2020 is an interesting time to be any age. The generational divides seem more like yawning chasms every day. Boomers hate millennials, millennials hate boomers. Gen Xers are too ironic to get out of bed. Gen Z are presumably just waiting in the wings to eat us all or summon the elder gods through TikTok or something. It is against this backdrop of inter-generational conflict that horror comedy Killer Instinct plays out.
Olive (Amanda Crew) is stuck in a numbing career and dealing with the fizzling out of her tepid relationship. She decides to take her hippie mother’s advice and get out of the city to clear her head. Renting a country house, she has a bad feeling about the property’s owner Harvey (Robert Patrick). Her instincts prove to be justified when it emerges that Harvey harbours a murderous rage for almost everyone, but especially young people.
Unfortunately, the conflict between the two characters, and the concerns that they are meant to embody, is not nearly as compelling as it needs to be to hold the audience’s attention. Olive is as vacuous and self-absorbed as any hack columnist’s caricature and Harvey’s misanthropy is cartoonishly pointless. At one point he admits that he wants to kill just to see what it’s like. This is intended as the chillingly amoral statement of a psychopath, it reads more like lazy character development.
This isn’t to say that the performances are off. Robert Patrick’s dead-eyed straight-to-camera monologues are every bit as sinister as his turn in Terminator 2. However, they are undercut by this character’s lack of substance (not even liquid metal).
Olive’s characterisation, meanwhile, feels like an exercise in millennial box-ticking. We’re surprised there isn’t a scene where she has a panic attack because she can’t get avocado on toast in the countryside.
The result is that the central conceit of the film – that what is playing out is a gladiatorial clash of generations – falls almost completely flat. By making both protagonist and antagonist extreme caricatures, the audience is left struggling to pick a side to root for.
There are occasional flashes of creativity that hint at a much more interesting film buried somewhere in the mass of tropes. The flashbacks and moments of pure psychedelia that punctuate the narrative are inventive and often chilling. Harvey’s inner world, despite his rustic character, is like a sterile modern art gallery populated by androgynous performance artists. It’s a really creative way to portray generational alienation, as Harvey, in his dirty overalls, couldn’t be more out of place in his own fantasies. Horrific flashback sequences are similarly interesting. Although not as visually innovative, the sound design can be real teeth on-edge stuff.
There is gore and it is well-shot, with excellent plastic effects. However, even these feel like afterthoughts – gestures towards the horror genre that need to be fulfilled before we return to watching old and young bicker with each other. When a shot exactly mirrors one of The Shining’s most famous moments, it becomes clear that Killer Instinct is more comfortable ironically nodding towards horror than earnestly committing to the genre by trying to scare.
A horror comedy that doesn’t quite nail either mode, Killer Instinct is too in love with its own premise. It relies on generational tropes that already feel out of date, and exaggerates them to the point that none of the characters feel realistic. Moments of creativity elevate it a little, and there are strong performances and visuals. However, these can’t quite compensate for the story.