the meeting with the MP brings Wheatley perilously close to the edge of social commentary, as does the reveal of Jay and Gal’s bosses as wizened, well-heeled old cronies who talk eagerly about “Reconstruction.”

This is all pretty academic on the page: shadowy power brokers reshuffling the social/religious/political order, enlisting desperate men to do their dirty work. But it’s hard to find the words to fault a film for didacticism when your jaw is on the floor. Its (tarot) cards laid on the table, Kill List smartly submerges its metaphors beneath waves of pounding, unholy terror—the kind that seems torn from somebody else’s nightmare, if only because none of us want to think that sort of stuff is swimming around in our subconscious. The spectacle is at once frighteningly abstract and naggingly suggestive: armed with high-powered rifles, skittering through pitch-dark underground tunnels lit only by their helmet-mounted headlamps, Jay and Gal could be back in some foreign war zone. (There’s the violence coming home.) The people (things?) fearlessly rushing at the business end of their barrels are the sort of shrieking, faceless adversaries that any reasonable person would condone terminating, except that they would all seem to be playing for the same team.

Wheatley is confronting his audience with certain larger realities in full-dress Gothic get-up, and it’s the grotesqueness of the de-familiarization that sticks in the mind and in the throat. The moment when the disguise literally drops to the ground is startling and yet somehow inevitable. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Kill List is a full-frontal assault that also lunges from the blind side. Either way, it’s coming to get you.

Cinema Scope: There are trace elements of several different modes of British cinema in Kill List, but it doesn’t feel like a mash-up. I had the impression that I was watching something new.

Ben Wheatley: It’s not a postmodern exercise in joining genres. I wanted to make a horror film, in the same way that Down Terrace was a crime film. In both cases there is this sort of social-realist filter and the characters are as real as possible, and we’re trying to favour the actors over the camera—giving them space to exist rather than concentrating on lighting and focus, which seems to get in the way of a lot of filmmaking. On some films, it boils down more to what the focus puller wants than what the actors want. The film really comes out of a point of view of casting. There were a lot of people I’ve worked with over the last few years who I’ve wanted to work with again, and I thought about what I liked about them as people rather than the roles they’ve played. I imagined exaggerated versions of those personalities and then wrote the story to fit that. It’s the opposite of what you normally do, which is write the script and then try to find actors who suit the parts.

Scope: Was the idea then to keep the characters from feeling like “types,” which are usually what populate genre films of all kinds?

Wheatley: There are movie characters and there are real people. Movie characters never act like real people. Real people are contradictory and difficult and loving and vindictive, and really nice and really horrible at the same time. They’re self-serving and they’re altruistic. People laugh and cry in short succession and you would never think that they’re schizophrenic, you’d think that it was a normal day: “I was crying, now I’m laughing, I’m insane.”

Scope: The sudden leaps in behaviour that you’re describing seem to relate to the film’s editing scheme, which is remarkably open: it feels like anything could happen at any moment. Can you talk about your editing process?

Wheatley: The way it works is we have Robin Smith set up in an editing suite on his own. I’ve got my own editing suite. Amy Jump, who is my wife and the film’s co-writer, edits as well, with me operating the machine. Between the three positions, Robin has the classic editing skills, and I’m little a more avant-garde and do most of the action stuff. Amy is odd, and she does the really crazy stuff. Amy and I use the editing as the last draft of the script, so that we can incorporate the actor’s improvisations [into the story]. We give ourselves permission very early on to jump cut, so once it’s in the language of the film, the audience doesn’t mind so much. I mean, most modern action films are all cut to fuck anyway. We establish the jumpiness up front, and what that means is we can incorporate the best moments from all of the performances and we can always cut out of a scene if we don’t like where it went.

Scope: There’s that jumpiness you describe, and yet what struck me about the violence in the film was how presentational it was. It rarely comes out of nowhere: there’s a build-up to each of the executions, and the hammer scene is framed so that there’s nothing to do but sit and anticipate the blows. It’s almost like you’re giving the audience a chance to steel its nerves—or maybe to look away.

