BLOG: Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and My Unsettling Films List

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Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and My Unsettling Films List

Late last night I attended a packed screening of Kill List and to say that it fucked me up is to put it tres-fucking-mildly. Wheatley’s debut film Down Terrace is one of the true sleepers of the last decade, a crime film by turns loose and funny then disturbingly bloody and deeply unsettling, a truly unpredictable cinematic experience that even its detractors have to admire. With Kill List Wheatley ups the ante considerably. Though not comedic in the amiable way that much of Down Terrace is, it’s often a funny film and more traditionally paced, but its overall effect on the viewer is even more agonizing. There’s no walking away from Kill List without feeling like someone made you swallow some rusty nails

The story concerns itself with Jay, an ex-soldier whose finances are drying up and his wife Shel is giving him shit for it. He’s clearly unstable but he’s decent to his young son, though it’s a shame the boy has to see Jay fight with his mother so viciously. Like Down Terrace, much of the first act of the film concerns itself with extremely rocky domesticity, as we watch Jay and Shel argue and drink and host a shaky dinner party with Jay’s best friend Gal and his girlfriend Fiona. At the party Gal tells Jay that he can get them a decent contract from some rich, mysterious fellas, the job being to kill a priest, a librarian and an MP. Jay agrees to the work and we’re off on a disgustingly violent adventure, but not before the mysterious Fiona puts a strange marking on the back of Shel and Jay’s bathroom mirror…

To say much more than that is risking fucking with the many surprises to be had in Kill List, but I will say that the film is just as much a horror film as it is a crime picture. Whether it completely comes together for you in the end is up to how much ambiguity you can stand, but the journey will be far from fucking boring, I guarantee you. The final revelation made someone in the audience I saw it with scream out “Oh no!” and there were a couple walk-outs – and this was in a film festival screening as part of the midnight movie program, where you’d think folks would be ready for a bit of fucked-uppery. Also, there’s a hammer scene that somehow manages to put the elevator scene in Drive to shame in terms of nasty head trauma.

But even with that vague shit I’ve just spilled I feel like I’m getting close to spoiling some of the films grotesque charms, so how’s about we do some listifying instead. Who doesn’t like lists? Fucking nobody, that’s who. (Negatives, consider yourselves doubled.) Here are some of the films that’ve left me feeling the most unsettled after viewing them that I can recall.

Palindromes (2004) Todd Solondz loves making people uncomfortable – it’s kind of his thing. Storytelling, Happiness and its sequel Life During Wartime, Welcome to the Dollhouse – all films that will leave you queasy and uneasy. But though I think it might be the least successful of his films, Palindromes takes the cake for making me feel absolutely sick. The film is mainly remembered for casting numerous actresses in the part of the main character, a young girl navigating her way through a scary world of religious zealots and paedophiles, but what will always stay with me is a particular scene in the film.

There’s a moment near the end where our heroine is in a motel room her much older boyfriend who has just botched the murder of a doctor who performs abortions, killing the man’s child instead. He’s in absolute despair, reeling from what he’s done, and he cries out, “How many times can I be saved?” It’s a great, sardonic line, but Stephen Adly Guirgis’ performance makes it cut you in half. Never has guilt and anguish, something we noir fans are often attracted to in much of crime fiction, come across so powerfully to me in a film, nor made me feel like I was the one who pulled the trigger.

Hard Candy (2005) I actually fucking hated this film, but because I hated it so much and it made me so fucking angry and upset, I can’t help but begrudgingly admit it that David Slade’s film has some real power to it. It’s the story of a girl (played by a pre-Juno Ellen Page) who poses online as an innocent and naive kid to attract a sexual predator played by Patrick Wilson. Once he’s got her home though she reveals that she’s some sort of paedophile murdering vigilante, turning the tables on Wilson and making him suffer for his crimes.

