1989 Directed by Maggie Greenwald. Starring Loretta Gross, Jackson Sims, Steve Monroe, Cathy Haase, Andrew Lee Barrett, Jordan Fox, William Russell.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 12, 1991
Jim Thompson may be the hottest dead author around. The 1990s have seen three of Thompson's nihilistic pulp noir novels turned into films: The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet and now, The Kill-Off. Thompson's world with its sociopathic protagonists and pernicious moral rot are well-captured in Greenwald's film version of The Kill-Off. The milieu is compellingly perverse, and Greenwald and the actors get the seedy tone just right. Set in a New Jersey seaside resort in winter, the barren and deserted surroundings lend a chilling, vacant feel to the events. The story is not so much a crime mystery as a prelude to a murder. The victim is a bed-ridden gossip named Luane who keeps the whole town in her vicious grip with her damaging, if not lethal, gossip. Her weapon is her telephone. None of the characters we meet would mind seeing her dead. Certainly each would have a motive. Like in the town of Twin Peaks, all the citizens of this little community have dirty little secrets that risk exposure. There's Pete who runs the Pavilion, a seedy bar on the edge of bankruptcy and Rags, the bartender, a pock-marked, broken down alcoholic. Bobby is the drug-dealing son of the town doctor and Myra (Pete's daughter) is Bobby's heroin-hooked girlfriend. Bobby is impotent and only seems to get off when sticking a needle in the ragtag Myra's arm or otherwise physically abusing her. Hoping to improve business at the Pavilion, Pete hires a fleshy hooker, Danny Lee, to strip down to her cellulite on his barroom stage nightly. Immediately smitten with the stripper is Luane's dimwitted husband Ralph who's half his wife's age. The characters are all intriguing but one of the problems with the movie is that this collection of players is under-developed and sketchy. It's to the performers' credit that you want to know more about them, why they are the way they are. The Kill-Off is good enough that you want it to be better. But its vague portraits and awkward scene transitions give it an unfocused and not fully thought out feel. Scenes are linked by shots of intersecting telephone lines buzzing to the accompaniment of an artfully discordant musical track by Evan Lurie, a tactic that disrupts the claustrophobia dominant in the rest of the story. The film differs from the book in a couple essential regards: the movie shows us who the murderer is where the book leaves that a mystery. The movie also spares one of the characters that the book does not, thus turning the character into a moral center. Though the movie's aim is often askew, The Kill-Off stares down the barrel with unflinching focus.