Skip to main content

No wriggle room, then?


Kill List
 (2011)

(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS) Ben Wheatley appears to have swiftly become the new poster boy for British horror, thus supplanting the undeservedly crowned regent Neil Marshall. Obviously, Wheatley has a far more suitable name so that’s something. And, at first glance, he appears to have artistic aspirations higher than the swathe of gore Marshall is content to cut a path through. But for every area where I admired Wheatley’s inventiveness and craft in Kill List, ultimately he left me feeling dissatisfied with the result.

It's possible that I'm just not sufficiently on board with horror movie tropes. It’s never been my preferred genre, and the further the dial swings from suggestive to splatterific the less engaged I become.  At least, usually, you can see the signs a mile off in terms of content. Kill List has the air of arthouse to it, a film not obviously wearing its genre on its sleeve. As a result, by the time I reached the climax, with its "What's the most shocking reveal I can put in here?" the whole enterprise transformed into one that is distractingly manipulative and calculated (and, by that point, sadly inevitable). Maybe part of this disappointment results from the lo-fi "Ken Loach horror" suggestiveness of the opening sections leading me to expect something more subtle and sinister.

In retrospect, it just seems that Wheatley employs a wall-to-wall foreboding soundtrack for these scenes of domestic strife with same lack of restraint seen in the ending. Jay (Neil Maskill), unemployed for eight months, is getting grief from his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). He is reluctant to return to his role as a hitman (which he took on after leaving the army) but his friend Gal (Michael Smiley) persuades him. But why is Gal’s girlfriend Fiona carving an occult symbol on the back of Jay's bathroom mirror and secreting a tissue containing Jay’s blood upon her person? Before long the job begins, but grows more and more disturbing, including the discovery of horrific activities by some of the targets, a peculiar resignation to their fates, and the apparent recognition of Jay by one of them. Deciding to quit, they discover that it is not so simple. 

So many aspects appear to be inspired by the likes of Rosemary's Baby and The Wicker Man (and various other British horror fare, including Blood on Satan’s Claw) but instead of their ambiguous unease Wheatley finally succumbs to rubbery intestines, machine guns and OTT Satan worship; the pursuing hordes presumably sound like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for no other reason than Wheatley though it would be cool. It’s quite apparent that, tonally, Wheately is setting audiences up for the more disorientating third act tone, but the lack of restraint on display and his succumbing to hackneyed plot devices (the retreat to an isolated location) suggest it does all comes down to the “splatter effect” pay-off (I should have seen the warning signs with the hammer incident, however).

Which is fine, except that Wheatley has sold the illusion that the film might be about something.  What you realise is that he doesn’t really care about his characters (which, ironically, diminishes the impact of the ending); it becomes all about how clever and tricky the narrative construction is. Smiley makes Jay affable, but Maskell isn’t so far removed from his zombified hit man in Utopia (is he getting typecast?) There’s no resonance here other than the most superficial (which neatly reflects the all-pervading soundtrack). All the choices are, ultimately, very mannered and studied, from the verité handheld camera (all the better to make you feel like you’re there… but haven’t we seen that so an awful lot lately?) and drab – but cinemascope; this is an epic mundane landscape remember - cinematography to the use of title cards announcing the next victim.

I probably sound like I’m coming down hard on the film, which is no doubt a consequence of the excessive hype its received. There’s much here that is effective. Maskell and Smiley give outstanding performances, and there's a sense of easy-going chemistry and natural improvisation to their run-of-the-mill hit man duties. Individual elements of the sinister surround make you sit up and take notice (the initial carving on the back of the mirror, the encounter with the “doctor” – I half expected Jay to sprout hair from his cut hand!). In the end, though, the most creative elements aren’t enough to overcome the more derivative and exploitative ones.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
(SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II’s on YouTube, and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

In a way, that’s good, as there can be no real defence that the fault lies elsewhere. What was Russell Mulcahy thinking? What was anyone thinking? Th…

So, you want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
(SPOILERS) I suppose you have to give Kevin Feige credit for turning the least-likely-to-succeed-in-view-of-America’s-standing-with-the-rest-of-the-world superhero into one of Marvel’s biggest success stories, but I tend to regard Steve Rogers and his alter ego as something of a damp squib who got lucky. Lucky in that his first sequel threw him into a conspiracy plotline that effectively played off his unwavering and unpalatable nobility and lucky in that his second had him butting heads with Tony Stark and a supporting selection of superheroes. But coming off the starting block, Captain America: The First Avenger is as below par as pre-transformation Steve himself, and I’m always baffled when it turns up in best of Marvel Cinematic Universe lists. The best I can say for it is that Joe Johnston’s movie offers a mildly engaging opening section and the occasional facility for sharp humour. For the most part, though, it’s as bland and impersonal as…

I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle.

Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut (2005)
(SPOILERS) There’s an oft-cited view that Kingdom of Heaven, in its unexpurgated as-Ridley-honest-to-goodness-intended director’s cut – in contrast to some of his other, rather superfluous director’s cuts, in which case – is a goddam masterpiece. It isn’t, I’m afraid. First and foremost, Orlando Bloom is not miraculously transformed into a leading man with any presence, substance or conviction. But there are other problems, more than evident, mostly in the form of the revisionist pose William Monahan’s screenplay adopts and the blundering lack of subtlety with which his director translates it.

Definitely the perfect prisoner’s friend.

The Avengers 1.20: Tunnel of Fear
(SPOILERS) As Alan Hayes observes (in the booklet accompanying the DVD release of this recently discovered Season One episode), there’s a more than passing kitchen sink element to Tunnel of Fear. You could almost expect it to form the basis of a Public Eye case, rather than one in which Steed and Dr Keel get involved, if not for the necessary paraphernalia of secrets being circulated via a circus fairground.

I apologise for Oslo's low murder rate.

The Snowman (2017)
(SPOILERS) Maybe Morton Tyldum made Jo Nesbø adaptations look deceptively easy with Headhunters, although Tyldum hasn’t show such facility with material since, so maybe Nesbø simply suits someone with hackier sensibilities than Tomas Alfredson. It’s a long way down from the classy intrigue of John Le Carré to the serial killer clichés of The Snowman, and I’m inclined to think that, even if Alfredson had managed to film that 15% of the screenplay he says went awry, this wouldn’t have been all that great.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…