Look beyond the obvious blood and guts of Kill List and you’ll find surprising depth, says its director Ben Wheatley. He spoke to Tony Earnshaw.
The clean and clinical assassination of a priest is one thing. The hammer murder of a paedophile, judged and found guilty via vigilante law, is something else.
Both events are at the heart of Kill List, the latest provocative thriller from Sheffield-based production outfit Warp Films and both add to the mood of disquiet that pervades this dark and deadly offering from writer/director Ben Wheatley.
The film received a pre-release screening courtesy of Celluloid Screams, Sheffield’s horror film festival, on Tuesday night. Prior to that it had a launch at London’s Frightfest. Audiences everywhere have been scratching their heads at the complexities of a plot that combines contract killers with pagan sacrifice whilst choking on some of the unapologetic gore.
Wheatley, returning to Yorkshire for the Sheffield show after shooting most of his film in the city, reveals his roots as a movie aficionado by accepting comparisons with The Killers (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager are the hitmen seeking answers over the death of their mark) and The Wicker Man (a puritanical policeman is lured to a remote Scottish island and burned alive as a sacrifice to the old gods).
But he’s just as quick to tip his hat to Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid thriller The Parallax View and another kinetic blend of car chase and Satanism, Race with the Devil. The resultant Kill List has “cult” written all over it. Wheatley isn’t so sure.
“I wanted to make a horror film on my own terms,” says the 38-year-old Essex native.
“‘Cult’ is a double-edged sword; movies become cult movies because they’re just fucked at the box office and they’re rediscovered later on. I want it to be seen by as many people as possible but equally I understand it’s a hard film.
“There’s an appetite for horror movies at the moment but they’re not necessarily as smart as they could be. That torture porn stuff is pretty dim. I wanted to make something that would make the audience think about it and which would be rewarding.”
Much of the film’s strength lies in the casting of its central protagonists, Jay and Gal, played by Wheatley regulars Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley. Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump (also Mrs. Wheatley) happily re-wrote elements of the Kill List script to fit their cast. Anglo-Swedish actress MyAnna Buring, recently cast in the new Twilight films, is Maskell’s all-seeing wife – a partner who accepts her volatile husband’s job as hired gun.
“Neil has been in a lot of British crime films. I thought that if he’d been in the ‘60s he’d have been in Get Carter,” muses Wheatley. “Back in the day MyAnna would have been a Hammer actress. I had this idea that if you put them in the same movie it would be like folding the genres together.
“The other idea was that hitmen are like folk heroes, they are treated quite well in cinema. It’s a basic trope that they’re kind of alright. They’re not, and it’s outrageous that people think of them as heroes. They’re only a step above serial killers; they get paid for it. I wanted to lead the audience there and say ‘This is the reality of what they do’.”
Which brings us to the central scene of the hammer murder. Wheatley knows what the scene represents and has a carefully conceived view of why it is a vital turning point in the film.
“The hammer attack… it’s that Daily Mail thing: ‘If I got hold of a paedophile I’d whack him with a hammer’. Well, okay, here we go: this is it. Not that it says anywhere in the film that this guy is a paedophile but it’s that kind of have-a-go-hero, Home Office understanding of it. But the violence goes both ways.
“It’s a physiological thing as well. It happened to me the first time I saw it – you get this weird rush of adrenaline when you see that violence. It doesn’t go away – for me – for at least eight or nine minutes. That’s a really odd thing. It feels like it’s shot in a language that’s outside the normal language of cinema.
“If you’re watching a normal movie there would be a cut as they’re raising the hammer. You kind of expect that and when you don’t see it, it makes it doubly worse. And when he does it two more times you go beyond a film experience into some kind of reality experience. For me as a viewer, that’s what really disturbs me.”
Kill List has been acclaimed at several festivals as a new breed of British horror thriller. Indeed it does enter some particularly peculiar territory and as the final reel unravels the story veers off at a tangent. Wheatley anticipates the question.
“Some people think that the film is just made up on the spot – that the ending is tacked on because we didn’t know what else to do. The whole film is completely structured – it all balances and it all works,” he asserts.
““I don’t necessarily think that the ending is left open. I’d like to think that the people who find it hard will think about it and come to their own conclusions. The information is all there in the movie – to pull it all together and work out what it all means.”