Nothing says scary cinema like a slow burn. It’s exactly the clever technique used by British filmmaker Ben Wheatley (who also made "Down Terrace") for his latest harrowing film titled "Kill List" (out now in select theaters from IFC Midnight), which is a memorable mix of part drama, part action, but pure horror. We’re celebrating the release of this effective thriller with both a review of the film and a little one-on-one Starpulse Q&A with Director Wheatley himself who talks about coming up with the idea for the film, his very diverse lead characters and inspirations behind some of the more stylistic scenes! (His tunnel stuff rules!) First off, here’s "Kill List" helmer...
The whole idea of a "Kill List" is beautifully sick in itself – where did you and co-writer Amy Jump come up with the story?
Ben Wheatley: It comes from a few different places. We’d been working on a feature idea and a short idea that didn't come together and the feature was about a British criminal who gets a call from his friend who’s abroad and going to help him out in a foreign country and the getting involved in some horrific cult. It was going to star Neil Maskell, but for some reason or another it didn't happen, though I was still thinking about it. And then the other script was about a couple in the recession who decided that they would rob banks to strike back at a society that let them down and in that we cast Neil and MyAnna Buring. Again that didn't happen, but seeing the two of them as a couple started making Amy and I think there was something in that. Plus Michael Smiley was in my first film "Down Terrace" and I thought it would be great to see Michael and Neil together. So once those ingredients were all there, we stirred them in the pot and out came "Kill List."
I really liked the real life feel in the film, especially the scene involving the turbulent relationship between Jay and his wife. How important was it for you to keep the characters and situations grounded in reality early on?
BW: It’s absolutely imperative that you do that. To make the horror work later on and to make the audience care what happens to these people, you really need to know them. And the more you know them, the more you understand that they’re real living human beings and the more the tragedy of the horror and the more you feel scared for them.
Emma Fryer’s character Fiona seriously gave me the willies! How did you cast her and what was her approach to the role?
BW: I know Emma through doing a television series called Ideal, a sitcom about drug dealers. I met her in that and she was really brilliant and I wanted to work with her again, so we wrote that part specifically for her. And it wasn’t anything she did specifically to be ‘creepy’ (laughs), her role in the way it is written is strangely naïve and otherworldly. She’s got that kind of energy to her, so it wasn’t a massive push to get her to do it.
The juxtaposition between Jay, a pure hothead, and Gal, a calm professional, is a fantastic coupling – how much of that was on the page and how much did Neil and Michael bring to the roles?
BW: Because it was specifically written for them – and obviously it would be a terrible thing for me to suggest that those two men were capable of such horrible violence because they’re not (laughs) – we pulled characteristics out of them. So Neil is very funny and so is Michael who’s a stand-up comedian, but also very warm and soulful. But you get a feeling from both of them that they're tough men and if pushed in any situation could go for it – they’re not meek in any way. But you just never know if people are going to get on as actors or people and luckily they really gelled as soon as they met and they’re still friends now.
The underground tunnel sequence was creepy and masterful – what were some of your influences when shooting it?
BW: I think some of it was influenced by playing a lot of 'Doom.' So there was that, but there’s also a little bit of "Assault on Precinct 13," the original John Carpenter movie. There’s a sequence in that where one of the women in the police station is caught in the cells and the people are attacking and coming up. It’s very tight and close space towards her and she has to shoot them one by one and I think that always struck me as claustrophobic, very terrifying and a brilliant bit of action cinema. All those early Carpenter films are incredible.
What’s next for you?
BW: We just in the process of finishing the editing on a film called "Sightseers," which is a comedy and different to "Kill List" as I wanted to do something lighter. And then we just finished "The ABC’s of Death," which was good fun, and we’ve got a film with Nick Frost that we’re hoping to do this year, so we’re pretty busy at the moment.
Mixing genres can be a tricky gamble. With sometimes more of one and not enough of another, it takes a careful and skillful hand to create an even tone. With "Kill List," Director Ben Wheatley uses the devices of drama (almost with a reality-based vibe), action (brutal bloody violence ala Nicholas Winding Refn) and balls out horror (think "The Wicker Man" directed by David Fincher!) in such an original, unique and totally unsettling way that being creeped out is simply inevitable.
Jay is an out of work hitman who botched his last job and it’s taking its toll. He’s depressed, strapped for cash and is constantly at odds with his very vocally concerned wife. But soon his partner Gal comes up with a new job and Jay finds himself back in business. The particulars involve a list of people they are assigned to kill and at first the hits are fairly standard. But the folks they are assigned to eliminate start to become increasingly more and more weird and the two soon realize this is no ordinary job.
There are so many key moments in "Kill List" that wonderfully reminded me of fine work from the past. The Sidney Lumet like scenes of Jay and his ailing wife at odds about everyday worries, the brutal scenes of violence with full "Goodfellas" ‘stabbing in the trunk’ like impact and the eerie almost Hitchcock-ian feeling that something is strangely askew. All are ever present in Wheatley’s work and make for an impressive horror film like no other. Even his leads are diverse (and equally exceptional!); Neil Maskell as hothead Jay, MyAnna Buring as his concerned but loving wife, Michael Smiley as the more grounded partner, and especially Emma Fryer as Smiley’s odd new lady love all represent different colors on the cinematic character rainbow.
It’s hard to narrow down, but there’s just something new, interesting and sinister about the staging and execution of "Kill List." The film seems to go to great lengths to keep up the creepy no matter what and it works well. Killing all scary staples of standard horror lore, this one thankfully grabs its worrisome wares from a whole new list.
"KILL LIST" IS CURRENTLY PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS FROM IFC MIDNIGHT