Murder-bound: Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley in Kill List (2011)
While Schlock Magazine gets its ‘Monster March’ on the road, I troop away with my own, this time with a cold, hard aspiring cult classic.
Was it Harold Bloom who said that a ‘strong’ new literary entry has the power to alter even its predecessors in some way? Not name-dropping a theorist to up my cultural capital, and neither can I say I fully understand the above assertion, but it popped into my head as I finally watched Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011). The reason it popped into my head is because I couldn’t help but compare it to a later – and American – iteration of the same themes and character dynamics: the first season of HBO’s True Detective (2013). Seen this way it’s certainly a haunting matrix of fears and anxieties. As in True Detective, you’ve got fraught male bonding – scarred and identified by both traumatic history and a looming mid-life crisis. And spoiler alert here, but both properties also deal with filmed horrific acts distributed through underground networks, informed and capped off by a mass boogeyman in cult form.
American Gothic: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective
The British variant of said cult is culled from the pagan imagery of homegrown classic The Wicker Man (1973), where True Detective clearly takes a cue from sadly enduring but eminently exploitable Ku Klux Clan imagery. If their similarities are thematic, their differences are narrative and stylistic. A common complaint with True Detective was that it got bloated and keeled over towards the end: the suspense and occult intrigue proved to be a game of hurried smoke and mirrors on the part of the – inexperienced – writer and showrunner Nic Pizzolato’s part. Of course, being a lean feature film, Kill List doesn’t have that to worry about, but it’s also a crueler beast. There is no sentimental arc for either of its protagonists to fall back on, and its grisly denouement leaves no window open for the mismatched happy ending afforded to True Detective.
Prelude to a Burning: Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973)
“You’re cogs,” the protagonists of Kill List are informed at one point. The cults at the centre of both Kill List and True Detective are a grotesque reminder of how an attempt at heroism and exceptionalism can be undermined by this persistent aspect of the human psyche. Monsters are at their worst when they get organised.
No agency: The patchwork creations of Frankenstein’s Army are a perverted steampunk fever dream
While Schlock Magazine gets its ‘Monster March’ on the road, I troop away with my own, starting with a shit-and-mud caked gem.
That there is something both liberating and enslaving about the monster is a well-worn trope in both popular culture and popular discussion. ‘You take something away, you get something back’ is part of it: monstrosity can signify exclusion and enslavement, but by that same token it can also mean that the monster is freed from the rat race of day-to-day existence. By destiny or design, the monster is plunged into a skewed world, which can yield to plenty of advantages if they play their cards right… that is, given that the monsters in question have any cards to play at all, or if they do, whether they have the cerebral capability to process the rules of the game in question.
The monsters of Frankenstein’s Army (2013) certainly have zero agency. Nazi cyborg grunts for the titular Josef-Mengele like throwback to Mary Shelley’s famous doctor, they shuffle along, showing off their freshly grafted bodily modifications with automated – but still menacing – glee. What’s more interesting though is Dr Frankenstein’s (Karel Roden) justification for his experiments… at least, the justification we’re given at the end, which feels like a hurried, tacked-on thematic appendage suited both to his in-film creations and the meta-film’s messy raison d’etre.
Frankenstein, you’re barmy: Karel Roden as the titular mad scientist
The fascists he – ostensibly – works for and under are “insane”, Frankenstein admits. But so are communists and capitalists. he declares. His creations, on the other hand, made entirely of the human contradictions that lead to war, can in fact be used to smooth the same contradictions out. The scene in which the doctor attempts to collage a fascist brain with a communist one is an explicit illustration of this, of course, but it’s also a reminder of how vulgar pulp can remind us of what monsters are ‘for’ in the first place.