Death comes to small-town America when a series of unusual and gruesome murders occur in I Am Not a Serial Killer, a shoestring thriller that’s got “cult” written all over it.
John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is a lonely teen with homicidal tendencies who struggles to fit in at school or at home. Max keeps his bloodlust in check by working in his mother’s funeral home, taking pride, and some pleasure, in his work tending to the newly deceased.
As it turns out, there are many more bodies coming through the funeral home’s door of late, as a vicious killer stalks the streets of this quiet Midwest town.
The murders have some of the hallmarks of a serial killer. This is of course one of Max’s pet subjects, and he takes it upon himself to get the bottom of the case.
Writers Billy O’Brien and Christopher Hyde do a good job in adapting the film’s source novel to the screen. Max Records plays John with a charming vulnerability.
There are flashes of danger from John —he threatens a classmate and talks to his therapist about animal mutilation — but there’s a sweetness there too.
John is, of course, a little scary, but like his serial-killer idols, he’s alluring as well. The audience and the director are interested in John, his reactions and how he behaves.
We see more of John than anyone else in the picture, not just because he is the main character, but because he’s fascinating.
This is a credit to Max Records’ ability as an actor. He makes an uncomfortable character relatable and likeable. John is actually a sweet kid who struggles with his urges and identity. We don’t always see it but when we do, it’s touching, and you can’t help but root for him despite yourself, and despite himself.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is most interested in John, but its secondary focus is on the Cleaver’s unassuming neighbour Mr Crowley, played by Christopher Lloyd.
Crowley is an old man, in poor health, who is very much in love with his sweet-old-lady wife. In an early sequence, John shows Crowley how to send a selfie to his wife. John is enthusiastic and helpful with the Crowleys, something which contrasts with his behaviour to other members of the community.
Cinemagoers will be tickled to see Christopher Lloyd on the big-screen again. Recently, the veteran actor and Back to the Future star has been appearing in TV movies and one-off reprisals of his Doc Brown role for skits and cameos, so it’s nice to see such a capable performer work with a meaty role such as this.
There’s a reverence to the treatment of Lloyd in the film as well, with the camera often keeping a respectful distance from Crowley. There’s more to Crowley than meets the eye, but like John we’re made to tease out the mystery through careful observation.
The treatment of Lloyd by O’Brien is effective in breaking down the actor’s star power. At first it’s all too easy for us to think of Lloyd as Doc Brown, but by the close of the film he couldn’t be further from that character. This strengthens the film, while playing upon our notions of stardom and familiarity with Lloyd’s body of work.
I Am Not a Serial Killer fits nicely into the exportable horror-film category that Irish and British genre cinema co-productions have occupied for a while now. It’s no secret that recent collaborations like The Canal and Let Us Prey have appealed to foreign markets.
These horror productions often play on the strength of their European ambience to appeal to South American art-house audiences. It’s an inversion of what we saw in Irish cinemas a few years back when Sleep Tight and Rec were making waves with horror enthusiasts.
I Am Not a Serial Killer doesn’t have the advantage of being set in Ireland or a countryside village in Scotland, but Billy O’Brien’s direction allows for the Midwestern setting to be made “strange”.
The film’s humour, particularly as it relates to small-town living, is as Irish as can be. It gives the material an extra edge and makes an already offbeat premise all the more off the beat of other indie-horror darlings.
This is a tight and economical film that is always interested in heightening our sense of tension and suspicion. But there’s a skillful looseness to O’Brien’s direction that comes through and makes the film intriguing and engaging.
I got the impression that the narrative was built around a series of key visuals, as opposed to plot points. These standout moments are loud in a quiet kind of way, sequences such as the school Halloween dance or the syncing of extra-diegetic sound to a blood-transfusion machine are arresting but not overly flashy.
What’s clear is that O’Brien is a director with vision, one we’re willing to go along for a ride with, no matter where the journey takes us. When I Am Not A Serial Killer goes to weird and dark places, we’re there with it, on the edge of the seat, peeking around corners at the edge of the frame, through our fingers, loving every nail-biting minute of it.