Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Billy O’Brien
Stars: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Christina Baldwin, Raymond Brandstrom, Lucy Lawton, Dee Noah.
This gripping low budget psychological thriller mixes the familiar coming of age themes with outright horror tropes and a touch of the supernatural.
Sixteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (played by Max Records, the misunderstood young hero from Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are) is a troubled adolescent, a misfit with a morbid fascination with death and serial killers. He is something of an outsider, and he has written school essays on notorious serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and the BTK killer, which concerns his principal. He works as an embalmer with his mother April (Laura Fraser), a morgue technician, at the family funeral parlour, and this feeds his fascination with death. He has been diagnosed with clinical sociopathy, but he is able to keep his dark homicidal urges at bay through regular therapy sessions with Dr Neblin (Karl Geary). He has established his own set of rules to keep these killer thoughts at bay. He also does good deeds to help his elderly amiable neighbour Mr Crowley (Back To The Future‘s Christopher Lloyd) and his invalid wife.
That is until a vicious serial killer begins leaving a trail of bodies behind in his small home town. Mysterious black sludge is found at the scene of the murders, and it appears that the killer is harvesting the organs of victims. John investigates and soon discovers the identity of the killer. But rather than go to the police with the information he tries to catch him. In doing this he puts himself and his family and a few friends firmly in the crosshairs of a killer.
The film is based on Dan Wells’ best-selling YA novel from 2009 and has an unusually darker sensibility for a piece of teen fiction. The director is Billy O’Brien (Isolation, etc), who has a strong visual style and creates an unsettling atmosphere and slowly mounting air of dread and suspense. He doesn’t pull his punches with the darker themes and there are some gruesome moments that are not for the squeamish. The body count rises and the film gradually grows darker in tone. But there are also some rather black moments of humour interspersed throughout the narrative to leaven the tone.
Like The Town That Dreaded Sundown and David Lynch’s bizarre Blue Velvet, this creepy thriller strips away the veneer of small town America and finds something nasty and sinister just below the surface. Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, The Angels’ Share, etc) has shot the film in 16mm, which adds to the gritty visual style and the moody atmosphere that captures a distinctly 80s aesthetic. Ryan’s cold and crisp cinematography captures the subtle menace of this small town and its harsh wintry vistas and John’s somewhat bleak world view. O’Brien gives us a strong sense of place and we can almost feel the chill from the snow covered environment.
The film boasts some solid performances. Records is well cast here as the obsessed teen, a junior version of Dexter with his obsessions and quirky behaviour, and he holds our attention throughout the film. He brings a disconnected coldness and lack of empathy to his performance. His name is an intriguing mixture of both John Wayne the iconic American film star and hero, John Wayne Gacy the notorious serial killer, and Beaver Cleaver, the all-American kid from the 50s television show. In one of his best performances for quite some time Lloyd brings subtle nuances and a creepy element to his performance as the seemingly kindly old neighbour. Fraser brings a sense of compassion to her role as John’s mother who seems protective of her son even though she doesn’t understand him.
I Am Not A Serial Killer undergoes some surprising and unexpected shifts in tone, moving from teen friendly murder mystery to darker territory. This clever and engaging thriller is perfect fodder for late night screenings, and could possibly become something of a cult film in the future.