The Hunchback: Folk Horror viewed through Ben Wheatley's Kill List


The Hunchback: Folk Horror viewed through Ben Wheatley's Kill List

                                                                    by Nathan Tyree

“Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There's no real magic ever.”

-         Martin


    When I was a child, I would play with my cousins in the forest near my home. It was a wondrous place full of shifting light and undiscovered terrain that opened itself to everything we could dream or imagine. Once we found a stone fireplace and chimney just setting in a small clearing like an artefact that had no business being where it was. It was like finding an office building on the moon. An impossible question. Now, as an adult, I understand that there had once been a house there. It had been demolished or burned but that stone chimney survived. Nobody wanted to rebuild and there was no reason to tear down the last bit, so that fireplace just waited for us to find it.


Then, it was pure magic. The idea of a house never entered our minds. Instead, we talked of who would have constructed it there. What would have constructed it there? Were there people, ancient and savage and strange, living in those woods? Did they light a fire when the moon was full? What sort of dark ritual drew them? We talked until our own words filled us with terror and we ran out of the woods and back to my house.


That, at its root, is what FOLKHORROR is.  It is the belief that once there was magic and that that magic was dark, and sharp, and hungry and that even if it is gone now, it hasn’t gone far.


The standard examples of Folk Horror are The Wicker Man (1973), Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), but the genre has had a major resurgence of late with films like The VVitch, A Field in England, The Ritual, Gretel and Hansel, Gaia, In the Earth,  They Remain, Midsommar and others. The film I want to focus on for this piece is Kill List.


I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one of them kneels to another or to his own kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one of them is respectable or unhappy, all over the earth.


-     Lord Summerisle, The Wicker Man

Kill List was directed by Ben Wheatley from a script he co-wrote with Amy Jump. It stars Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley as two slightly over the hill contract killers preparing for the very cliché ‘one last job’.



We’ve seen that set-up before. We should probably be tired of it by now, and yet we keep coming back. We come back because we hope to be tricked. The reveal we always want is the morally compromised, haggard, tough guy sacrificing himself for a good cause. Think Creasey in Man on Fire (not to go down too much of a rabbit trail here, but there is a moment in Tony Scott’s Man on Fire where Denzel Washington looks at Christopher Walken and asks, “do you think god will forgive us for the things we’ve done?” and Walken, without a hint of emotion simply says “no”. That is almost exactly where Maskell and Smiley are in Kill List, but never mind).

The two (because they need money badly) take a job that requires that they kill three men.  Jay (Maskell) and Gal (Smiley) seem to have different reasons. Jay’s wife is angry that he hasn’t worked in eight months and that they money has run out.  Gal seems to really like the work.


The first target is a priest. When he sees Jay, there is recognition and joy on the priest’s face and he humbly thanks Jay for killing him.  This is where we first understand that this may not be the film we signed up for.


“This high my fire. No higher. No hotter!

-      Midsommar


The second target is “The Librarian”. He oversees a collection of video tapes that are “sickening” and horrible. The exact nature of the videos is never revealed but given jay’s reaction and the type of person he is; they must be something more than murder. We assume that they involve children.  The Librarian also thanks Jay, while being tortured. Jay then beats the man to death with a hammer.





The killers then hunt down associates of the Librarian and kill them.

The final target is a Member of Parliament. While doing recognizance, watching the house from the woods that surround it, they witness a strange ritual which culminates in a human sacrifice.  Jay reacts badly and starts shooting the cultists. He kills the leader and several others before the remaining few chase Gal and jay into a series of tunnels.  Gal does not survive the tunnel, but Jay does.

He flees to his family cottage where his wife and son are waiting.


The Cultists find them there and knock jay unconscious. He awakes in the woods, wearing a mask. He is attacked by “The Hunchback” and masked and robed figure, hunched over and misshapen. After a brutal fight, Jay manages to kill the assailant only to find that it was his wife with their son strapped to her back. This is a repeat of an early image in the film where Jay had a pretend sword fight with his wife and child, the boy riding his mother’s back.



Jay shows no emotion as the cultists place a crown upon his head.

In Folk Horror, we are accustomed to the outsider being lured in, think of sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) in The Wicker Man.  Jay is lured, but not to a new place. And not, as Howie was, to be a sacrifice. Perhaps the closest things we have seen to this ending are Hereditary, Midsomer, and The VVitch. In all three of those films the protagonist is elevated and the ending can be viewed as happy, at least from a very specific point of view.  We could, if we stretch, see something Nietzschean in this tale. Jay has to defeat his own conception of morality (“slave morality” as good ole Nietzsche would call it) in order to ascend to the point where he can only be bound by “Master Morality”. To become the Ubermensch .  He looked into the abyss, and it not only looked back, but bade him welcome. He fought monsters to become the monster.



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