Kill List

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Year: 2011
Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring

★★★★☆

Billed as the best British genre film in years, Kill List comes with a reputation considerably greater than its budget. The second feature from writer-director Ben Wheatley, it is a dark, surreal hit man film that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.

Kill List

It opens as an unnerving family drama, with extended scenes that depict a former serviceman, Jay (Neil Maskell), recovering from the psychological trauma of combat and the glum reality of unemployment. His relationship with his wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), is turbulent to say the least, and, even their young son, Sam (Harry Simpson), appears afflicted by the claustrophobic domestic situation. Brought up on war stories and his parents shouting through the walls, his playtime revolves around conflict and, in an early scene, he is shown cutting his father while he is shaving at the sink. Wheatley creates an atmosphere in which nobody can be trusted – Jay can only listen helplessly while Shel pours out her emotions in a foreign language down the phone – is she having an affair? is she a spy? It is impossible to know. The disconnect, the extent of their mistrust, becomes significant as the plot progresses.

The tension, wrought from the outset, is finally released at a dramatic dinner party, which sees the introduction of Jay’s partner, Gal (Michael Smiley), along with his new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), who has more to her than meets the eye. Jay and Shel fight viciously, with plenty of collateral damage to the crockery, before reconciling unconvincingly. Afterwards, Gal encourages Jay to forget what has happened in the past, alluding to a disastrous mission they undertook together in Kiev, and accept a job that they have been offered. It is simple; three people make up the kill list.

Once the action begins, it is brutal. We are told that these are bad people, they have to suffer. We have to watch. Wheatley pulls no punches and never cuts away, even when Jay takes a hammer to his victim’s skull; it is ruthless and visceral, but, at the same time engrossing. As well as the crude violence, there is something lingering beneath the surface, that unsettling feeling persists throughout the film, insinuating the presence of an unknown horror.

Kill List Ending

Close-ups are used heavily to create an obsessive, voyeuristic atmosphere and the way the British landscape is captured on camera, stripped of colour, devoid of characteristics, entirely banal, creates an impression of indefinable gloom. The film has a nightmarish quality and uses distinctive, unexplained images to heighten the effect, such as Fiona standing outside in her nightdress, waving slowly, pointedly at the window of a motorway hotel. The score adds to the disorientation; it is overt, in your face, made up of harsh sounds and curious whistles.

It  is this blending of the innocuous and the brutal that makes Kill List so engrossing. The tap-tap-tapping of the teaspoon against the cup, the domestic violence, the hammer blow to the head. It all seems connected somehow, like an expression of some inherent pent-up anger or collective death wish. Wheatley hints at a social commentary as well; the targets for assassination are a priest, a librarian and an MP; there are vague murmurings about the war. The message is not coherent, but you get the impression that there is something rotten at the core of the world that is portrayed.

The denouement only serves to confuse the message. It is arbitrary and slightly derivative, seemingly added for effect alone. Fortunately, as with the rest of the film, you can’t argue with the effect. The climax is a powerful piece of cinema, shocking and unsettling, played out by firelight in the dark. Exactly what it means will be debated – it probably won’t be fully understood – but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Despite the confounding finale, Kill List is a wonderful British horror film, stark and brutal, superbly shot, with imagery to haunt you for years.

Rob Dickie

Byzantium

Director: Neil Jordan
Writer: Moira Buffini (screenplay and play)
Year: 2012
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones

★★★☆☆

Neil Jordan’s latest film, Byzantium, is a spirited if convoluted return to the vampire genre that seeks to rewrite much of the old mythology.

Saoirse Ronan Byzantium

Adapted by Moira Buffini from her own play, Byzantium was shot in Hastings, a setting that is overtly rooted in an illustrious history but appears grungy and anonymous in its present condition. As in his 2009 feature, Ondine, Jordan captures his surroundings beautifully, particularly near the beginning, contrasting the timeless qualities of the environment with those that are acutely modern. As the film flickers between past and present, grand ships, pristine sand and tranquil fisherman contrast with  concrete blocks, cheap amusements and the burned-out pier, while, at the same time, nothing really changes for those who inhabit the seafront – women can be bought for a price and the tide beats on. There’s a disorientating monotony to eternal life.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and her daughter Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are two centuries old vampires, on the run from a mysterious brotherhood that are intent on making them suffer for their past transgressions. After Clara is discovered working as a stripper, they are forced to flee their high-rise flat and end up in a small seaside town, where Clara quickly integrates herself into the criminal underworld. She sets herself up as a prostitute and exploits a local loser, Noel (Daniel Mays), by taking over his late mother’s guesthouse and turning it into a brothel populated by desperate women from the streets.

