There are some who believe that “Less is More” when it comes to horror stories, particularly when it comes time to film them. Leave the details a mystery, leave the gore off-screen, leave satisfied. And this, of course, is a crock. The problem with this mentality isn’t that less can’t be more, necessarily, but rather that there obviously isn’t one single formula for telling a good story in any genre. For every minimalist and spooky nightmare you’ll find at least one great and fully explicit example of the opposite tactic. For every Paranormal Activity there’s also an Evil Dead out there, tonally different but just as artistically valuable and nightmare inducing.
I bring this up because the new horror film Kill List seems committed to adhering to this philosophy even though it contributes to the film’s ultimate downfall. It’s a moody, scary, often exceptional film that tries so hard to keep the viewer at a distance that it actually succeeds too well. Be careful what you wish for.
Kill List doesn’t want me to summarize it. Director Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace) paces the film in such a way that it’s difficult to tell where it’s going, or what kind of film it will turn out to be. The first act, if you can call it that, is the spookiest of all, but nothing really happens. Neil Maskell plays a man in a strained marriage, who doesn’t seem to behave the way a normal husband or father would in a traditional suburban setting. He apparently only has to work a few times a year, forgets toilet paper in a ho-hum grocery run in favor of a dozen bottles of wine and is curiously obsessed with cooking the dead rabbit his cat delivers on his doorstep. We don’t know, for a long time, why he behaves this way, and the film embraces this mystery to envelop the audience in a palpable sense of dread.
Eventually a plot creeps its way into the movie, and Kill List starts to follow a Maskell and his best friend Michael Smiley (BBC’s Luther) as they are given the titular “Kill List.” It’s a list of people they are – Spoiler Alert – supposed to kill. They don’t plan on getting too involved. In and out, do their job, Bob’s your uncle. But before they die, each of their victims says “Thank you.” Some of them are involved in illicit crimes so vile that their own murderers are visibly shaken. Something’s clearly going on here. There’s enough information to more or less figure out what, but the question of why is never satisfactorily answered. Or asked.
Maybe the sensation of horror is all Wheatley is after, but it’s hard to fully accept a conspiracy story if the nature of the mystery is never touched upon. Not that we needed a monologue laying the plot out for us, but maybe a line of dialogue here or that that would make a modicum of sense in retrospect wouldn’t have been out of the question. Kill List isn’t quite surreal enough to negate these kinds of criticisms, but it is creepy enough to overcome them somewhat. With the unsettling family dynamic, the eerie cult looming in the periphery and a bang-up bit of prolonged scariness in the dank tunnels beneath a gigantic British estate, Wheatley certainly out-Silent Hills that Silent Hill movie we all settled for back in 2006. It’s not the horror classic some devoted fans are making it out to be, it’s certainly an unsettling experience, even though it’s also frustrating as hell.
(Kill List is playing this week only at The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles.)