“I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker,” Stephen King was famously quoted as saying upon the publication of Barker’s Books of Blood in the mid-1980s. I might say the same about British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, whose four films in the last five years mark him as one of the most exciting, imaginative talents within and beyond the horror genre today.
Each of Wheatley’s films is difficult to categorize. His initial effort, Down Terrace (2009), is funny, dark, shocking and violent — an almost-claustrophobic look at a dysfunctional criminal family on the lower-middle-class edge of urban Brighton. Co-written by Robin Hill, who plays opposite his real-life father in their real family home, Down Terrace turns the usual gangster film on its head. Imagine a collaboration between Ken Loach and Martin Scorsese, and you might get an inkling of Down Terrace, an auspicious debut indeed.
Wheatley himself has categorized Kill List (2011) as a horror film, but pigeonholing it in a genre is a disservice to the film’s uniqueness. At the start, it might seem another domestic drama, but Kill List soon catapults its protagonists (and us) into a world of violence where no one and nothing is what it seems. Its two likable hit men, one a devoted family man, the other newly lovelorn, embark on an assignment to eliminate a list of undesirables, including a priest and a minister of Parliament. Co-written by Wheatley and his wife, Amy Jump, Kill List defies expectations in terms of plot. Eerie, comic, violent and disturbing, think Pulp Fiction meets The Wicker Man and you’re in the ballpark.
For his next film, like Down Terrace, Wheatley begins with protagonists who start out as ordinary likable losers of the lower-middle class.
Sightseers (2012), again co-written with Jump, is about a man who rescues his girlfriend from the clutches of her domineering, bedridden mother by taking her on a road trip to see the sights of rural England. Things quickly get predictably bloody in unpredictable ways. In no way a horror film except for the violence, Sightseers, like Wheatley’s prior two films, relies heavily on characterization and psychology. The unusual plotting is important, of course, but like all of Wheatley’s films so far, the narrative is secondary to character. Think Natural Born Killers on Vacation.
Wheatley’s most recent film, A Field in England (2013), has the most intriguing concept of all. Unfortunately, it’s also his least successful to date. Shot in black-and-white, with a script attributed solely to his wife, A Field in England is set in the 1700s during the Civil War between Cromwell and the Cavaliers. Despite the grand scope, the movie focuses on a handful of characters wandering across a remote field who become involved in a deadly contest of magic and alchemy. Elliptical to a fault (comic, bizarre and violent), the film nearly defies rational analysis.
Nonetheless, it is visually arresting and intellectually intriguing, well worth the time for viewers interested in unusual, challenging fare.
Ben Wheatley is an authentic original whose films transcend the usual definitions of genre. I can’t wait to see what he does next.