The eternal cycle of vice and the degrading, precarious existence it leads to causes tensions between Clara and Eleanor, who are worlds apart in terms of personality. Clara is feisty, seductive and violent, prepared to kill anyone who threatens to uncover their secret and use her body to obtain whatever they need to survive. Conversely, Eleanor is passive, introspective and refuses to use violence, feeding only euthansically, on the blood of elderly people who tell her they are ready to die. They are evidently extremely close, with the bond of centuries between them, but it is increasingly apparent that Eleanor needs something more to live for than the battle for survival that Clara appears to relish.

The divisions between the two protagonists are mirrored in the makeup of the film itself, as it moves swiftly between vivid action sequences and quiet, reflective scenes, which can be slightly jarring. Flashbacks are also used heavily, causing the film to lack momentum, particularly in the early stages, as the present-day storyline is continually broken up by lengthy elucidations of the past. However, these are essential to the narrative and become progressively more engaging as the film reaches its conclusion, tying up the loose ends in the plot and expounding an original mythology that contains some impressive imagery.

Gemma Arterton Cleavage Byzantium

The problem with Byzantium is that it tries to do too much and fails to combine each of its disparate elements into an entirely cohesive whole. There are scenes in strip clubs, further education colleges, nineteenth century orphanages, postmodern seafronts, all awkwardly juxtaposed with one another, and the changes in atmosphere when the film switches between them are just too drastic. The script is bloated and needed paring down to its essentials, with more focus on the relationships that keep it going and slightly fewer lines of clunky dialogue.

The strongest element of the film is the romance that develops between Eleanor and Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a haemophiliac who becomes attracted to her when he hears her playing the piano in a hotel restaurant. Eleanor is desperate to reveal her true identity to someone – she is continually writing down her story and throwing the pages to the wind – and he provides an outlet for her to do so. His initial disbelief about her supernatural status is well handled, while his unwavering faith in her basic goodness is touching, even when he can’t quite accept who she claims to be. The scenes in which his blood is spilled are the most visceral and moving in the film, the only moments that come close to portraying the tortuous nature of a vampire’s existence.

Jones’s performance is also the standout, bringing out Frank’s innocent curiosity and resigned fragility to create a compelling and genuinely believable character. Ronan is a haunted, withdrawn presence and her steely blue eyes are used to great effect, but her performance is a little too serious and lacking in variation. Arterton overplays her character from time to time, although she is full of zest and vigour, exuding sexuality in a way that is powerful and assertive, while Sam Riley is solid in his supporting role as the aristocratic Darvell.

Vampires are undoubtedly in vogue, although Byzantium, to its credit, strives to bring something new to the genre. The updated mythology is inventive and interesting; thumbnails extend into talons to pierce the skin and people are transformed into vampires through a meeting with their doppelgangers in an eerie island cave. It is shot well, as Jordan’s films usually are, and has plenty of interesting imagery. However, that doesn’t quite make up for the film’s structural flaws, especially as it occasionally descends into almost soap opera melodrama and the ending is something of a disappointment.

Rob Dickie

The Raven

Director: James McTeigue
Writer: Ben Livingstone, Hannah Shakespeare
Year: 2012
Cast: John Cusack, Alice Eve, Luke Evans

★★☆☆☆

Taking its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven is a rather imaginative dramatisation of the author’s mysterious last days. Just before his death, Poe was found wandering the streets of Baltimore in a delirious state, wearing clothes that were not his own. However you want to try to explain that, the events portrayed in the film certainly don’t come close.

Serious explanation, though, is not the point. The Raven is a shameless attempt to squeeze in as many of Poe’s gruesome scenarios as is humanly possible in the best part of two hours. The premise is that a serial killer is copying the murders in his stories in an attempt to draw the author into his game. Poe undoubtedly influenced this kind of scenario, as well as virtually everything else in the detective genre, but he would not have written it. It is too fast-paced, too convoluted, lacking Poe’s scrupulous detail and obsessive focus.

