I Am Not a Serial Killer – the latest from Irish horror director Billy O’Brien (Isolation, The Hybrid) succeeds almost entirely on mood. It tells the tale of John (Max Records of Where the Wild Things Are), a teenager and mortician in a small suburban town who is obsessed with serial killers and death. His fascination is so extreme that both his mother (Laura Fraser – Breaking Bad, The Missing) and his psychiatrist (Karl Geary) believe he is capable of murder, given he displays all the traits of a budding killer e.g. voyeurism, cruelty to animals and lack of empathy. However, when John realises that his elderly neighbour (Christopher Lloyd) is responsible for a wave of local killings, he becomes embroiled in a deadly game of cat and mouse, all while trying to suppress his own murderous urges.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (renowned for his stellar work on American Honey) manages to seamlessly merge an authentic sense of place with an amazingly gloomy horror atmosphere. Every frame of John’s small town snowy surroundings feels utterly realistic. Yet, Ryan builds a looming sense of dread from seemingly ordinary aspects of the setting. For instance, the under-floor street heating, which serves to melt the snow, creates this thick potent fog which menacingly hangs in the air throughout the entire film. It’s akin to an old English gothic location but transplanted into a Stephen King-esque portrayal of Americana when characters just disappear into the heavy mist.
Although the film is set in modern-day, referencing smart phones, it possesses this nostalgic late 70’s, early 80’s vibe. Between the soundtrack, which features plenty of cool retro grunge rock, and some visual cues – grainy cinematography, POV shots – one associates with older chillers – I Am Not a Serial Killer fits into the recent wave of suspenseful homages to bygone eras of cinema (It Follows, Cold in July, The Guest, Stranger Things, Ouija: Origin of Evil). Watching the film is like discovering the most beautifully atmospheric schlocky eighties horror Blu-Ray in Tower Records.
However, the film isn’t just a horror. At times, it resembles a more nuanced character study. Although the “killers hunting killers” sub-plot isn’t revelatory (Showtimes’s Dexter, NBC’s Hannibal), O’Brien and his co-screenwriter Christopher Hyde’s adaptation of Dan Wells’ novel rarely feigns in regards to building John as a three-dimensional non-stereotypical character. The way the protagonist maintains a constant routine to prevent him from succumbing to his murderous thoughts makes him oddly sympathetic. The viewer sees the severe lengths the teen will go to in order not to hurt those close to him. It helps too that Karl Geary as John’s psychiatrist is such a natural and warm presence – he and his patient’s hilariously deadpan interactions give the film real heart. At its best, I Am Not a Serial Killer (and Max Records pitch-perfect performance) evokes memories of Donnie Darko, another darkly comic tale regarding a troubled teen who is inherently good but driven to insanity.
On a story level, the film begins very promisingly but goes slightly off the rails once a supernatural element is introduced. This is despite the best efforts of Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future’s Doc Brown), whose innate genial warmth is utilised here to chilling degree. The final set-piece is absolutely bonkers but I’m not entirely sure whether it’s a good or bad type of lunacy. That said, even when it falters plot-wise, the film’s naturalistic approach to its characters and its evocative setting is consistently entertaining. I left the movie wanting to spend more time with John. There are four additional books by Dan Wells to adapt featuring the character. This is the rare example where a sequel might be necessary.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is in cinemas from Friday 9th December. Check out the trailer below.
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