I Am Not A Serial Killer Review
I Am Not A Serial Killer is a comfortably odd film that defies expectations. Or indeed a neat category. It’s reasonable to consider it a horror, but that sells it short, so if you imagine an episode of The X-Files featuring Dexter, you might land somewhere near.
What is definite is that it’s scary, creepy, weird and fun. Directed by Billy O’Brien, I Am Not A Serial Killer is a British/Irish co-production and adapted from the first in a series of young adult novels by Dan Wells. The synopsis for the book reveals more of the plot than that of the film, which is best experienced knowing as little as possible. That makes writing a full review a bit awkward, but what follows is spoiler free. It isn't a twist as such, just more of a realisation that it's a different kind of film to what you might expect. It's a good solid story too, which will hold up to repeat viewings. If ever a film deserved a cult following, it's this one.
Sixteen-year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) lives in a small, Fargo-like town (the Minnesota tourist board must be really fed-up by now and hoping someone is going to film a nice rom-com there). He helps his mum (Laura Fraser) and aunt (Christina Baldwin) at the family mortuary and his hobby/obsession is learning about serial killers. This fascination somewhat keeps his own issues in check, because John knows that he is capable of being a serial killer himself. It’s only through habits, routine, therapy and chats with elderly neighbour Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) that he doesn’t slip-up. Someone in the town is on a murderous rampage though and John can’t resist investigating for himself.
What follows is a strange, Donnie Darko-esque coming-of-age story (with panda make-up instead of a rabbit costume), as John has to deal with his own obsession without succumbing to it. The strongest part of the film is in his relationships with his family and Mr. Crowley. The characters are so rich, there’s a sense they have lives beyond the confines of the film, especially apparent in the exchanges between John and his mum. And the writing of Mr. Crowley is wonderful. In a more subdued role than that for which he is known, Christopher Lloyd is fantastic as the Blake-quoting neighbour who is feeling the effects of old-age. He has a spark of personality and a glint in his eye, nevertheless weighed down by age and worry for his wife. This really is one of Lloyd’s very best roles.
Despite its genre-bending narrative, the plot could easily be another twist on Scooby Doo; they might get away with it if it wasn’t for the pesky kid. See also Scream et al. But the pesky kid in this case is very complicated and the film belongs to the extraordinary Max Records in a perfectly judged, self-assured and witty performance. A performance that has to carry the film entirely. Best known for his role in Where the Wild Things Are, he has really taken this by the scruff of the neck and made it his own. He plays John as a socially-awkward loner, and yet with a misplaced confidence and pent-up frustration. There is never a suggestion that he is in fact the killer, but he essays the possibility throughout; that isn’t a spoiler. It’s worth knowing that the film’s secrets are built on more solid ground than such sensationalism. Actually, it gives the film something to play with (one cracking scene where he scares a bully stands out) without undermining the audience’s engagement with the character.
Nothing about Billy O’Brien’s direction is gratuitous or superfluous. For example, guts are literally spilling over the street in broad daylight within the first few minutes of the film, but it’s just a crime-scene with a corpse being wheeled away. The camera lingers at a distance. In the mortuary, there are several uncomfortably close shots of corpses; could it be called gory? No, it just adds to a sense of mischievous unease. Perhaps a mirror of John’s personality, the camera is fascinated by the detail in everyday life -of which corpses are included because that’s the day-job for a kid living in a mortuary- and less so in the extraordinary victims. Although the scenes featuring the killer and his methods pack one heck of a punch.
There are several scenes of murder and again, they are disturbingly effective for not being overdone. And when John starts to investigate and tease the killer, we have night-time scenes that are reminiscent of John Carpenter’s laid-back style of disquiet. It can be scary too, really getting under the skin. The attention to detail drives it home too; it could almost be considered contrived that a conversation about school should take place while a post-mortem is being routinely undertaken, but that’s part of the fun that a willing audience accept. Demand, even.
The grungy, mundanity of the town is embodied in Robbie Ryan’s 16mm photography. He has a rich CV: Slow West, Red Road and American Honey stand out and are all remarkable for their cinematography and so is I Am Not A Serial Killer. It has a noticeable amount of grain and the colours are often harsh; this is a film that wanted to be released in the 80s, the story capturing that unique period of slightly off-centre, almost exploitation horror. It’s Stranger Things for grown-ups in some ways. The soundtrack is similarly clever and haunting.
This a great, cool little film, shot through with black humour and superb performances. I Am Not A Serial Killer is definitely not a serial killer film, so that’s a confidently assertive title considering it’s otherwise happy to be a mongrel, albeit one packed with substance and wears its heart on its sleeve (after casually taking it from its own chest, so to speak). John attracts some friendly attention while doing research in the library: “Serial killer, fairies, witchcraft, folk-tales; that’s an interesting combination”, he is told. Isn’t it just. Fingers crossed there is more to come.
Blu-ray accentuates the depth and grain in the 16mm source material. The film appears older, as it should. Colour can be both muted and yet occasionally harsh, but so consistent throughout that it is clearly to a purpose.
The sound design/editing is extraordinary and playful. Detailed, mundane and yet telling the story too, in concert with the intentions of the direction and narrative. It has a bassy, earthy quality to it and just as the story occasionally evokes the atmosphere of John Carpenter, so does the sound.
Some of the extra material dig into the film’s secrets, so be wary if you haven't seen the film yet. Perhaps though they don't dig far enough. This was clearly a long production and so a more in-depth making of -if not a commentary- would have been welcome.
Mood Cut (3m) - Test footage made a few years before the actual film which demonstrates how long the team were invested in the production. Including Max Records, who was only 13 at the time. It makes for an interesting comparison and little changed.
Phonebox Comparison (1m) - Continuing on from the 2011 test footage, this compares one key scene, showing Max growing as an actor and his commitment.
Puppet Shoot (2m) - Fascinating behind the scenes look at shooting the finale and the practical effects that were employed. Again, Max is clearly heavily involved, or at least they let him be!
Deleted Scenes (5m) - Five scenes, largely unnecessary and probably just cut for pacing, but they are good and a couple of lines of sharp dialogue flesh out the main story a little more.
Lake Storyboarding (3m) - Storyboard comparison for the scene at the lake. Fun to see the behaviour and habits of the creature detailed clearly.
Toby Froud Monster Selects (1m) - A collection of photos of the monster, from concept to mechanics.