John Cusack

While he is best known for the creating the elaborate set-piece murders on show here, Poe’s work relies on psychological interiority and that unique melancholic atmosphere no copycat can reproduce. The problem with The Raven is that it doesn’t even try to do this and, were it not for the protagonist’s name and the continual references to his stories, you’d be hard pressed to tell it has anything to do with Poe at all.

John Cusack plays the title character, and looks the part with the familiar neckerchief and sickly grey countenance. He gives a quirky performance, toying with Poe’s famous verbosity and injecting him with a more playful nature than you might expect. His co-star Luke Evans is less assured, unconvincingly playing a character that most actors could play in their sleep; Detective Fields is not exactly C. Auguste Dupin. Better might be expected from V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, but he is unable to create any sense of mystery or tension, relying too much on source material which he is unable to successfully recreate. The ending is very much a case of pulling a killer out of a hat.

It is perhaps unfair to judge the merits of a film against the work of a great 19th century author and, despite its shortcomings, The Raven is not all bad. It’s a watchable, if not exactly thrilling, thriller and there are some good scenes, usually, well always, carried by Cusack. Poe’s relationship with Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve) is given a poetic edge and his descent into melancholy gives the film an extra dimension. It has the right look too, especially during some of the set pieces, although it must be said that some of the bigger ones are a let-down. The Pit and the Pendulum and The Premature Burial are given disappointing treatments, flawed in that they appear insignificant. McTeigue removes from the former story the horror and (necessarily) the dimension of time; the audience want nothing more than to see the pendulum fall, which is a fatal flaw. And we know exactly how the latter will pan out, eliminating the sense of claustrophobia.

As a by-the-numbers serial killer flick, The Raven would have been adequate enough, but it promised much more. When treated like this, the references to Poe cannot make up for the lack of originality, and, whether you are a fan or not, there is nothing new to see here.

Rob Dickie

Extended version of a review originally published in The Student on 13 March 2012

The Skin I Live In

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar, Thierry Jonquet (novel)
Year: 2011
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Jan Cornet

★★★★★

Note: All my reviews contain spoilers. Most of the time they are insignificant. This is an exception. If you haven’t seen the film, go and see it. Note the number of stars; it will be worth it. Then come back and read.

It should go without saying that Pedro Almodóvar is a bold director, but The Skin I Live In could well be his boldest film yet. The central character, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), is a brilliant cosmetic surgeon who experiments on a beautiful woman, Vera (Elena Anaya), he keeps imprisoned in his house.

Almodóvar and his central character are both aesthetes, so it is not surprising that this film is an aesthetic triumph. Robert collects and lavishly displays works of art in his house, and, like other great artists, is obsessed with the idea of human perfection. Michaelangelo saw sculpture as the ideal means to reproduce this perfection; Robert has the means to sculpt humans themselves. He moulds Vera into the object of his desire, giving her a perfect figure and his dead wife’s face. Almodóvar and his cinematographer, Jose Luis Alcaine, are masterful at creating the shots to match this artistic obsession. Dead bodies are sprawled in Caravaggian poses, with rippling muscles and pools of deep red blood. The film has a decadent beauty; there is much of Oscar Wilde in it, and not just in the opium pipe.

The Skin I Live In

Vera also produces sculpture, but hers are grotesque modern forms growing out of the clay. She represents both perfection and deformity – it is a matter of perception – but, to herself, she is clearly the latter. Her room, unlike the rest of the house, is bare and cold. It is a modernist cube, a prison, decorated by her writing on the wall. It is also a gallery, designed to display her beauty to Robert through his cameras. She quite naturally takes up those poses familiar to art. Stylistically, her room also resembles the operating theatre; she is defined by her modifications. She wears a one piece black latex suit, a mask; these obscure her identity, her external value, her beauty.

