"Like Blue Velvet, River's Edge and Blood Simple, The Kill-Off is part of an American anti-tradition, looking at the no-exit claustrophobia of small-town life."
Maggie Greenwald's summing-up of her impressive second feature as a director is a little optimistic in terms of quality, and, to British audiences, her depiction of the bleak desperation in an out-of-season coastal resort might well seem closer to Mike Leigh than David Lynch. This is an adaptation of Jim Thompson's 1957 'cult classic' novel, and whenever Thompson is mentioned you can usually count on incest, murder and nihilism being just around the corner – his books have inevitably enjoyed much posthumous success since his death in 1977, and have been the source of films like Coup de Torchon and big-budget The Grifters, and The Kill-Off probably just makes it as the best Thompson adaptation to date. However, Greenwald radically alters Thompson's dead-end finale to suit her own feminist leanings, suggesting a spot of hopeful light among the overwhelming atmosphere of decay.
The story centres on the bedridden figure of the town gossip, a harpy in a ratty dressing-gown named Luane Devore, played to perfection by the scary Loretta Gross. She knows everybody's secrets and has the telephone wires sizzling with scandal, although interestingly we never see or hear who is on the other end of the line. Things come to a head when Luane threatens to tell all about bar-owner Pete Pavlov (Jackson Sims), his incestuous past with daughter Myra (Jorjan Fox) and Myra's forbidden affair with drug-running badboy Bobbie Ashton (Andrew Lee Barrett). To further complicate matters, Luane's under-the-thumb husband Ralph (Steve Monroe) is being tempted by stripper Danny Lee (Cathy Haase). Everyone wants Luane kept quiet, and also to get their hands on her money. Of course it all ends in gunshots and tears.
But it is all very low-key – most of the scenes consist of two characters talking slowly, their ugly, ruined faces gollowed out by bare lightbulbs or given a deathly pallor by the shale-grey sky and sea. The punctuating shots of empty beach-houses and abandoned seafronts are a bit depression-by-numbers, bit the overall static, monochrome effect makes the film a really atmospheric, involving work, a fine advertisement for no-budget film-making. It was shot in four weeks using inexpensive locations and actors, none of whom had ever been in front of movie cameras before but who use their New York stage experience to fine effect, most notably Gross, and William Russell as craggy barman Rags. It's not much of a thriller, and it can hardly be called enjoyable, but The Kill-Off proves that current American cinema is a lot more than just Kindergarten Cop and Look Who's Talking Too.
THE KILL-OFF : [7/10] : USA 1989 : Maggie GREENWALD : 97 mins
written for Manchester University Film Society magazine (Season 46: 1991/2)