Slashbacks: Kill List/Mama

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-08-03 23:08
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Welcome to Slashbacks, a new (semi) regular column commemorating 10 years of OTH. For this month’s edition, I revisited a couple of movies that left me cold the first time around…



Kill List (2011)



Out of the handful movies where I’ve found myself out-of-step with fellow horror fans this decade, Kill List is the one I’ve been most eager to revisit. Not only did it arrive with a ton of buzz back in 2011, but it’s continued to grow in stature since its release. When it’s often cited as one of the decade’s best horror movies, I’m left wondering if I missed something the first time around. Don’t get me wrong: Ben Wheatley’s film was something I certainly appreciated the first time around—it’s just that I was left a little cold by it. Upon reflection—and a long overdue revisit—it strikes me that this is probably exactly how Kill List should strike you. It’s not an easy film to love, nor is it an easy one to even really enjoy since Wheatley seemingly crafted it with the express purpose of alienating the audience, putting them at both an emotional and thematic distance from the piece that can be frustrating.

It’s a film with many dots, none of which Wheatley is in any hurry to connect. The first third of the film feels like a recession-era exploration of economic and masculine anxieties, as ineffectual putz Jay (Neil Maskell) finds himself amidst domestic squalor. His wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) chastises him for his laziness, often pointing to the fact that he’s been out of work for eight months to needle him. His own son (Harry Simpson) even parrots his mother’s barbs and is often left wondering why his parents are so often at each other’s throats. To make matters worse, Jay’s asked to host a dinner party for his old war buddy and workplace associate Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend (Emma Fryer), a gathering that’s destined for disaster once Shel begins to mutter snide remarks.

There’s an awkward sort of intensity to the entire exchange that puts Kill List on edge, where it remains for the entirety of its runtime. It’s off-putting, and purposely so: these are not pleasant people whose company is to be enjoyed. Instead, we barely tolerate them, especially Jay and Gal, whose cryptic work comes into focus when the latter reveals the two have been offered a new job. Since leaving the battlefield, the two have become hitmen, and their latest assignment—their titular kill list—is dispatched by a cadre of mysterious men who provide nothing but names. Jay and Gal are shocked to discover their first target to be a priest; even more disconcerting is his reaction, as the man is weirdly at peace, going so far as to thank Jay just before he puts a bullet into the back of his head.

Something is obviously amiss here, and there’s a perpetual sensation of circling a drain as this duo unwittingly burrows even deeper into a conspiracy unfolding around them. Slowly but surely, Kill List just begins to feel overwhelmingly fucked up, even if the exact nature of this conspiracy is never made completely apparent. The only certainty is that Jay and Gal have stumbled into something awful, as their second assignment lands them squarely in the nest of some kind of twisted sex ring. Whatever they witness on a tape they discover is enough for Jay to take a hammer to the target’s skull, all while the man thanks his assassin. To their credit, Jay and Gal realize that none of this quite adds up and attempt to free themselves from their contract to absolutely no avail. After all, they’ve signed a blood pact, and their only way out is death.

So they push on, and Wheatley becomes increasingly cagey about the nature of their work. Hints—such as a recurring occult symbol and Gal’s bizarre, almost phantasmagoric girlfriend—emerge, foreshadowing the delirious third act turn, where the characters wander straight into a vintage British occult film, complete with masked cultists performing some mysterious, arcane ritual. The film reaches a fever pitch within a tunnel, where Jay and Gal fight for their lives without being afforded the moment to wonder why they’re doing so. Similarly, Wheatley sweeps the audience up in this breathless turn of events, sending them to ride shotgun on this downward spiral without much of a map. Some familiar signposts provide clues, but none completely illuminate the particulars of the events.

Obviously, that can be frustrating, and it was that frustration that colored—and perhaps still colors—my perception of Kill List. Wheatley’s elliptical storytelling asks you to do a lot of the legwork here in stitching together the point of it all. Just what are we supposed to glean from watching these unconscionable brutes succumb to even more unfeeling and brutal forces? There is, perhaps, a dash of the dark, wry irony guiding much of Wheatley’s work in the stunning climax, wherein the spiraling threads of Jay’s toxic masculinity and the film’s enigmatic mysticism converge with the suggestion that the latter has paradoxically satiated the former. It’s only through vague, old world occultism and barbarism that Jay is able to finally embrace the primal urges that have been dulled by suburban life. Like a caged animal finally unleashed, he becomes enraptured by the surrounding throng as he takes center stage in a horrific ritual he knows nothing about. Indulging these barbaric impulses will cost him everything he’s supposed to care about, leading viewers to the suggestion that this is man’s natural state: unloosed, feral, and blood-soaked, with any and all familial and civilized ties severed.

But it’s just that: a suggestion, as a clear meaning never truly emerges. That wry streak isn’t nearly as pronounced as it is in some of Wheatley’s other work, leaving viewers wondering just how they’re supposed to take these final moments. Sympathy for Jay seems out of the question, yet Wheatley doesn’t quite play up his horrific climactic deeds as comeuppance, either. And maybe that’s the point of it all: that life is sometimes a grim, nihilistic pursuit of warring impulses that can’t live in harmony. A man like Jay is destined for violence: no matter how much he carries himself as an average joe who just wants to hang out in his Jacuzzi, he’s irrevocably drawn into the orbit of brutality. His ordeal in Kill List feels like damnation and salvation all at once, further muddying the thematic waters.

