"It says love is bullshit. Deep down its just genes, and genes don't give a damn about love...how much pain will it take before you kill someone you love?"
- Helen Westcott
Wow...even I didn't see that one little plot development coming, folks! It managed to surprise me in a film filled with familiarity--a cold, dark, violent, heartless thriller that is really just a Saw installment in disguise. Released theatrically in Europe as WΔZ in early 2007 and renamed for this DVD release, The Killing Gene boasts a talented cast, stark visuals and a grim story that's equal parts unpleasant and (mildly) intriguing.
It opens at the scene of a homicide, when rookie New York cop Helen Westcott (Melissa George, fast becoming a scream queen for the new age) meets her gruff new partner, the seasoned Eddie Argo (Stellan Skarsgård). The victim is a pregnant woman, and the letters "WΔZ" have been carved into her stomach. Fearing a rising gang war, the duo searches for the prime suspect--her hooligan boyfriend. But they run into a big problem: He's dead, too--under mysterious circumstances that have Westcott thinking something bigger is at work, especially when another gang member winds up murdered.
With traces of a unique animal tranquilizer found in the systems of the victims, the investigators head to a local animal lab. They find the cautious Dr. Gelb (Paul Kaye), a pathologist and behavioral scientist who has to explain a familiar equation on his wipe board. He's been running experiments that track animal behavior, specifically how species respond to predators: "There's no altruism in nature...there's just genes, looking out for themselves." Does his theory apply to humans, as well? Is there a scientific reason for such brutal behavior?
The answers may lie with an old case that coincidentally involves the criminals-turned-victims: Years ago, one of Gelb's assistants was brutally raped by five gang members, who offered to spare her further pain if she would shoot and kill her mother--who watched helplessly as her daughter was tortured. But due to contaminated evidence, the culprits walked free. The focus is suddenly turned to the rape victim, the conveniently (and not so subtly) named Jean Lerner (Selma Blair). Has she decided to turn the tables on her aggressors, now putting them into situations where the only way to spare themselves is by killing a loved one? The answer becomes clear as the bodies pile up, and Argo feels sudden responsibility to save as much of the garbage as he can--especially one of the accused gang members (Ashley Walters), who may have had little or no involvement with the initial crime.
The Killing Gene tries to dress itself in fancy science, and on the surface it succeeds in providing mild fodder for pondering the animalistic urges humans can exhibit under severe threat. But let's not kid ourselves: This is a nasty horror thriller that has a Class of 1984 feel to it, although it has the most in common with the Saw series (even the line "Oh yes, there will be blood!" is morphed into "But there will be pain!"). It's not quite as outlandishly brutal, but it's still pretty mean.
The movie was filmed mostly in Belfast, Ireland, which may be why you don't see much of the real New York City in most scenes. The city here is bleak, with an almost futuristic feel to it--think Escape From New York meets Gotham City meets Blade Runner, but on a much smaller scale. The film is visually dark--most scenes are filmed with cold black or green tints, and the shaky camera moves a lot, adding to the unease.
That feeling blends over into most of the characters, a pretty unlikeable bunch--with Helen a mostly neutral presence that moves the story along (although I'm getting real tired of seeing jittery rookie female cops, my one huge problem with The Silence of the Lambs). Blair, meanwhile, tries to inject a little soul into her limited screen time. It's a solid cast (made up of mostly European actors)--especially if you consider this a direct-to-video effort--although they all play second fiddle to the production design and blood (also, George and Skarsgård seem to falter a few times with their accents).
As for the effects, they aren't nearly as over the top as the Saw and Hostel franchises have become--a lot is left to the imagination, although the finale gets grosser. The Killing Gene doesn't give us anything we haven't seen before, and has a black heart for most of the way. It takes a little while to settle into its cold atmosphere, and there's very little by way of carefully crafted suspense or deep character development. Almost everything unfolds with predictable plotting, but the story picks up in the second half. It's a gritty film, and well made by director Tom Shankland--who has a capable cast that does a lot better than most do in similar efforts. And then there's that little development that took even me by surprise...oh my!
