UK Release Date: 20th February 2017
Runtime: 101 minutes
Director: Billy O’Brien
Writer: Christopher Hyde, Billy O’Brien
Starring: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Christina Baldwin, Lucy Lawton, Raymond Brandstrom
Synopsis: A troubled teen obsessed with serial killers gets in far too deep when a string of murders plague his small town, sending him very quickly into detective mode as he attempts to track down the killer.
Sleepy, anonymous American suburbs have long been a favoured hunting ground for horror cinema, from the quiet streets of Haddonfield in John Carpenter‘s genre-defining Halloween to the similarly unnerving environs of the 2014 throwback hit It Follows. The latest director to ride the wave of 80s revisionism is Irish filmmaker Billy O’Brien, whose brilliantly unusual I Am Not a Serial Killer offers yet another unique take on the horror lurking behind the net curtains of suburban Americana. With lashings of Cronenberg and Lynch combined with the cutesy nostalgia of Stranger Things, this is an odd beast that packs a real punch.
John (Max Records) is a teenager enthralled by the methodology of serial killers and diagnosed as a sociopath by understanding therapist Dr Neblin (Karl Geary). By working with his mother (Laura Fraser) in her funeral home, he becomes fascinated by a string of murders that plague his quiet town, with the killer taking organs and body parts from each of their victims. John begins to put together a profile of the killer, but is soon distracted by the fact that elderly neighbour Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) seems to be harbouring a dark and unusual secret.
It’s clear from the first moments of I Am Not a Serial Killer that O’Brien is a cinephile who wears his influences on his sleeve throughout the movie. There are scenes of bodily contortions that would make Cronenberg proud and his subversion of suburban comfort is straight out of John Carpenter’s playbook. The film has an unnerving tone throughout, enhanced by the frequent juxtaposition of wide, largely static shots and huge close-ups of the central characters. O’Brien uses the recurring visual motif of a power station spewing smoke over the town as a signal that there’s a lot of dirt in the air here and that there’s plenty going on to keep it hidden and under wraps.
Max Records proves to be the perfect entry point for this unusual world. Like Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko, Records is a lank-haired outcast who doesn’t fit in to the cosy suburban locales in which he has been brought up. He quips to his therapist about killing to disguise his very real fears about his own capabilities and that fear is always palpable beneath the surface, which makes Records more compelling than the average wise-cracking teen protagonist. Even more impressive is Christopher Lloyd, who has a darkness here that will be a sharp shock to those who know him primarily as the wild-eyed and broadly comedic Doc Brown in the Back to the Future trilogy.
Records and Lloyd have an unusual, strange relationship throughout the film, which proves to be the focal point of its drama. They are unlikely friends in the early stages of the movie and we watch that friendship turn sour as the dark secrets of Lloyd’s character throw a spanner into the works of John’s investigation into the murders. The exact nature of this secret is not revealed until late in the film and I Am Not a Serial Killer is refreshingly unafraid to take major risks as it moves into its incredibly gruesome, grotesque final third. If the film has a major weakness, it’s that the grue and weirdness doesn’t always leave room for character depth, particularly in the case of John’s woefully and sadly underwritten relationship with literal and figurative girl next door Lucy Lawton.
In many ways, the film’s biggest selling point is the line it walks between wry humour and bowel-shifting scenes of horror. The finale is intensely uncomfortable in its drawn-out violence, but it feels like a fitting culmination for the threat and terror that has come before. It’s a film that always has one more surprise in its back pocket, even when horror fans will think they can plot out exactly where the movie is going. Audiences might have seen their share of Cronenberg, Carpenter and Lynch but they mustn’t forget the crucial thing – O’Brien has seen them all too.
Special features are rather sparse on this one. There’s a 2011 test film starring Max Records and a featurette from the shoot, but that’s about it. Some director insight on the film’s unique vision would’ve been welcome.
Pop or Poop?
Eighties horror twisted the notion of the quiet suburb into a guarantee of festering depravity and I Am Not a Serial Killer is an homage to that. It’s no pastiche, however, and has enough oddball tricks up its sleeve to avoid any accusations of recycling. Lloyd and Records are tremendous in two meaty, unique roles and the violence will turn even the strongest of gorehound stomachs.
Horror films with a rose-tinted view of the 80s are ten a penny in modern cinema, but few are as imaginative in their darkness as this. This one’s special.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now, courtesy of Bulldog Film Distribution.
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