by Ren Zelen
Sixteen-year-old Midwesterner John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) has issues. He is avoided by his classmates and treated warily by most adults because he is unashamedly obsessed with serial killers, murder, and death.
His fascination is fed by the regrettable fact that his loving but overworked single mom, April (Laura Fraser) owns an understaffed funeral home, and at busy times he is allowed to help her and his aunt prepare the dead bodies brought to the mortuary for burial.
However, John’s detailed school essays on famous murderers and forays into the funeral home’s embalming room, have gained him an unusually understanding Irish psychiatrist, Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary). Neblin tells April that her son needs therapy for his sociopathic tendencies and should be assiduously assisted in trying to resist his most violent urges.
John, like any teenager, is bored by his small-town existence, but he perks up when his sleepy, little community begins to be plagued by a series of grisly murders. Inevitably drawn to the gruesome crime scenes, he sets out to investigate the proceedings.
In I Am Not a Serial Killer (an adaptation of Dan Wells’s young-adult novel of the same name) director Billy O’Brien balances the tedium of small-town life (the film was shot in wintry Minnesota) with a sense of mounting unease, but infuses it all with a uniquely wry tone.
O’Brian juxtaposes the menacing and the absurd in a blackly amusing, matter-of-fact way. To give one example, in one scene mother and son are in the car having a frank discussion about whether John has an urge to kill his therapist Dr. Nevlin – then we pan back to see the psychiatrist himself sitting in the back seat nodding sagely to the points being made.
John isn’t really a bad kid, even if he does have trouble with empathy and connection. As a result, he’s established a system of personal rituals and self-checks to overcome his more sinister tendencies. When a bully pushes him a little too far at a school dance, John’s deadpan and smiling recitation of the rituals he must employ to successfully quell his urge to kill him, provides another of the film’s many oddly droll scenes.
Still, John cannot help but embrace his nature, and his obsessive sleuthing leads him to suspect that his elderly neighbour Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is neither as harmless nor as feeble as he appears to be. Lloyd takes the opportunity to play against type in a terrifying villain role, but with hidden and surprising complexities.
What sets I Am Not A Serial Killer apart is its naturalistic, character-based approach and an unconventional examination of two different notions of ‘the monster in human skin’ horror movie convention.
Max Records is engaging yet unsentimental in playing a character who, as his dialogues with his therapist and his mother reveal, is struggling to identify what others perceive as normality and attempting to understand love, relationships, and the complicated motivations which might lead to violence. It is however, unwise to elaborate too much on the movie’s two perspectives on horror monsters, without giving away a huge (and surprising) reveal mid-way through the movie.
I Am Not A Serial Killer recalls George Romero’s 1977 film Martin, which also used a small Midwestern town as the blue-collar backdrop for a character study of a young man wrestling with his darkest urges.
Although O’Brien tries to keep the audience engaged with sardonic humour and interesting insight regarding its subject matter, I Am Not A Serial Killer has some issues with pacing. Ghoulish and unconventional, the movie may not become a breakout hit, but thanks to its originality and some excellent performances from the strong cast, it should certainly become a cult favourite.