Like most auteurs, director Ben Wheatley can’t be pigeonholed. Calling him a horror director is like saying Werner Herzog makes biopics. Same would go for science fiction, which classifies Wheatley about as easily as it does David Cronenberg.
Cronenberg may be Wheatley’s best antecedent; a director talented beyond genre whose work touches genre and reinvents it sometimes (The Fly) yet never lets you forget how far out he can go (Crash, Dead Ringers) into his own weird shit. If that connection still seems off, take into account that (aside from Spielberg’s safe choice of Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, essentially Ballard’s childhood memoir) only Cronenberg and Wheatley have taken on Ballard’s meta-fiction and emerged with OK or better results: Cronenberg with Crash, and Wheatley with High-Rise.
Both directors know Jeremy Irons is well-cast as a messed-up genius only barely suppressing violent urges. Hopefully, Wheatley plans to re-cast Irons amid his stable of talented regulars (Michael Smiley, etc).
For Cronenberg, Ballard’s Crash posed an opportunity to further investigate the “New Flesh” of Videodrome. For Wheatley, Ballard’s a bigger thematic fish to fry, in that Ballard’s work offers a vehicle for driving further into the longstanding British isssue of class. Wheatley’s films often explore (and explode at) those moments when class fails to bottle human savagery. In a less culturally British production, like Wheatley’s forthcoming Free Fire, this translates to those moments humans become uncivilized, out of either exteme necessity, or due to madness. For more insight into Wheatley’s aims, especially visually, check out his list of five favorite films.
As for directly tackling genre, Wheatley’s “U for Unearthed” segment ranks as one of the best 26 short films in the horror compendium The ABCs of Death (streaming on Netflix now). If someone doesn’t give Wheatley cash to reinvent the supernatural horror film, he ought to go ahead on his own. Hardcore horror fans don’t ever forget good product, even if it fails at the box office.
With five feature films (not counting Free Fire), I can see it maybe unfair to rank Wheatley’s work so early, but it gives an article structure, you know? Plus, in no way does being ranked, last, indicate poor quality. Free Fire is not included; it was only previewed at the Toronto International Film Festival as recently at September 8, and has a 2017 release calendared in Europe. An American premiere announcement awaits, but the film’s high-profile cast (for Wheatley) means someone liked High-Rise enopugh to let him try again, and that we won’t have to wait too long to see Free-Fire in America. Until then, you have all of these, or any of Wheatley’s Doctor Who episodes.
5. High-Rise (2015)
I wanted this to be better, and I suspect the surreal, dystopian trappings that made Ballard’s book work either had to be whole-hog embraced, or not, but to embrace them would result in the type of difficult film that doesn’t get funded, or stars cast.
High-Rise has excellent moments, nonetheless, from Tom Hiddleston‘s squash court scenes with Jeremy Irons, to Luke Evans killing a dog in a pool, to Wheatley’s perfect use of Krautrock (Amon Düül 2, Can) as a score, which isn’t surprising given Wheatley’s features always include sharp music choices. Evans, as a rabble-rousing, working class tenant, finally gets a non-action film role to show off his real acting training. Elizabeth Moss and Sienna Miller put in solid performances. If you’re looking for insight on the 1970s European urbanization blues, better time would be spent watching this:
4. A Field in England (2013)
During England’s 17th century civil war, army deserters encounter a sadistic alchemist (Michael Smiley again) who forces them to search for buried treasure. Their titular field features special mushrooms, which are eaten. Wheatley lets black and white film images and a feeling of overall menace trump plot here, for the most part, and I would caution that this film is fan-only. This fan liked it a good bit, however, and if you’re not yet a fan, and looking for some late-night psychotropic madness, this works like a cross between Aquirre, Wrath of God and Paul Auster‘s The Music of Chance. Another quick shoot, and a simultaneous release on all formats, it was completed before SightSeers but released afterward. Wheatley’s cast of just six men and the voice of a woman contains many of his regulars.
3. Sightseers (2012)
If you love animals more than normal, don’t watch the beginning of Sightseers. Yet there’s no better way to frame the sad, lonely existence of homebody character Tina (Alice Lowe, also in Kill List – and she steals Sightseers outright) who meets Chris (Steve Oram, also in Kill List) via a dating site. She joins him on a sightseeing holiday only to discover he’s somewhat … homicidal. Rather than bolt, Tina wavers between helping Chris kill more people or returning to a possibly worse life. You know: Bonny and Clyde, if Clyde was David Berkowitz. Thelma and Louise, if Thelma was Aileen Wuornos.
Not quite a tackle of the serial killer genre, Sightseers isn’t a formal satire, either. Satire would rob the dramatic turns allowed by black comedy. Edgar Wright of the The Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy nonetheless produces, since Sightseers does satirize the very English activity of sightseeing trips into the countryside as much as it satirizes serial killing. Sometimes, especially at end, Sightseers becomes an effective parable of romance among the alienated. Plus, the use of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” and Vanilla Fudge’s version of the same song is the rare equivalent of a movie breaking the fourth wall with its soundtrack.
2. Down Terrace (2009)
For his first feature, Wheatley made one of the best crime family films I’ve seen, but not how you think. “Crime” or “family” don’t begin to describe a film at turns funny, blood-curdling, and sad in equal measure. Imagine Mike Leigh doing a cockney-thug Curb Your Enthusiasm; Tom Stoppard doing an episode of The Sopranos. Shot in eight days without borrowing any money, Down Terrace follows family patriarch Bill and his son Karl (played by actor Robert Hill and his real-life son Robin Hill, both excellent) returning from prison eager to discover the snitch who sent them away. If you were expecting gun play and muscle, don’t; Bill is an old folkie of the Fairport Convention ilk, and lacks all verbal social grace.
Bill’s son Karl is a 30 year-old striped-shirt wearing medicated man-boy prone to childlike, non-violent temper tantrums. Karl’s wife is pregnant, and slowly realizing her familial dilemma. Matriarch Maggie (Julia Deakin) seems to be helping, but might be stirring the pot. Michael Smiley is especially good as a silly yet sadistic associate. To say suspicion tears this family apart is an understatement.
1. Kill List (2011)
Spookiest British film since the original The Wicker Man.
I almost want to stop there. But OK, a synopsis:
Fresh from British soldiering and struggling with unemployment, not to mention PTSD, Jay (Neill Maskell, also in High Rise) has returned to Sheffield. Out of financial desperation, he resumes his pre-military career as a small-change hit man along with partner and ex-co-soldier Gal ( … Michael Smiley). Assigned by an odd, rich client to kill three people (the list!), things get creepy when their victims, right before dying, each eagerly thank Gal and Jay for killing them. That’s only the tip of the bloodburg. Saying you won’t expect the ending is almost a spoiler itself.