I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER
Directed by Billy O’Brien
About a decade ago I was channel surfing at night, when I caught a cool rural Irish movie called Isolation. It was an atmospheric Alien-like flick, about mutant cows, by Billy O’Brien – which I assure you isn’t as daft as the premise makes it sound. Despite me thoroughly enjoying it, it wasn’t really a hit and as such I didn’t hear much about him since. So when his latest chiller I Am Not A Serial Killer landed on the Horror Cult Films desk I was delighted. Based on the book by Dan Wells, that spawned 2 sequels, it’s a very different beast from his previous work. Yet it keeps true to the structure of a calculated build up, with occasional bloody beats, before a nasty third act. The result is another accomplished, low budget, thriller.
The action follows John (former kid star Max Records): a school oddball who lives in a small town mortuary that suddenly starts seeing a lot of business. Only there’s no natural causes here – the organs have been stolen. This excites him for 3 reasons. First, he’s a diagnosed psychopath. Second, he’s obsessed with murderers. And third, he’s worried he has all the traits to be one himself. Normally to fight this concern he employs an arsenal of anti-kill tools to stop himself acting out on any violent urges (including paying compliments to would-be victims). But, like a twisted Enid Blyton character, the trail of corpses makes him want to investigate who the killer is and just what he himself is. However, it’s not long ’til he finds out the killer is close to home. To be precise, it’s his seemingly friendly neighbour Mr Crawley (a childhood shattering Christopher Lloyd). Behind the backs of his concerned, but often absent, single mum (Laura Fraser) and unprofessionally friendly therapist (Karl Geary), John starts stalking the serial killer next door. But will he stop the monster or become one himself?
The comparisons to Dexter are sort of inevitable: a young psychopath with a code finding himself drawn in by another who doesn’t (as happened in most seasons). Yet it retains its own identity in the face of a tired premise. The hidden world of serial killer intrigue is juxtaposed well against the mundanity of small town life. Boyd exhibits a great sense of location and the grainy 16mm celluloid gives a real classic aesthetic. Furthermore, in terms of plotting the dramatic stakes are well handled, with the crime thriller angle being exploited to tell an intimate coming of age story. At its best the cat and mouse game that makes up most of acts 2 and 3 is gleefully intense, with the upper hand swapping throughout. Lloyd’s antagonist may be decrepit, but he’s not without a real sense of threat. His murders are violent (if not graphic) and the scenes where he’s in pursuit are excellently done. But what makes it even better is the slow pace lets us get to know him. Each scene Crowley shares with John is well orchestrated, in particular a very vulnerable one in the bathroom, and their dynamic is consistently fascinating.
Yet there’s no escaping that John simply isn’t as interesting. It’s not that Records is bad – on the contrary, he does a fantastic job that’s far removed from his time as a child actor. But for him the script is a lot more tell than show, with the therapy sessions often feeling like a stand-in for a lack of groundwork elsewhere (although it’s worth mentioning there’s a hugely funny tell scene at the school dance that’s entirely tell). Furthermore, for the most part he sounds less like a bonafide psychopath and more an archetypal moody teen. Maybe this was a conscious means of keeping his character redeemable – it is based on a young adult novel after all. But it means what’s essentially an emotional arc of self-discovery ends up feeling a bit blunted because the personal demons don’t feel drastic enough. Then there’s the ending. Without saying too much there’s a twist in the tail that’s a too literal way of tying up the core questions of nature vs nurture. And sadly it also goes some way towards puncturing the relative realism of the movie and undermining much of it until that point. Still, he gets some times to shine and the parts that play on his social awkwardness are standouts.
Still, all in all this is a very watchable entry into the serial killer subgenre and a decent showcase for the cast and director alike. Though O’Brien, if for some reason you read this, please don’t let it be ten years before I see another horror from you.