My notes on Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, screening at Fantasia.
Since his excellent debut feature, the Irish monster-on-a-farm movie Isolation, director Billy O’Brien has drifted somewhat – turning out an unmemorable SyFy quickie (The Other Side) and an Outpost knock-off (Scintilla), both evidently troubled productions. However, he takes a great leap forward with this UK-Irish co-production, shot and set in Minnesota, based on the first of a series of young adult novels by Dan Wells. The tone is somewhere between Dexter and Goosebumps, with slow-burning, acutely-observed sociopathic character drama (a little after the manner of Craig William Macneill’s The Boy or Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die) segueing into grotesque monster action. Some will find the last-act detour into the outrageously fantastical hard to take, but it’s set up perfectly well throughout and serves as a springboard for further adventures.
John Wayne Cheaver (Max Records), teenage son of single mom mortician April (Laura Fraser), has grown up around dissected corpses and is developing what he recognises as the early signs of sociopathy … though therapist Dr Neblin (Karl Geary) is helping him cope with his lack of empathy and violent urges. Like Dexter, he has learned rules to keep him from going off the rails – but isn’t quite self-aware enough to realise that telling his only friend they hang out together and ‘do normal stuff’ only because he feels an obligation to try to socialise is likely to annoy the other kid. His coping strategy for jock bullies is to respond to aggression by bestowing a compliment – demonstrated in a funny scene as he venomously lists a bully’s good points while obviously holding back from stabbing the guy. The neatest trick of the premise is that being obsessed with the habits of notorious serial killers turns out to be be useful when John turns into a junior detective. He’s the only one to notice a crucial clue (missing organs) in the cases of a series of horribly mangled murder victims who end up on his mother’s table. Soon after, he spies elderly neighbour Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) impaling a friend with a log and sets about trying to thwart this killer, who staggers into memorials for his victims and outwardly seems a pillar of the community. When calling the cops only leads to more victims, John stalks his neighbour and works out ingenious tricks to bring down the monster.
In chatting with his not-quite girlfriend Brooke (Lucy Lawton), John suggests that stories of werewolves and vampires are based on historical serial killers – but it turns out that the myth-to-reality process runs the other way, and that Crowley – who coughs up black tar and howls like an animal when murdering, showing bursts of superstrength that bely his frailty – isn’t entirely or even human. The home stretch of the film brings on a separate, far-less-human-seeming beast and gives O’Brien a chance to trot out the skills with gloopy monster action she showed in the grimly effective Isolation.
There’s a parallel in the premise – unusual kid with psychic quirks takes on monsters and murderers – with Odd Thomas, but this lacks the whimsy of that Dean Koontz-derived movie. Records – the kid from Where the Wild Things Are – is excellent as the lank-haired, not-entirely-likeable hero, who could plainly go either way – as his character name, which evokes John Wayne, John Wayne Gacy and Leave it to Beaver – suggests. Will he fight monsters or become one? Lloyd is one of those performers who are too rarely asked to do anything but their usual schtick (see his Doc Brown-lite turns in the recent Piranha films): here, he does his best work in years – oddly pathetic, yet properly terrifying. Wells has clearly set out a mythology for his world, and O’Brien salts hints throughout of where the saga might go.