Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.
31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!
Day 24: Kill List (2011)
When I started delving deeper into horror, Ben Wheatley was a name spoken with reverence. In my mind, it connected him inextricably with the genre. But when I finally delved into his work, it was his ability to traverse genres that struck me—the depraved comedy of Sightseers, the dystopic squalor of High-Rise, and soon the comic shoot-em-up Free Fire. Kill List is a standout of 2010s horror, but the very reason it works is how long it takes the horror to unfold.
Kill List has unexpectedly domestic beginnings; familial struggles, budget concerns, and a dinner party lead the film. Jay (Neil Maskell) is a father, husband, and troubled soldier, and there are hints that his previous missions were quite traumatic. Even as we sit at an increasingly uncomfortable dinner party, the seeds of the film’s final act are planted—small, curious moments that are not overly malicious nevertheless loom ominous.
A crime thriller emerges as the titular kill list comes to the fore, as Jay and his pal Gal (an ever-likable Michael Smiley) have names to strike off. As expected, something—some several things—are off. Those off moments become more pronounced, and the men on the list are not behaving as marked men should. First Wheatley leaves us unsettled; in the final act, he has us reeling.
There are several horrors to Kill List. The answer to the mystery, the true meaning of the kill list—that is the traditional horror. But even when we have some answers, there is still so much unknown. Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump always make audiences work, never creating something that can be wrapped up, neat and tidy. And that is often the worst (and thus best) part: The unknown. There is so much, even at the end, and in avoiding impulses for something easier, Kill List masters this.
Jay certainly doesn’t like the mystery. He lashes out. But in his anger, something awakens. He becomes more assertive, and he seems to have found something—and his transformation might be the most terrible development. Jay is a bum when we meet him, but this turns him into something much worse.
Wheatley’s work here with Jump is horror that truly horrifies, and it tightens the noose methodically, devastatingly, until we are wrung-out, spent. Its nihilism is not so overtly oppressive as the genre’s more notorious inhumane fare. The ends aren’t revealed until the final scene, which is what makes it so devastatingly effective.
Much like another recent favorite of horror mavens, Ti West’s The House Of The Devil, Kill List is a masterstroke because of how it succeeds. It’s methodical, and its pacing develops artfully. Its execution at the end capitalizes on everything it’s built, knocks home what it has been so carefully setting up. When art like this doesn’t work, it seems to land with more of a thud than an average misfire (see High-Rise, or even The Innkeepers, which I’m still quite fond of). It’s a high-risk, high-reward style; when it works, it’s transcendent.