Stars: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Lucy Lawton, Bruce Bohne, Matt Roy and Dee Noah.
Writers: Billy O’Brien and Christopher Hyde, based upon the novel by Dan Wells.
Director: Billy O’Brien
The ‘teenage American Gothic’ ambience of Dan Wells’ young-adult novel I Am Not a Serial Killer is recaptured with an occasionally morbid yet invigorating cadence in director Billy O’Brien’s bracingly icky, hugely entertaining adaptation.
In equal measure a small-town murder mystery, alienated teen saga and bloody body count slasher, O’Brien and co-scripter Christopher Hyde have crafted a work that has had reviewers recalling everything from TV’s series Fargo, Dexter and Six Feet Under to publishing franchise Goosebumps to George Romero’s 1977 film Martin (we’ll offer up Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil and some Twin Peaks, too). But the atmospherics soar when it is bringing its own uniquely dark and dirty take on murderous urges and giving the forward momentum over to its two outstanding leading men.
Key protagonist is John Cleaver, a young man pulling shifts draining blood at his broken family’s mortuary while being completely self aware of his borderline sociopathic state. In the hands of the great Max Records, Cleaver takes his place alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s Donnie Darko as one of contemporary teen cinema’s most vividly etched characters; like Darko, O’Brien’s anti-hero is introduced peddling his own way through a landscape that is at once familiar yet disorienting. His snow-covered Midwestern burg is in the early stages of a serial killing spree, the by-product of a mindset with which Cleaver is himself grappling.
Cleaver’s ‘Hardy Boys’-like guile has him zeroing in on a suspect; when he witnesses the stranger smooth-talk his elderly neighbour Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) into a car trip into the wilderness, Cleaver suspects the worst. In one of the great second act kickers in recent memory, O’Brien spins the story into a whole new and shocking realm that rattles both Cleaver and the viewer. To detail the narrative developments would be unavoidably spoiler-y, suffice to say it allows for Cleaver to fully explore and better understand the nature of his own tendencies while still wonderfully servicing the requirements of both the ‘teen loner hero’ and ‘slasher pic’ tropes.
Expect Christopher Lloyd’s performance to come into sharp focus during award season prognosticating. It is entirely deserving of recognition in the always hotly contested ‘Supporting Actor’ category, so menacingly understated and against type for the actor, still best known as Back to the Future’s Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown (in a perfect world, he will be up against John Goodman’s similarly enigmatic mystery-man Howard in 10 Cloverfield Lane). An Independent Spirit nod seems most likely; could A.M.P.A.S. see past the film’s genre roots (horror rarely gets noticed) to award Lloyd, one of Hollywood’s most beloved ageing icons? Records nails the tone required of him by his director, as well; his delivery of Cleaver’s ‘cardboard box’ speech, in which he dresses down a bully with eloquent insight into how he keeps his homicidal drive in check, is an instant classic.
O’Brien has reworked some hoary horror tropes in the past to deliver sly, sinister, engaging B-movies (genetically-modified farm horror in Isolation, 2006; rampant alien-human crossbreeding in The Hybrid, 2014). I Am Not a Serial Killer is more of the same, only better. Blessed with a macabre sense of the absurd, a pulse that beats with as much emotion as it does blood and the mean streak required to pull off the inherent nastiness of the premise, Dan Wells and Billy O’Brien’s nightmare world is a horror fan’s dream come true.