Spoiler Alert In The Kill-Off, her directorial debut, Maggie Greenwald brought off a nasty - and terrific - piece of work. Its obscurity probably owes to the fact that it's a `little' film with a cast of unknowns - the kind of project that doesn't inspire huge media campaigns no matter how good it is. Greenwald also adapted the script from the 1957 pulp novel by Jim Thompson (Coup de torchon and The Grifters also came from his writings, and he worked on a couple of Stanley Kubrick's early movies).
The third of a century between novel and film also worked to Greenwald's benefit in showing what Thompson could only imply (though he was a fair hand at slinging innuendo, the 1950s were still buttoned up pretty tight). So the shantoozie `Danny Lee' is now a stripper, and some puzzling references in the book are here plainly called incest. And while Greenwald takes some liberties with the original story, streamlining and improving it, she defers to Thompson's suggestive murk, forgoing the rhymed, clockwork plotting so ill-advisedly in vogue today.
The Kill-Off is about milieu as much as it is about its characters, who seem to have sprouted out of it during the night. (Director of photography Declan Quinn employs one of the inkiest palettes ever seen on film, though he aims his lights with a marksman's precision.) It's all set in a dead-end town on the Jersey shore where an old amusement park is dying a lonely death - a stagnant backwater where malice breeds like mosquitoes out of boredom and despair. Queen of the mischief-makers is Luane (Loretta Gross), a bedridden hypochondriac who amuses herself by gossiping on the telephone all day; the movie opens with one of her targets hanging herself.
Luane's doting and simple husband Ralph (Steve Monroe), 17 years her junior, works as a janitor around town -- until a scheming young drug-dealer (Andrew Lee Barrett) ousts him out of his job. Luane and Ralph enjoy an open relationship: He comes home from his one-night stands and tells her all the details - until he sleeps with the stripper (Cathy Haase). Here, Greenwald excels in a nifty sequence cutting between the stripper's debut, ogled by Ralph among the beer-guzzling louts, and Luane, alone, vamping around her boudoir. When Ralph keeps mum about that indiscretion, Luane knows it's serious - and starts thinking he's going to kill her.
But everybody wants to kill her, among them the strip-club owner whom her father chiseled out of $10-grand; his daughter, who wants her to keep quiet about the heroin habit the drug-dealer supplies; or any of the others stung by her venomous chatter. (Against all odds, Greenwald and Gross manage to scrape up some sympathy for Luane, pointedly lacking in the novel.)
The characters keep intersecting, separating and recombining until the inevitable, of course, occurs. The denouement is downbeat - this is, after all, Jim Thompson's terrain - but the assurance and integrity of the filmmaking are uplifting.