By Marty Mulrooney
I Am Not A Serial Killer is a low-budget horror/thriller film based on the young adult novel of the same name by bestselling author Dan Wells. Directed by Billy O’Brien, the film stars Max Records (Where The Wild Things Are) as John Cleaver, a teenager that has been diagnosed as a sociopath. Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future) stars as his elderly neighbour Bill Crowley. Max supresses his homicidal thoughts and urges by following a strict set of rules that allow him to appear ‘normal’. But when a serial killer comes to their small Mid-West town, Max can’t help himself. He begins to investigate…
I Am Not A Serial Killer is based on some truly wonderful source material, an enviable position for any film project to be in. The original book had a superb midway twist that remains fully intact in this faithful cinematic adaption. However, to discuss either version of the story in any detail necessitates some mild spoilers being revealed. Therefore, if you’re particularly adverse to such spoilers: please stop reading now. Watch the trailer and – if I Am Not A Serial Killer seems like your cup of dark, murky tea – simply go and watch it! Then come back and read this review.
Still here? Great! Filmed on grainy 16mm and shot in Minnesota (the same instantly recognisable small town locale featured in cult classic Fargo), I Am Not A Serial Killer creates an unsettling vibe from the outset. Clayton can still look warm and inviting despite the snow and ice. It’s undoubtedly the kind of place where people live their whole lives and never leave until the day they die. Yet there’s something not quite right as a dead body is lifted into a waiting ambulance. Perhaps it’s the wet guts that fall from the victim’s gaping abdomen and splash onto the tarmac below. Clayton doesn’t know it yet, but there’s a serial killer on the loose.
The killer is not local teenager John Cleaver, although there’s no telling what his future holds. He works part-time in the family Mortuary despite his mother’s objections and is obsessed with serial killers. He regularly sees a psychiatrist who continually emphasises that, despite displaying all the common traits, John doesn’t have to become a serial killer. That’s why he has his rules – to ensure his thoughts don’t become reality. One of the film’s most memorable moments is when John completely freaks out a bully at the school Halloween party by simply smiling and complementing his costume, before explaining exactly what he isn’t going to do. Max Records absolutely nails the part. He is John Cleaver.
Christopher Lloyd is likewise perfectly cast as Max’s elderly neighbour Mr Crowley. Fans of Lloyd (especially in his popular guise as Doc Brown) will already know that he is capable of playing characters that are extremely likeable, warm-hearted and kind. That’s certainly how Mr Crowley is initially introduced and portrayed: a sweet, loving husband who is starting to feel the aches and pains of old age in his bones. What will shock many viewers is just how menacing Christopher Lloyd can become in an instant. He shuffles slowly in the background with masked purpose, his glasses magnifying alert eyes that miss nothing.
As Max investigates a string of increasingly gruesome murders, his path will cross with Mr Crowley’s in shocking ways neither of them could have ever imagined. There is a supernatural element to the story being told, despite I Am Not A Serial Killer being firmly grounded in reality for much of its run-time. Like the book, this element will undoubtedly divide opinion. Think Stranger Things set in the modern day, with a dash of Donnie Darko and a sprinkling of Dexter thrown in for good measure. The 16mm presentation looks muted, grainy and gorgeous, like a forgotten classic from the ’70s. The brief special effects – using puppets! – are also highly effective despite the slender budget. It’s not the kind of Blu-ray presentation that will blow you away, but it’s perfectly suited to the story being told. Furthermore, the soundtrack is great, especially the pulse racing creepy tune played by John on the Mortuary organ.
Despite being a respectful adaptation and a strong film in its own right, I Am Not A Serial Killer does lose some things in translation. John’s thoughts played a huge part in the original novel, but it was the right decision not to use a voiceover here. It would have overwhelmed the film and ruined the haunting atmosphere. There is also less time dedicated to John’s strained relationships with his geeky best friend and his family. It’s a shame the 100 minute length wasn’t stretched to two hours, as the film never outstays its welcome. Still, it’s hard to imagine fans of the book being disappointed by the time the final credits roll to the tune of Spirit in the Sky. This is the source material brought to bloody, visceral life and the final shot is a killer.
I Am Not A Serial Killer is well worth seeking out on Blu-ray. Featuring incredible performances from both Records and Lloyd, the $1.45 million budget has gone very far indeed. The special features are short but sweet, especially the test film from 2011 with a younger Records, and the exclusive ‘Monster Shoot’ featurette. This is a dark, scary film with a wicked sense of humour that is surprisingly touching in the end. With five books in the series released to date (with a sixth in the pipeline), let’s hope this isn’t the last we see of John Cleaver on the silver screen.
9 OUT OF 10