Kill List Is A Brutally Bleak Crime-Mystery Showcasing British Horror At Its Finest

Jay, Neil Maskell, takes aim with a silenced pistol

We’re back again this week with another installment in the ‘In Case You Missed It’ series where I write about some lesser-known horror films that I feel deserve a bit more recognition. In the first two of the series, I talked about the Shudder original Caveat and one of the scariest films I’ve personally ever seen Banshee Chapter. This week, however, I’ll be discussing the mystery-horror film Kill List, written and directed by Ben Wheatley. It’s a superb example of British cinema by one of my personal favorite filmmakers who has a filmography that boasts a huge amount of award nominations and wins.

Kill List is a movie about an ex-soldier turned hitman named Jay (Neil Maskell) who accepts a contract to murder three people with his best friend and fellow hitman Gal (Michael Smiley). It starts off seeming like a straightforward job, as contract killings go, but as it progresses it warps into something more cryptic and nightmarish than they could have ever imagined. Kill List is the sort of film where the less you know about it the better. It thrives on its central mystery, and whilst not all of your questions will be answered at the end, I think that’s one of its strengths. Wheatley wants the audience to try and fill in the blanks and, for me anyway, it makes the finale of the film that bit more terrifying.

Horror and mystery have always gone hand in hand. The Italian Giallo’s, the Scream franchise, there are countless examples of crossovers between the genres, and for very good reason. There is something deeply unsettling about the unknown. It messes with your head on a purely psychological level and I don’t think it can be understated just how effective that can be within the horror genre. I think Ben Wheatley understands that completely. He chooses to ignore exposition and over-explanation, instead using a very minimal plot that leaves the audience in the dark for the majority of the film. Kill List drops just enough clues using symbols and cryptic conversations that tell the audience that there is more to these hits than meets the eye but at no point does it overshare. It exudes intrigue and ambiguity that forces the audience to be unnerved and keeps them on the edge of their seat for the film’s duration.

The Librarian, Mark Kempner, bleeds from his mouth and nose.

It isn’t just the mystery that makes this film so ominous though. The sound design is magnificent with an eerie, folk-like soundscape that adds beautifully to the already well-crafted atmosphere. It’s haunting in just the right way and fits perfectly with the themes and overall plot and adds an element of creepiness that I think wouldn’t be as prevalent without it and is itself another clue in the mystery that drives Kill List forward. 

As a Brit myself, I’d like to think that I’ve seen more British horror than your average American or other foreign horror fan and there’s one key similarity present in the majority of them: they’re just immensely bleak. From Possum to Exhibit A our filmmakers really know how to depress and disturb their audience and Kill List is no different. The horror genre at its core is about tragedy. Whether it’s ghosts, serial killers, or The Thing from Outer Space, death and disaster are such key elements of the genre. With that in mind, horror films should be bleak. They should be depressing and grimy and that’s one of the reasons I think Kill List is so brilliant. There are themes of exploitation, domestic troubles, and money problems. All real-life issues that lend films like this a bit of authenticity and make the horror all the more real and all the more scary.

Whilst I’m on the topic of authenticity I have to mention the improvisational skills on show in Kill List. All of the scenes were shot twice, once following the script and another where Wheatley allowed his actors to ad-lib and improvise their conversations. It worked brilliantly in developing the characters and their relationships whilst also making everything seem more realistic and less ‘clinical’ if you like. In real life, people stumble over their words and talk over one another; improvisation allows for that reality. It helps that Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley are absolutely exceptional in this film. They have a chemistry that feels authentic and between the more grisly and dark scenes, their natural camaraderie and black humor shine through providing a bit of levity and the dry humor that we British people are known for.

Jay, Neil Maskell, sits bloodied in a car.

This film isn’t just bleak, it’s also brutal. With a torture scene that will have you cringing and practical effects that will have you squirming Ben Wheatley really doesn’t hold back. It isn’t overdone, however. Wheatley instead treads a very fine line between using fantastically tight tension and blood splatter and brain matter as the vehicle for Kill List’s horror. It adds unpredictability to the scenes and allows the film, which starts off as a very slow burn, to ratchet up the intensity before crescendoing into a frantic and anxiety-inducing finale. 

Just to conclude, Kill List is a masterpiece in British horror cinema. It’s brutally bleak, it’s mysterious, it’s acted superbly, and it deserves to be mentioned with the very best that this small island has to offer. It also has one of the best endings to a horror film that I’ve ever seen. It leaves certain elements up to interpretation but wraps up just enough loose ends that even those, like me, who hate ambiguity will be completely satisfied. 

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Written by Tom Bailey

Tom is a film reviewer that absolutely loves finding diamonds in the rough and shining a light on them in the hopes they get the recognition they deserve! Other than a massive horror junkie, he also love football (soccer) and is massively devoted to Arsenal FC. He also writes for his own blog

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