U.K. scarer finds new ways to unnerve viewers

It takes a lot to scare a film critic. We’ve seen too much; we know nearly all the tricks. So when a horror movie comes along and demonstrates a new way to unsettle, it’s not something to be taken lightly.

I’m thinking of “Kill List,” an insidiously effective stunner that seriously unnerves you in the moment, seeps into your subconscious over time and continues to haunt you in the months to follow. Here in the States, the South by Southwest breakout is still doing the festival rounds (Angelenos can catch it at AFI this weekend) before opening next February from IFC Midnight.

A modestly budgeted, cunningly constructed chiller from U.K. director Ben Wheatley, “Kill List” uses the raw kitchen-sink naturalism of his debut, “Down Terrace” (what “Reservoir Dogs” might have looked like had it been directed by Ken Loach), to make its twisted universe seem real, serving up irritable, entirely believable characters in situations that spiral increasingly far out as the picture unfolds.

Where other horror movies lean heavily on exposition, “Kill List” carves out all that context and plunges auds directly into its high-strung scenario. The film runs a tight 95 minutes, more or less evenly divided into three parts.

The first third feels a bit like one of those taxing “mumblecore” movies, where two middle-class white couples gather around a dinner table and vent their various frustrations. Then, roughly half an hour in, the mood changes. The two men branch off and go to work — which just so happens to be contract killing. But some hint of the opening segment lingers, providing an uneasy subtext to what should be a series of clean, professional hits.

One of the guys, Jay (Brit character actor Neil Maskell, who’s played many a hothead before), seems to enjoy the job a bit too much. A husband and father, he’s the closest thing to a hero the film has, presumably carrying out this series of increasingly brutal executions to support his family. The victims thank Jay before they die, connected in some way we can’t quite fathom.

That conspiracy takes over the final third, which carries the movie into its most frightening territory yet. Though horror fans will surely recognize aspects from countless British pics that have come before, the format has never been this scary. What Wheatley has done over the course of the preceding hour is establish a foundation of both brutality and believability for the insanity that follows.

Generically speaking, horror is by far the best platform for up-and-coming directors to showcase their abilities. For the last dozen years, the big innovators were “The Blair Witch Project,” which transcended its no-budget constraints through sheer ingenuity, and the so-called torture porn strain, characterized by unblinkingly graphic depictions of violence.

The former was like a gift to hopefuls, who recycled the fake found-footage gimmick in everything from “Paranormal Activity” to “Rec” to “The Last Exorcism” (and personal favorite “The Troll Hunter,” if only because it delivered the suspense and the spectacle others lacked). The latter sort attracted more criticism than praise, rarely justifying its bad taste with anything resembling social commentary (both “Hostel: Part II” and “The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence” were reviled for trying, tastelessly attacking fans of the originals).

Each style spawned many imitators, but few innovators, which makes “Kill List” all the more impressive. Wheatley synthesizes aspects of both techniques — unvarnished naturalism and dispassionate objectivity in the face of unspeakable horrors — to make the film’s incredible finale credible, showing precisely the right details for it to seem real while leaving enough to the imagination that the feeling actually follows you out of the theater.

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