‘Kill Your Lover’ Glasgow Film Festival Review

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Credit to Alix Austin and Keir Stewart—they know how to announce themselves. The London-based director duo and real-life couple have a feature debut that stands out in the low-budget horror market, serving as both a satisfying calling card after a string of shorts and strong, but not lethal, injection of nasty thrills. Kill Your Lover doesn’t just sound like a metal album title. It’s also a call-to-arms for Dakota (Paige Gilmour), who has reckoned enough with how her straight-laced partner Axel (Shane Quigley Murphy) has poisoned her life. 

She’s ready(ish) to cut him off, but unfortunately, he’s become infected with a demonic venom that turns him into a corrosive entity—well, an even more corrosive entity. Over the brisk 77-minute runtime, Austin and Stewart’s film (a confronting one for two people in a relationship to make) scrapes against the confines of its resources, and underwhelms with its convoluted and thin narrative design, but at its core, Kill Your Lover is made with admirable energy and inventiveness. It’s got the type of low-budget audacity that should be required from debuting genre filmmakers.

Taking place entirely in two apartments—the one Dakota and Axel share and Dakota’s old one seen in flashbacks—and featuring a grand total of five speaking parts, Kill Your Lover goes to impressive lengths to feel larger than it is. The extensive looks at Dakota and Axel’s early relationship, with all their excited, erotic curiosity, are charged and intimate, and Gilmour and Murphy’s chemistry is tangible and beaming.

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On the other end of the spectrum, when Dakota has to war with a demonic version of her partner, the actors are similarly well-suited. There’s a frantic energy coursing through Gilmour as she confronts the cruelty festering in her home. Troll 2-style green vine-like veins covering the accursed Axel only add to the disturbed energy the towering Irishman brings to the film—even when he’s in a bathtub of goo for a lot of the film.

Where Kill Your Lover stumbles is in its treatment of the couple’s degrading relationship. Whether it’s in expository dialogue or flashback scenes of Axel mistreating Dakota, Austin and Stewart don’t find a way to make this romantic dissolution feel dramatically authentic. The things that Dakota experiences—her free-spirited, queer-coded friendships and artistic passions being criticized, her agency being diminished and infantilized, her non-traditional view on self-expression hitting Axel’s stubborn and inflexible demands—are recognizable and legitimate signs of a coercive and emotionally abusive relationship. But when they’re addressed so directly in scenes of mundane arguments, they come across as flat and amateurish. 

Kill Your Lover is about expressing real pain through the language of horror, and there’s a serious problem if the real pain underscoring your horror doesn’t dig into your audience as nastily as the acid burns and bone breaks—and as winning as they are elsewhere, it’s where Gilmour and Murphy struggle the most. These types of straight drama scenes are really hard to do, which is why the only truly classic examples of Argument Fiction are from seasoned, era-defining pros. 

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This leads to complications in the film’s final movements; because Dakota and Axel’s toxic relationship has been filled out without complexity, it’s difficult to tell what hold he has over her in the closing act. When she starts the film choosing to eject him from her life, the story needs to show something is keeping her restrained in his grasp—other than physical threat—after his demonic turn. The extremes of emotion, attraction, and revulsion, are telegraphed well, but Kill Your Lover fails to deliver on its “ultimate break-up movie” premise.

But as a tightly paced thrill ride, there’s much less to fault. Austin and Stewart have a terrific sense of rhythm and pacing, spinning out tension with a deft hand and, we sense, a knowing glee. When two paramedics enter the story, we may not buy their professional emergency responder behavior, but every extended hand and too-close lean dials up the danger, and ends with gnarly pay-offs. It was a wise decision to never directly explain how this demon possession took over Axel; it keeps all our attention within the shrinking walls of an apartment under siege. It’s what gives Kill Your Lover its Evil Dead (2013) and Rise energy—smart, swift thrills with a nasty edge, and an interest in emotionally propelled horror. For all its flaws, there’s a lot worth fighting for.

Summary

‘Kill Your Lover’ is smart with a nasty edge. For all its flaws, there’s a lot worth fighting for.

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