The Wicker Tree, Robin Hardy’s black-comedy “spiritual sequel” to his 1973 film The Wicker Man, was released in scattered theaters the other week, but anyone looking for a serious companion piece to the horror favorite might as well just turn to Kill List. The second film from Down Terrace’s Ben Wheatley, Kill List plays like an unsettling update and remix of Hardy’s original, winding in elements like deliberate pacing, a mask-wearing cult fond of sacrificial offerings, and a hero whose focus on the task for which he’s been hired keeps him from noticing he’s actually playing a very different role in a larger scheme. Instead of folk horror, Wheatley works in a realm that could be described as kitchen-sink scares, alternating segments of increasingly troubling violence with mundane disputes over finances and dinner-party fights spurred on by too much wine. The discordance and darkness grow as the film goes along, bleeding into the domestic scenes until the two meet in a hectic, surreal climax. While the sum of Kill List comes across as less than its parts, it offers some strikingly nightmarish imagery and a feel that’s reminiscent of an earlier, grittier era, yet at times sharply contemporary.
Neil Maskell stars a soldier who’s been out of work since a job went wrong in Kiev. As his wife (MyAnna Buring) frets over the family’s finances, he arranges to take on a series of three hits with his old partner and best friend (Michael Smiley). The two are clearly no strangers to contract killing, but things are strange about this job from the beginning, with the client insisting on sealing their contract in blood, and their victims thanking them before dying. It seems that Maskell’s made a more complicated deal than he understands, though he’s eager to adopt the role of righteous avenger. “It doesn’t feel wrong. They’re bad people. They should suffer,” he mutters after going bloodily above and beyond the task he was assigned. Wheatley expertly injects unease into prosaic moments with some vertiginous sound design that helps makes simple gestures into terrible ones—few films have ever made the act of waving so ominous. Though Kill List’s obliqueness sometimes seems more like messiness than deliberate, controlled mystery, its revelations about the monsters within, summed up in its dreadful final image, have a lasting resonance.