This is the "unrated" cut of the film, although at 104 minutes has the same running time as the theatrical R-rated release--so the additions are probably minor gore insertions.
Like most of the Dimension Extreme label, this transfer is top notch. The anamorphic 2.35:1 image is very solid and rich, but the film is very dark, and frequently shot with a cold green tint.
Equally impressive is the 5.1 surround track, which makes effective use of sounds to keep the ears entertained. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
As usual, a solid group of extras continues to make the Dimension Extreme line a valuable investment. The Making of The Killing Gene (19:38) is a solid effort that talks with all of the principal cast and crew, taking us from pre-production through the final shots in New York. "I'm really excited about trying to create the illusion that we are in the States," says director Tom Shankland. Twenty builders made a fake NYC in just two weeks (using the same location where the real Titanic was designed!).
The actors chime in during the shoot-focused footage: "I found the story, mainly the second half of the script, very compelling and strangely dark and exciting," notes Stellan Skarsgård. "There are no good guys and bad guys, really. I think we should complicate reality a little, not simplify it." Adds Melissa George: "It was such a wonderful script about love. It's a love story." The footage also shows the filming of one key sequence, and ends with some fun clips of the New York City shoots, where it's cool to see the talented Skarsgård and George smiling and clowning around a little. Like all of the behind-the-scenes efforts here, it's more homemade video than highly produced featurette.
The Killing Gene: An In-Depth Chat with the Director, Producer & Script Writer (18:40) is equally entertaining. Shankland--who says he wanted the violence to feel real and not gratuitous--notes how the film was "our sort of take on America...we are all largely outsiders, but we're all completely saturated by America--our cultures are sort of saturated by American movies and all of the rest of it." He notes that visually, he wanted to get away from the elegant, stylish Hollywood look. "At the top end of that, you've got a film like Se7en, which I think is an amazing film and incredibly stylish, incredibly beautiful and sort of lyrical in its strange dark way. But I felt that that was absolutely the last thing I wanted this film to look at," he says, noting that director of photography Morten Søborg is developing his own unique style, having worked with many great Danish directors. "I never wanted it to feel like a sort of slick, American, Hollywood sort of version of that story. I always felt it should [be] that slightly more down and dirty European version of that story."
Producer James Richardson concurs, saying that while the story was originally set in the United Kingdom, it just didn't feel right. "It needed the scope of America, and it just made more sense. That was an important decision that we made, to kind of take it out of the U.K. and not make it a kind of gritty British film, but make it a very dark, American independent type of film." Script writer Clive Bradley also chimes in with his (attempted) explanation of the film's main equation/theory: "The idea is that in nature, what appears to be altruism, what appears to be selflessness--for instance, if a bird sacrifices itself for the flock--is in fact not, because the flock of birds are all related. And so the individual dies, but it dies for the sake of the gene that it shares with its relatives. So apparent altruism is not [it]...underlying it is the kind of selfishness of the gene." Uh...right!
Up next is the Torture Featurette (4:23), which takes a brief look at some of the gorier scene shoots. You also get three slightly lower quality deleted scenes (4:18), although it's really only two (one is super short and meaningless), and only one ("Corelli Bar Scene") warrants a quick look. All three also spend time talking about the principal actors and their performances. The film's theatrical trailer and trailers for other films round out the package.
There's nothing here you haven't seen before: Think Saw meets Class of 1984 meets Se7en. This is a cold, brutal, heartless horror/thriller that relies on mood, violence and grim production design to keep you watching. The cast is solid--far better than most of these efforts usually are--even though they aren't given much to do other than be unlikeable. The story is frequently unsettling and unpleasant, but The Killing Gene is made well. Genre fans could do a lot worse, and should find more than enough to be entertained, so a purchase is Recommended. But everyone else is best advised to Rent It.