Wheatley: I come from a background of doing online viral stuff and I spent a lot of time shooting fake camcorder footage and learning the language of what that looks like. So what I got out of that is all editing is fake. You never “cut” in real life, unless you’re knocked out or you go to sleep. But the usual thing in horror movies is that directors cut into the effect, which lets them show whatever they want, because it doesn’t have to be seamless. What it says to the audience is “that’s not real” because there was time to set it up before cutting in. When I watch Kill List with an audience and the hammer scene comes around, there’s this gasp, and what they’re gasping at is not the graphicness of the violence, but the absence of an edit. They’re expecting us to cut in, but it doesn’t, and so it’s a jump in language from a horror film to maybe something you’d find on the internet, tooling around on YouTube—like stumbling upon some horrible execution footage. It’s a key moment in the movie, because it shows the endgame of that kind of violence, in the raw, and how do you feel now? Not very happy.

Scope: Or maybe the word is melancholy: there’s an undercurrent of sadness in Kill List that’s not at odds with its ruthlessness and insanity but very strongly connected to it…

Wheatley: I was watching this documentary about Tobe Hooper and George Romero and the idea that they were reacting to their own period, that the horror is a metaphor for the news of the world. For me there’s no point in making stuff unless it ties into how we’re living and how we’re experiencing. We’re living in very difficult times, and everything is very odd. You wonder what was going on in Germany during the blitzkrieg and fighting a war on two fronts and getting all the news back from those fronts. These wars that can’t be justified almost put us in this position of feeling like a guilty generation—this feeling that we’ll look back and history won’t have treated us very well.

Scope: You’re talking about the subtext, but those aspects of the film get visualized in a way that makes it difficult to take them apart. It’s hard to analyze images when they’re so extreme and frightening. Where did those images near the end come from?

Wheatley: I had recurring nightmares as a kid and that was one of them: following a cult through the woods, seeing some sort of ritual and the people see you and chase you and catch you. I knew that if that stuff had scared me, that sort of primal fear, that it would scare everyone. We constructed the script out of those moments. I’ve also got a young son, so there were also my fears as a father of the worst possible thing that could happen to him. It’s all abstracted, like you say, as a way of making it hard to get your head around what you’re feeling even while you’re feeling it. Your brain is trying to process what you’re seeing, and so you can’t just sit there evaluating and judging what’s going on like you might watching another kind of movie. In those movies, you know where you are, and you’re safe. In this movie, you’re not safe: you don’t know what’s going on.

Scope: You mentioned that you weren’t interested in making a postmodern exercise, but there is one film whose shadow would seem to fall over Kill List, and that’s The Wicker Man (1973). Was that film a conscious influence?

Wheatley: A lot gets read into film history. You have to think about where the Hammer films come from and where The Wicker Man comes from. In North America, you might not get this, but in the UK this stuff is old. It’s old, old, in-the-Earth-sort-of-stuff. So if this makes sense, I’m referencing the same stuff those films are referencing, but I’m not referencing those films. I’m not thinking, “Wouldn’t it be neat to re-do The Wicker Man.” I live in Brighton, on the coast, and there’s this town called Lewis that does this famous fireworks display. And it’s all very pagan. People come around, they dress up in these strange costumes and burn crosses and barrels and this effigy of the Pope that they set aflame. So stuff like that still goes on.

Scope: Those rituals you’re describing are very old, but the film still feels very much like it’s of the moment: Jay and Gal are extremely contemporary figures. Is there a level on which Kill List is supposed to be a portrait of the new England, instead of the old one?

Wheatley: I think the social contract has been broken by corruption. That’s on a bigger level. Not to bring together too many strands too neatly, but the whole thing about the riots in London, that’s on the back of five or six years of an illegal war. A million people marched to stop the war and keep us from going into Afghanistan and Iraq, and no notice was taken of it at some level. That sort of thing never happens in England and they said we’re going to go do it anyway. You’ve got the MP suspension stuff, the phone-tapping scandals, and it’s like, for fuck’s sake, nobody ever gets caught for this. It just goes on and on. And if you’re just a Joe Schmo, doing your job and you fall behind somehow, your taxes get topped up and you can go to prison. It just doesn’t feel right. It feels like the whole society is geared towards fucking you. That’s why these guys in the film get caught up in what they do.

Scope: They get caught up in it, and you’re there with them. Or at least you’re in the uncomfortable position of caring about them even as they’re preparing to go do these bloody, awful things.