Maybe it’s supposed to be like that: if Wheatley’s subsequent work is any indication, he just doesn’t operate on the same wavelength as the rest of us. Even my two favorite films from him—Sightseers and A Field in England—are oblong and obtuse in their own way, almost as if he’s averse to the notion of someone being able to completely embrace them. His movies are jagged and slippery, nearly always just beyond arm’s reach—and that’s fine. I’m glad there’s a filmmaker out there of Wheatley’s caliber making strange, confrontational movies that resist easy consumption. A movie like Kill List should be tough to swallow: I certainly appreciate it more after a second look, but I’m not sure I really like it any more than I did the first time. Maybe that means I’m still left out in the cold, which is exactly where Wheatley wants me.



Mama (2013)



Mama is certainly a film that’s considered on different terms now than it was upon its release. Back in 2013, director Andres Muschietti was almost a footnote in the surrounding hoopla, as the prevailing narrative then highlighted Guillermo del Toro’s involvement in throwing his support behind this relatively unknown filmmaker, immediately raising the project’s profile. Inherent with that is a certain set of expectations: while history has taught us to be wary of iconic filmmakers simply serving as producers, it was hard not to get swept up in del Toro’s involvement, especially when Mama shared so much DNA with his work.

Now—and in generations to come—Mama will be regarded as the directorial debut of the guy who eventually helmed New Line’s adaptation of It, which, to be fair, still sets up certain expectations. At the least, seeing what Muschietti accomplished on that film provided ample reason to give Mama another shot, and I’m pleased to report back that it’s perhaps a tad more solid than I remembered. My prevailing memory of this film was the sensation that it sort of unravels down the stretch, when Muschietti literally gives up the ghost and Mama becomes an overblown shriek show. And while some of this still rings true, there’s still a lot to like in the setup and the climax that separate this one from the pack, if ever so slightly.

For starters, Muschietti crafts an impeccably tense—if not slightly unconventional—haunted house picture during the early-going. Terrific, unnerving performances from Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse as Victoria and Lilly Desange, a pair of sisters left in a disturbed state after being stranded alone in a remote cabin for five years. The girls, however, insist they weren’t alone at all, constantly referring to an entity known only as “Mama” that protected them once their father—who abducted them amidst his killing spree—wrecked their car and was mysteriously taken away by an unseen force all those years ago. Even though audiences are at least partially in on the truth (we know that something spectral exists), Muschietti creates an uneasy household when the girls are adopted by their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain), a well-meaning but underprepared couple who aren’t quite ready to deal with the situation they’ve taken on.

To be fair, nobody would be: both girls are withdrawn and bizarre, Lilly especially so. Most of the film’s early scares involve her, as she’s prone to feral outbursts, almost as if she’s now barely human. The horror genre has obviously seen its fair share of weirdo kids, but she’s one of the more indelible ones in recent memory because she’s never quite there: Nelisse gives this eerily vacant—yet still quite childlike—performance that’s harrowing in the way it ratchets up the tension in the home. Chastain—whose presence here lends an added layer of gravitas necessary for this type of movie to work—is left to bounce off of this, creating a sympathetic figure out of a maternal figure with few maternal instincts: her character actually doesn’t want kids, and she has doubts throughout this ordeal about her ability to care for these girls.

Where so many movies might take an unfavorable view of that by painting her as the monster, Mama is quite sensitive towards her plight, particularly when the girls’ aunt (Jane Moffat) fights for custody. For about half its runtime, Mama is an intense depiction of domestic turmoil, one that happens to feature some unnerving images (a fleeting shot of Lilly playing in her room with the unseen Mama is an all-timer) and some terrific Appalachian ambiance (more films should be shot and/or set here, as these rural, pine-shrouded hills are positively menacing).

Conventions practically demand that a movie like Mama eventually has to be less restrained, though, so we’re treated to obligatory subplots where characters uncover a sordid local legend involving a mental patient who abducted her child from a convent and committed suicide with the baby in her arms. A sort of boilerplate mythology fashioned from the Ring mold, it’s intriguing enough, especially since Muschietti indulges some striking imagery along the way, such as an entire first-person POV sequence where Chastain experience’s the mother’s final moments during a nightmare sequence. Mama herself is also quite an interesting figure, a sort of twisted wraith that helped put creature performer Javier Botet on the map. Whenever Mama is practically realized, she’s a pretty marvelous effect, if only because she looks so unreal (I’m pretty sure I mistakenly thought she was completely CGI during my first viewing).

Less effective, however, are the obviously computer-generated outbursts, as Mama eventually degenerates to a loud parade of jump scares, albeit on infused with Muschietti’s tremendous vision. He goes full gothic horror for a climax set in the thick of the Appalachian wilderness, a full moon bathing the proceedings in the otherworldly glow of a twisted fairy tale. It’s here that Del Toro’s influence feels most obvious, as Muschietti envisions this big, heart-on-its sleeve finale that imagines an empathetic sense of closure for both Mama and Lilly. He does so with a gutsy ending at that, one that acknowledges that some souls can never recover from trauma and can only find solace in each other. Neither Mama nor Lilly is quite meant for this earth after all, and Muschietti delicately balances both despair and hope with a bizarre resolution that doesn’t quite play by the book, at least not completely.

Interestingly enough, I dismissed Mama as a movie that felt like it was lost sometime in the early-aughts cycle of Ring knock-offs; in retrospect, it—along with the likes of Insidious—was actually a herald for the supernatural craze that’s still going strong now. About six months after Mama’s debut, James Wan would debut The Conjuring franchise, thereby cementing this phase’s foundation with the franchise that still persists as its standard-bearer. Mama hasn’t enjoyed that kind of legacy, but something tells me the future will be kinder to it: not only was it at the forefront of this resurgence, but it was also the first evidence of a visionary talent that could be a genre staple in the coming years.

Stay tuned throughout the year as Slashbacks revisits more titles reviewed during OTH’s first 10 years.
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