At the time the second feature film from rising British name Ben Wheatley, Kill List is an impressive, low budget piece but describing it simply as a “hitman horror” seems to be doing it a disservice.
In fact the opening twenty minutes are pretty much a Ken Loach kitchen sink drama. Jay (Maskell) is an unemployed ex-solider and former hitman; obviously troubled by some of the things he has seen and done, battling depression, a lack of money and frequently arguing with his wife (Buring). During a stormy dinner party with his best friend and partner Gal (a laid back, happy Michael Smiley) and his new girlfriend (Fryer) it’s suggested that he gets back into business.
They have an offer of work that will make them a lot of money, a three-man Kill List issued by shadowy, untrustworthy contacts. As they travel about the country (Kill List is filmed in and around Sheffield) things take a turn for the weird as one of their targets thanks them for killing him, a dead rabbit turns up on the family doorstep and somebody kills the cat, and Jay and Gal begin to suspect that their employers are even more shady then they realised.
Even as Wheatley expertly raises the level of unease and sets the edgy mood he still finds time to return to the people drama: Jay’s suspicions about Gal’s new girlfriend getting too close to his wife, and his trip to the doctors to see about a nasty cut on his hand. It’s a strange juxtaposition next to brutal and graphic scenes of someone getting their head caved in with a hammer; but the unusual mix has the effect of making Kill List even more unsettling and makes the characters more relatable. Jay is certainly one of the most rounded horror characters to have come along in a long time and his friendship with Gal is entirely natural (possibly a result of the partially improvised dialogue); and Kill List is certainly one of the most unsettling films I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Less successful is are the out-and-out horror sequences, in particular a long and dark chase sequence in some underground tunnels.
The climax owes a lot to British horror classic The Wicker Man. Like watching that for the first time you work out what’s going to happen just before it does but that doesn’t make it any less shocking and horrible (in a good way) to watch.