Billy O’Brien’s teen horror I Am Not a Serial Killer uncovers the dark, elderly underbelly of American suburbia.
Monster Mashby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
More than just a young adult movie (adapted from Dan Wells’ YA book), I Am Not a Serial Killer, directed by Billy O’Brien (The Hybrid, Isolation), is a black comedy horror starring Max Records (The Sitter) as 16-year-old John Wayne Cleaver, a teenage boy in the small, boring snow-bound Midwest town of Hibbing, Minnesota.
He’s under psychoanalysis for probable psychopathic tendencies and an obsession both with serial killers and with not becoming one himself. This isn’t helped by the fact that his family home is also a funeral parlour– shades of Six Feet Under – and he is an enthusiastic assistant to his mortician mother when she prepares and embalms the bodies.
When a serial killer who steals body parts starts a rampage in John’s neighbourhood, because of the preconceptions of his schoolmates and the community at large, who know his history, John is the prime suspect.
Christopher Lloyd, a cult veteran for his characterisation in the Back to the Future franchise, also stars as John’s curmudgeonly elderly neighbour, Crowley. Lloyd keeps his performance here tantalisingly on the cusp of senile and sinister: he’s consistently unsettling.
Though John is fighting his own psychological demons, he secretly turns amateur sleuth to deflect suspicion from himself and also, hopefully, uncover the real killer. Against all expectation, he starts to suspect his elderly neighbour, and his night-time investigations lead him to something so unlikely that no one would ever believe him – and the horrific ending is just as unexpected.
Records’ performance as a troubled teen is excellent. We see the quirks of his relationship with his mother April (Laura Fraser) and therapist Dr Neblin (Karl Geary). There’s a Halloween party with his schoolmates that takes full advantage of all the opportunities for the ironic pseudo-grotesque, in contrast to the real-life horrors going on outside. And, of course, his cat-and-mouse relationship with Crowley and how it develops as he uncovers more about him, is key.
There’s a great sense of claustrophobic place in winter darkness, which enables a contrast between icy growing dread and candle-lit normality. The killer is guessed early on, but despite that the suspense throughout works well though at the end the film takes a surprise twist from dark thriller into horror, taking it into another realm of fantasy altogether – but overall, it’s a very enjoyable watch.
I Am Not a Serial Killer screened at the 60th BFI London Film Festival and is released on 9 December 2016 in the UK.