Almodóvar has great style, but to focus only on the style here would be missing the point. Superficiality is punished brutally in the film. What lies beneath the skin has never been so significant. The character of Zeca (Roberto Álamo) identifies himself through a birthmark and mistakes Vera for Robert’s dead wife because they have the same face. Vicente (Jan Cornet) sees a pretty girl remove her cardigan and shoes and assumes she wants to have sex with him. Both commit rapes based on these misjudgements. Finally, Robert allows himself to be deceived by Vera’s face, her skin, ignoring, or forgetting, what lies beneath it.

Vera is the only character who, because of who she is, cannot be superficial. She becomes a character of great depth; through suffering, through yoga, through sculpture, she is forced inwards and learns the meaning of identity and what lies at the core of her being. She is transformed; she grows.

So who is Vera? Almodóvar is a master of non-linear narrative, and he uses the technique to great effect to obscure, and then to reveal her identity. The realisation of what is truly going on comes gradually. An apparent subplot becomes the very foundation of the film and the effect is staggering. A shocking story appears to reach its climax before Almodóvar pulls the rug from under our feet, forcing us to question everything that has gone before. There is no grand reveal, the details come slowly. Almodóvar lets us realise for ourselves and the twist is all the more shocking for it.

Vicente raped Robert’s daughter, out of naivety rather than malice, which drove her to insanity and suicide. Robert kidnapped Vicente and gradually transformed him into a woman, into Vera. Prior to this flashback, Robert rescued Vera as she was being raped by Zeca, and freed her from her room. They made a pact to live together as equals, as lovers. The last shot we were shown was them sharing a bed.

Almodóvar’s insistence on moral ambiguity is what makes The Skin I Live In a great film. Motivation is everything. The basics are there, but specific details are difficult to extract. At what stage did Robert see Vera as anything more than an experiment? When did he decide to give her his dead wife’s face, and why? It is inconceivable that he imagined they would end up sharing a bed together from the beginning, but it is equally inconceivable that it had not crossed his mind until the end. As for the ending, at what stage did Vera decide to kill Robert? Did she attempt to forget who she was in order to keep her vow to him? It is certainly hinted at. Did she abhor Robert himself, or the identity he had given her, or did she simply lament the loss of the one he had taken away? Did she consider him to be a monster? Banderas, incidentally, is monstrous, precisely because he refuses to play the monster. His character is dangerous, obsessive, arrogant, but as Vera approaches him holding the gun that will kill him, he asks her, with a straight face, if she is joking. You might say he had a lot of nerve asking her that. It is also a kind of innocence.

The final scene is strangely touching given what has come before. Vera returns to her mother’s shop where she, as Vicente, used to work. She explains to her former colleague, a lesbian she had fallen for, what happened to her. She then tells her mother who she really is and breaks down into tears. The screen fades to black. This is an affirmation of identity, a fundamental identity, not a history, an appearance, a gender, but a soul. At heart Vera will always be Vicente, and whatever that represents. However, Almodóvar does not make the ending straightforward. The tone is not one of regret. It is hinted that Vera may get the girl, and, in doing so, achieve something Vicente never could. She is already a much stronger character than he ever was. There may yet be a Hollywood ending in store. Almodóvar does not go so far as to suggest it. To portray it would be tantamount to vindication. That would be too bold.

Rob Dickie

The Orphanage (El orfanato)

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Year: 2007
Cast: Belén Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Príncep

★★★☆☆

The Orphanage was produced by Guillermo del Toro and is director Juan Antonio Bayona’s first feature film. Thematically, it recalls del Toro’s own work, combining elements of childhood fantasy with material trauma. It is set in an unlikely orphanage, a grand old house complete with a stretch of immaculate beach, a disused lighthouse and a dark, mysterious cave. The central character, Laura (Belén Rueda), lived there as a girl, and has returned as an adult, along with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep), to reopen it.

Ostensibly, The Orphanage is a ghost story. Simón, known for having imaginary friends, begins to play with orphaned ghosts from the past, leading them back into the house with a trail of seashells. The ghosts then take something precious from Simón, a set of coins, and lead him on a treasure hunt to find them, as well as to discover a secret that his parents have been keeping from him. The treasure hunt is the signature of the ghosts, a combination of malevolence and innocent play.

The Orphanage’s ghostly children look sinister, but how much substance do they have?

