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.

***

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989) (SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch , or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins . Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon.  It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy ( Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Bi

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the