The ruinous nature of neo-folk horror cinema
Grace Britten explores Ben Wheatley’s Kill List through a contemporary lens, highlighting the brutal discourse and exposing its neo-folk commentary…
At the core of folk horror is an anatomising lens that imparts cruelty and unleashes a stringent terror using the guise of isolation and rurality as a device to permeate a socially realist tone whilst still shielding a sense of fantasticality. Indeed, folklore has been used in worldwide storytelling for decades now, but the essence of its basic characteristics within westernised cinema is partly owed to classic British horror. Mark Gatiss popularised the phrase referring to the staple films from British folk horror as being part of the ‘unholy trinity’. The trilogy consists of Witchfinder General (1968, Michael Reeves), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971, Piers Haggard), and The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy). At its core, the unholy trinity is the most precise example of what makes folkloric films hauntingly menacing. It’s the tainted land, the secrets hidden beneath the ground, the outsider met with contention, and most significantly, it’s the erosion of the self that defines these mystifying and enchanting films.
Appropriately, the term folk horror varies with every culture, particularly British cinema. The homegrown horror in Britain keeps harshness in its peripherals, as well as a brooding sense of growing tension that never necessarily reaches an over-expositional peak. Secrets are kept secret, and revelations are rare. Quite possibly one of the most important, and renowned filmmakers leading the forefront of contemporary folk horror is Ben Wheatley. His films harvest an unexpected atmosphere that combines odd character subjects and off-kilter atmospheres to harness great fear, with works such as Sightseers (2012) and A Field in England (2013) working with the ubiquitous woes of the English countryside, and the strange things it makes people do.
Truly pioneering the pinnacle of modern folk horror is Wheatley’s Kill List (2011). The film chronicles Jay (Neil Maskell), an ex-soldier who has been in mental and physical tatters since an unspecified job in Kyiv went array, also leading to a breakdown in his marriage to Shel (MyAnna Buring). As a last resort to motivate Jay back into employment, she organises a dinner party with his fellow ex-army confidant Gal (Michael Smiley), who brings his new partner Fiona (Emma Fryer), along for the night. As heated conversations grow into arguments, Jay unleashes his anger over the cutthroat job market. In hopes of resolution, Gal convinces Jay to join him on a triple contract killing. Following a brief sting of hope that Shel will finally get her husband back and normality will soon be restored, it is unveiled that Jay and Gal’s mission harbours a sinister secret.
Appropriately assumed from the context of Jay’s outburst at the dinner party is the notion that his fragility comes from his ostracised positioning. He cannot maintain a harmonious marriage and a steady financial status, influencing a catalyst for feral aggression to be exhumed. It’s here where Kill List bleeds the extremities of the folk genre to exacerbate the roots of primal terror.
Folkloric work cultivates the brutal psychodynamics of its generalised themes, marrying horror with the mundane. From the forefront, Jay lives in a generously sized house, he has a beautiful wife and a young child, as well as having served his country in an ongoing war. It’s a peaceful painting. However, lying beneath the surface is domestic entanglements, where the couple spews lively abuse at one another, tiptoeing into the borders of physical violence. Jay is an outsider, not lost in a vast wilderness with satanic presences, but instead within his own home and mind with people he has chosen to include in his life.
The kill list prescribed by a somewhat elitist institution to Jay and Gal has three targets. A priest, a librarian, and a Member of Parliament. Each objective performs as a vehicle for Kill List’s triptych-like portrayal of woe. Dispensing these orders is an elder gentleman credited as The Client (Struan Rodger), with a menacing grin surrounded by burly bodyguards who stand over Jay and Gal, watching as The Client forces a blood signature to seal the contract. It is later revealed that this crew belongs to a larger organisation outside the walls of the grandiose manor where the contract was made. As the film reaches its finale a particularly stifling truth is revealed as the bloody climax lifts the veil on the organisation. The contract was a ploy, a dark ploy. In fact, the elder aristocrat, his henchmen, and Fiona all belong to a cult. Everything was a facade, with Fiona seemingly dating Gal as a task to complete the ritual. Although Wheatley beautifully refuses to divulge every detail, including the ‘why’s and what for’s, the ending implies that Jay is made a member of the cult.