Starting with an unsettling scene, in which a group of handicapped orphans are welcomed to the house with a masquerade party, the ghosts become a more practical threat. They attack Laura and lock her in the bathroom, while Simón disappears as if into the air. Everything is set up perfectly, but, after this, the film begins to lose its way.

Briefly, it moves out of the orphanage, which is a misjudgement. The setting was never claustrophobic per se, but its removed atmosphere was vital to the film’s effect. An important plot development is made, which reveals the orphanage’s dark history, but this could perhaps have been made differently. There is also a scene in which a medium explores the building, which again is not at all bad, but is not entirely consistent with the rest of the film.

However, the main issue I have with The Orphanage is that, in the end, it shies away from being a ghost story at all, instead going down the route of psychological misdirection. This might have worked if the ghost storyline had been less effectively set up, or had an element of doubt. But the ghost story is what makes the film effective and doing away with it destroys the illusion. Taking the narrative as a embodiment of Laura’s psychological deterioration complicates rather than clarifies matters, and leaves the plot open to all kinds of questions. In my mind, the plot that is eventually implied makes very little sense at all. It is also detrimental to the emotional core of the film.

The Orphanage is at its best when at its most dramatic. It is a dark and atmospheric film, which makes good use of the setting and the childish imagination as a source of suspense. But, it falters towards the end, and ultimately becomes a frustrating experience, which should have been more fulfilling.

Rob Dickie

Rabies (Kalevet)

Director: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Writer: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado
Year: 2010
Cast: Lior Ashkenazi, Danny Geva, Ania Bukstein

★★★★☆

Apparently they don’t make horror movies in Israel. Explaining the reasons for this would, I am sure, require a far greater knowledge of Middle Eastern culture than I possess. But there is a first time for everything, as confidently demonstrated by Rabies, the debut film from Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.

The opening scene sets it up as a torture film, in the vein of the Saw series, but this, as with many things in the film, is a misdirection. A girl, Tali (Liat Harlev), is trapped in a dungeon, and her companion, Ofer (Henry David), appears to be murdered, leaving her at the mercy of her pursuer. We could be forgiven for thinking that this will be the last we will see of them. But it is not. Ofer (as if being murdered wasn’t enough for one day) is run over by a group of young, beautiful tennis players and Tali is freed from her captor by being shot in the buttock with a tranquiliser dart. These things happen.

While many modern horror films, particularly those from across the Atlantic, can be stale and predictable, this is anything but. It is a slasher movie without a slasher, and one set entirely in broad daylight. Characters are introduced and dispensed with in ways that cannot be foreseen. The threat is nowhere and everywhere. The film also manages, with a skill which has largely been forgotten in the genre, to be extremely funny without detracting from the horror. It is not a comedy; it is a horror, and like many great horror films, it is extremely funny.

The characters are rapidly but adequately drawn and there are tangible moments of humanity. There are no bad performances and no performances which overshadow the others. Each plays their part and each part is important. There is enough gore on show to satisfy fans but nothing over the top; the only disappointment in this respect was one moment that was divided across two tense scenes. It cut between them too abruptly and, having promising much, it delivered little. The audience cringed in preparation, but were allowed to breathe too soon. But that was a minor aberration.

The soundtrack is a storming success, with a desperately cool main theme which had me tapping my foot until the last credit had rolled. It is shot beautifully too, as mentioned before in broad daylight, the setting an Israeli forest which is effectively forged into a threat. The daylight gives the film a slightly unreal tone, with lightly blurred green backgrounds and good use of sunlight, particularly towards the end.

There is no need for shadow tricks, everything is out in the open. Nobody is lost in the dark and everyone can navigate the woods quite adequately. It’s an honest and human terror that is created, everyday emotions spilling over in the midst of a delicate situation. That sells it short really, makes it sound less interesting than it is. But it is a glorious farce of a slasher movie, and one which is genuinely original.

I saw it at a special discount screening on the final day of the Edinburgh Film Festival. I counted twelve others. One was a young woman, probably Israeli judging by her accent and appearance, who left after about fifteen minutes. Needless to say, the turnout was disappointing. I hope it gets a run in the UK. Even if it doesn’t, I am sure Israel will no longer be one of those countries that doesn’t make horror movies.

Rob Dickie