Celluloid Screams 2016 Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)

By Ben Bussey

Anonymous small-town middle America: always the last place anyone anticipates crazy things happening, yet more often than not the first place crazy things happen in horror fiction. Stephen King’s main stock-in-trade for much of his career has been presenting us with an average, humdrum little place, going to lengths to ensure we’re well acquainted with exactly how humdrum and average it is, then gradually unearthing some bizarre, monstrous goings-on that the wider populace either fail to see or turn a blind eye to. King has inspired generations of horror writers to do likewise, and while at the time of writing I’m entirely unfamiliar with the work of author Dan Wells, it would appear he’s followed a similar path, beginning with his 2009 novel I Am Not a Serial Killer, the first in a series based around the teenage sociopath/amateur detective John Wayne Cleaver.

Much as I’m unfamiliar with Wells, I’m also unfamiliar with screenwriter and director Billy O’Brien, who has brought I Am Not a Serial Killer to the screen. However, I can say with some authority that O’Brien has achieved what just about every screen adaptation of Stephen King to date has failed to do: brought a genuinely grounded sense of kitchen sink realism to a tale of mystery and personal struggle which gradually unfurls into something considerably more bizarre than it initially seems to be.

John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records, best known for his child performance in Where The Wild Things Are) is the fifteen-year old son of the town mortician (Laura Fraser). With an absent father, a part-time job helping out his mother at work, a fascination with murder, and a name like ‘John Wayne Cleaver,’ it may not come as a huge surprise that he’s been clinically diagnosed a sociopath, and regularly meets with a therapist to keep his own murderous impulses at bay. However, when a series of strange deaths occur in town, with the deceased in each case arriving at the morgue with key organs inexplicably missing, John’s serial killer sense starts tingling, and he comes to believe that a methodical murderer is at work in his mundane home town. However, when his suspicions lead him to spy on his elderly neighbour Mr Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), John finds the truth of the matter is even stranger and more sinister than he thought.

It’s interesting to read that Well’s John Wayne Cleaver novels have been known to pose a dilemma to publishers’ marketing departments, unsure as to whether they belong in the ‘young adult’ category, or more general adult-oriented horror. It’s not hard to see why, given the age of the central protagonist, and the heavy emphasis on his troubled adolescent state of mind; but, while I don’t want to hammer the Stephen King comparisons into the ground, the likes of Carrie, Christine and It also centred on young characters without in any way alienating older readers. Much the same is true of this film. Viewers of any age can relate to John’s sense of isolation, apathy and hopelessness, and the decision to shoot on 16mm film in snowy Minnesota lends an earthy, tangible sense of the cold and bleak to proceedings. Indeed, there’s a very analogue sensibility at play throughout; where a great many contemporary indie horrors shot at this budgetary level tend to be shot digitally with synth-based soundtracks, I Am Not A Serial Killer is shot on film and boasts a score which for the most part sounds to have been performed on a church organ. ‘American Gothic’ definitely seems an apt description.

This chilliness is particularly pronounced as the film contrasts John’s youth and relative vibrancy with the advanced age of his neighbour Mr Crowley. Christopher Lloyd is of course inspired casting here; as generations of movie lovers have known him as the benign and grandfatherly Doc Brown, it’s genuinely compelling and haunting to see that persona turned on its head, particularly given that Lloyd really has reached such advanced years now. Many of the film’s key scenes see Lloyd and Records share the screen alone, and these are some very potent moments, conveying the sense that these two men, though ostensibly at loggerheads and far removed in years and life experience, are true kindred spirits at heart, understanding one another in a way no others do.

Particularly given how much I’ve gone on about the echoes of Stephen King (that’s the last time, I swear), I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that I Am Not a Serial Killer reveals a supernatural element midway, and I gather this is something that has rather divided opinion. It’s not hard to see how the story could have worked without it, but I don’t think the other-worldly elements in any way undermine the more grounded drama that came before it. Indeed, I hasten to add that, despite all the cold and grey and kitchen sink sensibilities I’ve harked on at length about, I Am Not a Serial Killer is by no means a dour and joyless affair. It’s rich with dark humour, primarily down to Records’ endearing central performance and the intriguing quirks which come from his condition, which John remains a hugely charismatic and likeable guy in spite of. Perhaps this isn’t the most realistic depiction of adolescent sociopathy, but as the supernatural elements underline, this isn’t a story that takes place in the really real world; and real or no, it makes for some compelling storytelling.

I definitely look forward to reading Dan Wells’ novel, and while this movie doesn’t exactly have ‘franchise-starter’ written all over it, I’d certainly welcome a follow-up. Either way, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a very enjoyable film which I hope bodes well for a fruitful career for Max Records as an adult, and it leaves me keen to see where director O’Brien goes next.

Bulldog Film Distribution will release I Am Not a Serial Killer to UK cinemas and VOD on 9th December.