I Am Not A Serial Killer is a strange little film, a kind of teen movie/horror mash-up set in a cold small Midwestern town. An adaptation of a young adult novel about a teenage psychopath who discovers that his elderly neighbour is a serial killer, the film never manages to reconcile its many distinctive elements, and ultimately betrays them for a deliberately over the top finale. The final scene might be the film’s biggest disappointment, but there’s plenty of interest in watching the movie struggle to balance its competing priorities.
Seventeen year-old John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records, last notably seen onscreen as the kid in Where the Wild Things Are) juggles school with his job; he works at the town morgue with his mum. The morgue also happens to be in the basement of his house. There’s a serial killer on the loose, and soon enough Cleaver identifies him as his elderly neighbour Mr Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). The two begin an escalating cat-and-mouse game, all while the teenager continues going to school, hanging out with his one friend and seeing a therapist (Irish actor Karl Geary).
Records is fine as Cleaver—no small task considering how much of the film’s running time is spent watching him watching other things—but the actor worth singling out is Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd gives an odd but effective performance as an elderly serial killer with a supernatural bent. He’s all groaning and grunting, and his dialogue is at times impossible to understand. This approach helps establish the shock of the first murder: how could a man so frail, whose very daily life seems so painful, be capable of such a thing? As the film goes on and the murders continue, shock gives way to a weird sort of hypnotism. We spend a lot of this film catching glimpses of Lloyd through windows or around the corners of buildings, and it’s low-key enthralling watching him lurch and mumble from one killing to the next.
It’s a neat idea, this—a teen film about a psychopath who you can’t help but empathise with—but the movie is clearly more interested in one genre at the expense of the other. The fascinating glimpses we get at life as a psychopath loner in a Minnesota High School give way, after the film’s key early reveal, into a superficially darker riff on Rear Window. Cleaver spends a lot of time in his bedroom, obsessively watching the movements of Mr Crowley across the street. In the film’s grimmest sequence, he waits for Crowley to drive off, then breaks into the house in the middle of the night. He makes his way to the bedroom, and uses his phone to take photos of Mr Crowley’s sleeping, elderly wife (Dee Noah).
This is grim territory for a teen film to traverse, which raises the question of whether this can even be considered one. Yet there are plenty of genre tropes on display: there’s the annoying girl who has a crush on Cleaver (Lucy Lawton)—his rebukes of her advances are a vague source of humour in the film—and then there’s his small-town boredom. As Cleaver says at one point about the murders: “this isn’t supposed to take place here. Nothing happens here.” It’s an insufferably didactic statement, made without a hint of self-awareness—the kind of dialogue that’s right at home in a conventional teen movie.
These are odd, seemingly disparate ingredients for a film. Irish director Billy O’Brien captures them on 16mm film, a formal choice that is totally at odds with the film’s credulity-straining narrative. It’s a clever, even compelling conceit, and bestows upon the film a drastically needed verisimilitude. O’Brien’s camera also precisely captures this town’s idiosyncratic beauty: the dimly lit diners of the main street, the billowing white smoke blasting out of a factory.
Incongruously jostling with the beauty of small town America for I Am Not A Serial Killer’s central motif are bodily organs. They fall out of a freshly-minted dead body in the film’s opening scene, Cleaver cuts and bags them at the morgue, Cleaver’s mum hollows out the centre of a turkey for Christmas and the board game ‘Operation’ predictably makes an appearance. It’s fun, in a dark kind of way, to see so many of these moments, but beyond the cheap gore factor there doesn’t seem to be much point to them.
For much of its running time, I Am Not A Serial Killer sustains its intriguing mixture of teen and gore tropes. But when it abandons its competing priorities for the dramatically (and, crucially, aesthetically) conventional final scene, it careens off the rails. The events of this finale are ostensibly shocking, but it’s so tonally at-odds with the rest of the film that it feels like a director giving up. The film abandons its strong sense of place and tone, developed through its awkward yet endearing collision of genres, ideas and events, in order to wrap things up in a deliberately over-the-top way.