With an emphasis on Wheatley’s appropriation of traditionalist folk horror, the film’s killings are a deliberate metaphor; akin to steppingstones in expressing Jay’s chaotic journey and highlighting the ramifications that come from folk horror. With Jay’s ostracisation, any sense of normality or what he should deem as pleasant is ruled by a dark cloud. During his and Gal’s reunion at the dinner party, Jay eventually protests and launches into his familiar pattern of barking abuse. Whilst at a hotel restaurant with Gal, Jay lashes out at a nearby table for singing religious ballads, with the tempered Jay going as far to hurl expletives in front of the establishment before smashing the group’s guitar to smithereens. He is continuously melancholic amidst backgrounds of potential joy.
Amidst the archetypes found in folk horror, one device that is continuously weaponised is the ploy of otherness and the threat that the countryside and the unfamiliar holds over modernity. For example, In The Wicker Man, the titular lead Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), arrives in Summerisle to investigate a mysterious disappearance, yet his authoritative status and power back on his normal territory are no match for the habitants of Summerisle. He is an unknowing man who dares not step a foot out of line, with deadly traditions lying in his future.
The Summerisle occupants do not hold the power to destroy, instead, it is the land which has become so anthropomorphised that it wields its tenants to commit whatever deed it sees fit. Both enhancing and violating this rite of passage seen in traditional folkloric horror is Kill List’s contemporary trajectories that inflame similar symbolism but in a drastically more obtrusive and confronting light. Folklore films thrive in the abundance of confusion felt by the outsider, aligning the ‘visiting’ characters’ mental state with confusion and inexperience with the laws of the land. This exact reflection thrives in Kill List. However, the rural is substituted for the self. The more Jay is positioned amongst the familiar company, the home, and warmth, he negatively reacts and eventually shrinks into the shadows of doubt.
Jay has not migrated from a metropolitan lifestyle into a small village where whispers and side eyes are catapulted his way. Instead, his journey of ex-communication is created by his own dismal, self-inflicted seclusion. Wheatley overhauls folk horror tropes to entice modern fears into the narrative. Kill List is set against the backdrop of post-recession Britain, where citizens are still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. The socio-political landscape was claustrophobic and taxing on its victims. Jay and Shel’s economic wealth is far from passive, but the material evidence suggests that this has not always been the case. They own a sizeable house with a jacuzzi to complete their spacious garden, as well as owning a second residence in the countryside. However, with Jay having been unemployed for 8 months, their cash flow is nearly barren. Jay stands for the modern man, masquerading any emotion other than rage as a means to echo will and strength as he battles on with his regretful job. The hitmen do not seem to relish in the killings, alternatively, the rhetoric reigns a monotonous attitude over the tasks. The basic agency that one should withhold over their own fate is denied to Jay, and due to the domestication of economic woes, he has to resort back to violence.
Kill List proposes Jay’s tenacious shackling to violence as a leap to freedom, almost intrinsically connected to a higher power, something out of his control. He was not robbed or has not suffered a direct theft of his assets by criminal definition. Yet, at the apex of his and Shel’s worries is the lack of control orchestrated by the economical engineering at the time. Folk horror’s origins lay within the grounds of fear of modernity. This subgenre rose in popularity in the 1960s as a reaction to the hippie movement that dominated the counterculture at the time. The younger generation was the first not to be automatically conscripted into war, resulting in a rise in socialism, environmentalism, and liberalisation. The foundations of which paved the way for clashes of traditionalism vs modernity.