There’s an extended scene in the movie of an off-screen, not graphic-in-the-slightest castration that had me sweating and checking to make sure my balls were still there the whole time, that’s both a feat of cinematic craft but also, you know, the cheapest way to make a man get light-headed. But what really made this movie linger was how disturbingly quickly I came to hate the Page character and start actually rooting for Wilson’s depraved child-murdering rapist. It’s a disturbing trick Slade pulls off, but I’m not quite sure it was truly his intent with the film. Actually, wait, this may say more about me than the director…

In My Skin (2002) This French film from writer-director-star Marina de Van follows a young, intelligent, successful woman with a dark secret: she is a cutter. Shot in a cold, Kubrickian style, In My Skin starts with her using instruments that don’t leave scars on herself, the hero merely fantasizing about taking apart her body. But events devolve until we’re knee-deep in the blood and skin she has lovingly, blissfully separated for herself, her eyes glowing with ecstasy as she licks her wounds and peels them back with her teeth. I’m all for a good torture-porn flick, but rarely does gore actually unnerve me. This thoughtful, austere approach to the gore and madness makes the body-horror linger well past the “oh shit!” moments.

The White Ribbon (2009) Speaking of Kubrickian, no list of unsettling films could possibly be complete without Michael Haneke’s name being tossed around some. Some viewers loathe the way Haneke fucks with audience expectations and dispassionately abuses his characters, but I’m almost always sucked in by his films, even though I know he will always punish me for whatever good old-fashioned movie thrills I’m deriving from his ART in capital fucking letters. Funny Games, Cache (Hidden), Code Unkown, The Piano Teacher - I’ve loved and “hated” them all, but The White Ribbon has lasted with me the longest simply for its stark, quietly horrific tone and mood.

Set in a quiet German Protestant town in the days before World War I, the film follows many characters in the community as they react to a rash of bizarre, violent occurrences taking place. We never know fully who the perpetrators are (it’s a Haneke movie, after all), but we’re fairly it’s all been done by the children of this town, Haneke possibly making a point about the generation that let Hitler take power. Shot in gorgeous black and white, Haneke manages to make every scene drip with dread and potential for shocking violence, and he does the creepy kid cliché better than any traditional horror movie ever. But what really makes The White Ribbon stand out from the rest of Haneke’s stomach-churning filmography is that you actually care deeply about many of the characters.

Audition (1999) Takashi Miike has made plenty of films that are extreme or graphic, but not a lot of them that are truly disturbing. Audition, with its strangely light and lively first half and truly fucked up home stretch, never lets you feel safe. We follow a widower who uses his film industry contacts to set up an audition for a date, the girls thinking it’s for a big role but the widower just looking for the right woman. But it soon turns out the perfect girl for the part may have some secrets of her own. Miike has put scenes on film far more disgusting than the one in the third act, but few as powerful in their depiction of torture. By teasing it for over and hour only to hit us squarely in the balls for a half hour, he created his most effective and consistent film, and also (say it with me!) his most unsettling.

But what movies have stayed with you, left you feeling like you hung your head over the railing and stared down at the bottom a thousand feet below for too long? Okay, other than Jack and Jill, wiseass.


  1. John says:

    Wasn’t Guirgis’ line, “How many times can I be Born Again?”
    If it wasn’t, it should have been!

  2. Ray Banks says:

    I’d probably put Pasolini’s SALO and either of the Gaspar Noe movies I’ve seen, SEUL CONTRE VOUS and IRREVERSIBLE. Oh, and A SERBIAN MOVIE. I get ‘em, I understand ‘em, but I never want to see ‘em again.

  3. Ray Banks says:

    Yikes, that should be A SERBIAN FILM.

  4. Nerd of Noir says:

    IRREVERSIBLE is a great choice, a movie where it’s not just the rape and violence that’ll make you queasy but the film’s style in general. Haven’t done SERBIAN or SALO, not in any hurry either.

  5. Adrian Stone says:

    Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer is a film which I love and recommend to all my friends, but it will be decades before I watch it again.

    I know most have come to love it, but Se7en is a very disturbing film. I know many people who refuse to re-watch it. Not because they disliked it, but because it took something from them which they will never, ever have again. It was the great cock which tricked audiences into theaters for a thrilling but innocent date, only to leave them without the cerebral hymens they had so lovingly protected. It was the rape of a million people, yet most everyone seems to have repressed uncle Fincher’s wicked fingers.

    I agree with you about all the films you mentioned, but a few others to check out are:

    Black Sun; The Nanking Massacre
    Guinea Pig: The Devil’s Experiment (Gore-porn, yes, but the first to do it the correct way)
    Tooth Fairy 2. I’ve never seen it, but its very existence is far more disturbing than any film yet.