Wheatley: That’s why the first half is so long, and we spend so much time with them. In horror movies, you usually don’t know the people very well, or they’re kids, and they get slaughtered by somebody who is much more charismatic than they are, some thing in a mask. The hero of the film is a monster. I wanted the viewer to like these people, even if they have sort of a shouty relationship. I think Jay and Shel’s marriage is pretty good. I like Gal a lot. What they do is reprehensible, but by then, the early scenes are like money in the bank. It gets you through the madder stuff, and it also makes you feel the madder stuff more.

Scope: I thought it was important that there were hints of complicity between Shel and Jay: it’s not like she doesn’t really know what her husband is off doing. That understanding also makes the ending a lot more powerful.

Wheatley: It’s a small business. They run this business, and it’s failing, and he’s the main guy. His business partner comes around and says they have to get back to work. It’s weird because some of the reviews describe it as being “one last job,” but they never say that. Jay’s just had a bad back, which is an excuse not to go to work.

Scope: It raises the question of what soldiers back from the front are supposed to do for work when they get home—they’ve been trained to really only know one thing. The allusions to Jay and Gal’s military service are quick, but they’re there, yes?

Wheatley: They’ve been in the army together. Now they’re freelancers. It’s baby steps, morality wise, from being in the army to killing people for money. It’s just looked at in a different way. It’s like suicide bombing is bad, but bombing from a plane is somehow all right. The same things happen: women and children get blown up and people die, and yet one is seen as being okay.

Scope: There’s something really provocative in the scenes where the guys are firing their automatic weapons at these hordes of shrieking, faceless adversaries—like it’s another combat experience, except on home turf, and the bad guys are indigenous rather than foreign. I’m not sure if that’s a conscious metaphor, but it was on my mind.

Wheatley: The cult is pretty loosely defined. We didn’t do any research, intentionally. We made it up so you couldn’t start to put things together. The idea is that it’s a group, and they’re organized, and they don’t like you, and you don’t know what the fuck is going on. There could have been a detective character working it out, like in Race with the Devil (1975), where there’s like 20 minutes of people in the library, working out what Satanists are. My underlying thinking about the cult, and what it is, comes out of the very little bit of research we did do about sacrifices. It’s usually connected to crops. If crops fail, you have to sacrifice something, or someone, and it placates the gods. Religion is always layered, it takes the bits it likes from what comes before and moves on. So the cult is like a very baseline original religion, and their new rituals are all around money.

Scope: There are all those banknotes strewn around in the last scene, when the horror comes home. That’s the part that reminded me of The Wicker Man, the way that Jay’s punishment is sort of shocking and inevitable. Isn’t it what he’s been driving at the whole time, really?

Wheatley: Jay’s like the ultimate passive-aggressive character, isn’t he? He wants to be left alone, and in the end he is.

Scope: Considering how despairing the film is, I’m curious what the response has been like in Britain. I imagine this isn’t a movie that viewers there, even hardcore horror fans, are going to for escapism…

Wheatley: The critical response has been fantastic: 15 five-star reviews, knocked it out of the park. It opened quite small, but the screen averages were good. It did better than Fright Night or Apollo 18 in terms of the averages.

Scope: It’s not an easy sell to a mainstream audience, and then for a horror audience, it’s almost too strange, or too off to the side of generic expectations.

Wheatley: It’s got to be like the freakiest film of the last ten years to get a proper release. I guess maybe Enter the Void (2009) is formally madder, but to go into a multiplex and see it next to like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, that it’s a choice between those two things as to where you want to spend your money, we’re pretty proud of that. I’ve been following the film on Twitter, which is a whole new world, and you can gauge ratios of response. It’s been like one miserable tweet saying, “What the fuck was that, that’s not what I wanted,” against nine people saying, “That was really excellent!”

Scope: Are you really into following responses to the film online? You’ve been retweeting some of the reviews and comments. Is that a dangerous thing for a filmmaker to do? Or is it sort of fun?

Wheatley: You’ve got to have perspective on it. Back in the day, it would have been just a guy sitting in a bar saying, “I fucking hated that film.” And now he’s saying the same thing but he can say it to everyone. I was talking to another filmmaker the other day who’s obsessed with reading absolutely everything, and I was saying to him that it’s a broad spectrum. As long as you’ve got a review that says it’s great, and one that say it’s terrible, you’re covered.


anayman@cinema-scope.com Nayman Adam