Fast forward several decades to the 2010s, the viewer no longer needs to be concerned about the rise in modernity as the modern chassis had already gained the status that would have made early folk characters recoil in terror. Kill List propagates a recycled look at otherness as being not aligned with cosmopolitan status but as the opposite. As previously stated, as Jay nears financial freedom, a reformed kinship with Gal, and less turbulence in his marriage, the closer he becomes to a disastrous fate. It should be the other way around. In Kill List’s mythos, Jay’s remoteness increases at the promise of a brighter future.
The fear felt in Kill List via jay is not at the threat of modernity taking over, but it’s at the fear of coming back to simpler times, the fear of simply enjoying life. He has already been bitten by the harsh climate, and he is not ready to trust the system once more. Jay is not expressive unless it is through violence. Where this credence of Jay’s fate truly gains traction is within the final act. After completing the first two hits on the list, Jay and Gal move on to their final objective, an MP. The finale sees the duo head to a nondescript forest located at the back of the MP’s lavish manor. It is here where the crux of connections between Kill List and neo-folk cinema are made, with the wilderness, dramatic sacrificial herd, and shocking ending pronounce the film’s haunting musculature.
It is during Jay and Gal’s stakeout that the ludicrousness of the MP’s far-from-humble abode prompts them to question why one person would need to acquire such a seismically regal property. Jay and Gal must commit murder for a living, with their conversation over the MP’s land initiating a resentment over the presumed easiness of the unknown politician’s life. The chronic placement of the recession-heavy background within Kill List implies that both former soldiers (who have fought for their country) are being thanked with emotional and financial redundancy. Jay and Gal may have to kill to survive in their current economic landscape, but the exact same can be said for the likes of the MP. The reign of government has additionally besieged souls themselves, but for sport rather than necessity.
Within the original wave of folk horror, a common practice was the belief that sacrifice both freed and corrupted whatever power it wished. For example, in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the film’s cult performs gruesome rituals on its victims to manifest Behemoth, an ancient demon. Whilst the film’s ending rids evil and restores normality, what remains are scars from the cult’s vicious attacks. In a sense, evil has left its mark, no matter the riddance. Kill List reignites this planting of tenacious immorality through the guise of the film’s cult.
Whilst Jay and Gal wait for the opportunity to cease the MP, a crew of chanting, naked, masked cult members arise from the shrubbery before chasing the pair down into an underground tunnel. During the pursuit Gal is torn apart, barely clinging on to life, leaving Jay to euthanise his close friend. However, rather than Wheatley closing the curtain, the film shoots another dagger by positioning Jay in the worst sacrifice of them all. In a frenzied panic, Jay meets Shel at their cottage to hide from the deadly cult, only to discover that their haven has already been infiltrated. Donned with a straw-like mask and armed with a knife, Jay must fight a cloaked, arched figure in the middle of the cult circle. Eventually Jay stabs his component to death, only to discover that the unknown fighter was Shel with their child strapped to her back.
In what can only be described as a heartbreakingly contentious scene, a stark observation is made. With the entire contract being a ploy to invest Jay’s interests and lead him into completing his familial annihilation, a direct correlation between folkloric predetermined doom and divinity is made. As previously informed, the discussion of Jay’s lack of funds and seediness behind the corporal greed that bestowed that fate upon him is extremely relevant to Kill List’s final statement regarding permanent societal misplacement.
From the moment the hit list was introduced, Jay was doomed. Even when he tried to break away from the destined plan set in place by the cult’s higher power, he ended up having to complete the contract. Within the context of Kill List’s time and setting, Britain’s economic breakdown ensued its own contract. The casualties of the recession were on a metaphorical kill list. Wheatley took the zeitgeist of the 1970s fears towards socialism and flipped the fears to capitalism. Through an updated lens, what concerns neofolk horror now is the premise of belonging to a higher presence that has the will to control your every move, akin to a cult that enforces blood-signed kill contracts between two hitmen who have fallen on hard times.