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The Killing Games

2012, Starring Yunona Anders, Edwin Autridge, Kelly A.H. Bird, Donald A. Morin. Directed by Barry J. Gillis.

Barry J. Gillis is back with a vengeance. His latest work, The Killing Games, is Gillis' most technically accomplished film to date, a simultaneous condemnation of the worst of human impulse and a tribute to its undefeatable spirit. As full of contradictions and wild inspiration as the man who made it, The Killing Games unleashes new levels of brutality on screen compared to Gillis' earlier work, reveling in murder and tragedy in a way that barely resembles the high camp of Things, Gillis' 1988 debut, while still sharing some of the same essential views.

Gillis' first feature film made entirely since the rediscovery of Things, The Killing Games sees the Edmonton-based director edging closer to becoming one of Canadian genre film's most unique auteur/provocateurs. Whether or not you like Gillis' films, there's no denying the singularity and strength of his voice in a filmmaking climate where shot-on-DV indie horror is usually content to mimic and satirize accepted conventions. And, even compared to his earlier work, The Killing Games seems to be a very personal work; you can hear Gillis' personality in the dialogue and soundtrack, see it in the characters and feel it in the locations.

The Killing Games is also Gillis' first film that can't be strictly classified as horror; instead it's more akin to features like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or In Cold Blood; dark and cynical tales of aggression and murder. In the film, Elysia (Yunona Anders) accidentally witnesses a sadistic killing by sociopathic serial killers Son of Satan (Edwin Autridge) and Dirty Jesus (John Scott), who, once they finish their work, spot the girl and give chase. Meanwhile, Elysia's dad, the world-weary Birdman (Kelly A.H. Bird) is at home caring for his invalid wife. When Elysia doesn't come home at the usual time, however, Birdman begins to worry about the whereabouts of his daughter.

Not far away is a roving gang of criminals headed by Alex (Alex Sharpe), with their fingers in all sorts of vague illegal pies, including drug dealing and armed robbery. But after growly-voiced henchman Toby (Toby S. Krekoski) botches a stick-up job that results in multiple murders, Alex suggests they head off to see Birdman, an old friend he hasn't seen in years, to lay low for awhile. But Birdman's already dealing with an unexpected visitor; Gillis himself shows up as a budding weatherman who stumbles into Birdman's home and is given a helping hand to fix his car before he heads to the city for a job interview. But once Alex and his crew arrive at Birdman's place, they come face to face with Son of Satan and Dirty Jesus, a fated confrontation that leads to a bloody climax.

Though it shares many of the same qualities and skewed viewpoint as his Wicked World, Gillis really goes for broke with this emotionally charged, episodic serial killer exercise that isn't afraid to push characters--and situations--to frightening extremes. Opening with the cold-blooded murder of a copulating couple, the film consistently manages to put viewers on edge not entirely from gore on display, but from the unpredictable sadism and frightening demeanor of Son of Satan and Dirty Jesus. Though the villainy of these two memorable characters (and, at times, some of the criminal gang) is almost cartoonish in its vileness, it's certainly never funny; instead Gillis starkly juxtaposes their intense disregard for human life with scenes of unrestrained optimism.

The film's initial double murder helps set up this dichotomy, as it slowly gives way to Birdman grasping for hope; his simple love for his bed-ridden wife and anxiety over the return of his daughter are surprising touches in a film so otherwise obsessed with the dark side of human behaviour. It's especially notable in a scene where Gillis cuts back and forth between Son of Satan and Dirty Jesus comparing murder stories and a Metis Minister (Donald A. Morin) singing to Birdman's comatose wife; just one disconcerting sequence that appears designed to brutalize the audience almost as much as the characters.

And this bad behaviour often extends beyond Son of Satan and Dirty Jesus to infect almost everyone who steps into frame. Even minor characters find themselves always apologizing and reassuring others about their honourable intentions--after telling tasteless jokes, being caught smoking weed in a car while parked on private property, and even when they're discovered sleeping with someone else's girlfriend. It's as though everyone in The Killing Games is compelled to act out in bad ways, but only some manage to recognize and own up to transgressions; the rest are unable to avoid riding these impulses to their ugliest and deadliest endpoints. This chilling assessment not only seems to refer to the recent increase in violent gang activity in oil-rich Alberta, but also seems drawn from Gillis' own attempts to incorporate transgressive elements into his film that harkens back to the work of one of his underground film heroes, Nick Zedd (whose celebrated short Police State is briefly featured in one scene).

Shot in Edmonton (and subsequently denied entry to the Edmonton Film festival for its depiction of violence), Gillis' DV feature also tosses out a few references for fans, including Birdman and his nephew watching some scenes from Wicked World and Birdman thumbing through a Things comic book. But even while the film's wild swings from faith in the human race to misanthropic condemnation of its most base aspects, Gillis' film retains a crude edge that helps it stand out in strong relief against the dozens of indie horror films cranked out each year. A must-see for Things fans and others following Gillis' career, The Killing Games is an ugly, brutal film--but then again, as Gillis reminds us, so is life.

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