Stars: Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Max Records, Karl Geary, Morgan Rysso, Matt Roy, Bruce Bohne, Elizabeth Belfiori | Written by Billy O’Brien, Christopher Hyde | Directed by Billy O’Brien
I Am Not a Serial Killer is an offbeat take on the serial killer sub-genre of horror, told from the perspective of John (Max Records – best known for his role in Where the Wild Things Are). John is a teenager who has been diagnosed with sociopathy but is determined not to give in to his homicidal tendencies and lives his life by a strict set of self-imposed rules to prevent this. He also helps his mother (Laura Fraser) by assisting in the preparation of bodies in her funeral home, draining blood, removing organs and ogling viscera, is friendly with elderly neighbour Mr Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) and attempts to act like a normal human being during school. Meanwhile, dead bodies are cropping up all over town and John’s fascination with serial killers leads him to conduct his own amateur investigation.
What was immediately striking about the film was a kind of timeless, retro tone that permeates the sets, costumes and music. There are smartphones and MP3 players in the film, but it does feel like it could have been made almost any time in the last 30 odd years – a similar feel to It Follows. This vibe really suits the small town USA setting where everybody knows everybody else and time has kind of stood still. This feels thematically appropriate as the close knit community contrasts with John’s inability to feel anything for anyone, despite his best efforts.
The strength of the lead performances from Records and Lloyd are also a great aspect of the film. Records gives a really convincing portrayal of John and his mental illness feels authentic rather than a crude caricature as you might expect from such a young actor. Despite his teetering on the edge of violence and often being sullen and depressed, John is a charismatic and often charming presence and his darkest moments are always shot through with sadness. You really feel for this character, even if he couldn’t do the same for you. Lloyd’s performance as the elderly Mr Crowley is equally impressive, moving from warm to sinister, from weak and frail to commanding and imposing as the story develops. His voice alone seems to carry the weight of the world. As his character and John’s learn more about each other, the dynamic of their relationship changes accordingly and the actors work really well together.
The film does have its weaknesses though. It takes a little while to really settle into its narrative groove – not really knowing what direction a film is going in isn’t a bad thing at all for the audience but I did feel that maybe the filmmaker (led by director Billy O’Brien) were a little unsure at times too. It borrows from a few different genres and mixes a couple of different themes and these aren’t always woven together quite neatly enough, making for a few jarring moments. It goes a little too mumblecore for its own good at times. Additionally, whilst the leads are well realised, the supporting cast are not – at one point, John’s friend’s dad is killed but the relationship is only made clear after the murder, meaning that the emotional impact is negligible. Maybe that’s just a clever way of making us see things from John’s point of view, but there are other instances where spending a little more time with the other characters in the film would have had a greater pay off. Having said these things, the film really pulls together for its final scenes, resulting in a climax that is at once tense, surprising, creepy, stomach-churning, oddly poignant and I thought very satisfying. As the contrasting motivations of the characters are revealed, it adds another layer of intrigue to the narrative.
Despite being an adaptation of the first in a series of books, I worry that I Am Not a Serial Killer will not find the audience it necessarily deserves (the 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to the 63% audience score seems to confirm this). It’s perhaps a little quirky for its own good and it’s hard to say whether it’s pitched for a teen or adult audience. Nevertheless, I thought it was a fairly refreshing horror and a good exploration into what it must actually be like to be a sociopath, in a way that felt honest and effective. That it is set against the backdrop of an entertaining and intriguing story is a welcome bonus too.