Psycho Therapy: Killers (1997)

Matty sinks his teeth into the first film produced by The Asylum.

Not to be confused with Mike Mendez’s 1996 flick of the same name, David Michael Latt’s KILLERS is, in fact, the first production by The Asylum — though both pictures share a love for siege scenarios and owe an obvious debt to the rhythmic patter of ‘90s cinema’s biggest darling. However, where Mendez’s compelling crime-horror caper throws its Tarantino-esque, ripped-from-then-recent-headlines Menendez Brother analogues, Kyle and Odessa James, into a quirky suburban terror tableaux swiped from Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991), Latt’s equally as interesting thriller meshes its Reservoir Dogs (1992) overtures with something even stranger. Because as the film’s throat-grabbing opening makes clear  — a mosaic of abrasive images, choppy edits, and retina-searing colour schemes — Killers is as much in step with the freak-out aesthetic and nightmarish tonality of Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s surreal gangster saga, Performance (1970).

It’s a lofty and unexpected comparison, and those only familiar with Latt’s subsequent output will be knocked for six by how experimental and — whisper it — arty Killers is. But back in 1997, when The Asylum was starting out, ‘mockbusters’, Sharknados, and high concept creature features were far from the company’s agenda. Instead, Latt and his Asylum co-founders David Rimawi and Sherri Strain wanted to do what the likes of Full Moon, Nu Image, PM Entertainment, and EGM et al were doing: make genre films for the home video market. And prior to hitting upon their patented formula, the three of them reasoned the best way to stand out was by injecting their work with an ‘edginess’; a ragged, rock n’ roll quality and confrontational attitude that the just completed Killers, which Latt and co. were gearing up for a festival run at the time of The Asylum’s naming (the trio initially operated under the guise of ICON Entertainment), embodied to a T. 

Shot for $100,000 across twelve days in a rat-infested Los Angeles warehouse, the ultra-cheap Killers is a mood piece where storytelling and technical finesse are secondary to ambience. Those seeking conventional entertainment should steer clear; those with a hankering for the unusual will find Killers quite the tonic. Cruel and upsetting, it unfolds like an Eraserhead (1977) and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) speedball. The lurid lighting effects that cinematographer Brian Agnew employs to pierce the stylised darkness of his compositions fizz with a hallucinatory power, and the seizure-inducing use of strobing imbues the film’s tensest passages with a disturbing vagueness akin to a half-remembered bad dream — an attribute accentuated by David Kitchens’ punishing sound design.  

Written by Steven Ramirez, the plot — in which a gang of wannabe pushers fall victim to a group of sharp-suited gangsters in a labyrinthine storage facility after a drug deal goes wrong — is simple stalk n’ slash, but presented in a deliberately elliptical manner indicative of a deeper meaning. On the handful of occasions he’s discussed it since, Latt has described Killers as a film about transformation and called it highly personal. The director, Rimawi and Strain had jacked in their tedious exec jobs at Village Roadshow in order to forge their own path with The Asylum, and Latt, completely unsure whether their gamble would succeed, felt a kinship with Killers’ heroine, Heather: a bored rich girl, essayed by the helmer’s wife Kim Little, who similarly ditches security in favour of walking on the wild side. In retrospect their arcs appear identical. There’s certainly a parallel to be drawn between the bloodthirsty hoods Heather is forced to contend with — and, ultimately, fight back against — and the Hollywood types Latt, Rimawi and Strain no doubt battled as they climbed the ladder.

Premiering on 9th February 1997 at Fantasporto in Portugal, Killers played to a packed house and was nominated for the festival’s Best Film award before nabbing another Best Picture nom at the 1997 Festival of Fantastic Films here in the U.K. (it lost to Julian Richards’ Wicker Man (1973) riff Darklands (1997)). Killers debuted in the U.S. on 28th March 1998 at the Newport Beach Festival and landed on North American home video six months later via Leo Films. It was released on British cassette by Xscapade Pictures in Spring ’99 as ‘Killer Instinct’. A decent sequel, Killers 2: The Beast, followed in 2002.

USA ● 1997 ● Thriller ● 83mins

Kim Little, Paul Logan, Scott Carson ● Dir. David Michael Latt Wri. Steven Ramirez

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