Anyone who lives in a small town will tell you that a siren is a rare and surprising occurrence. I Am Not A Serial Killer opens with an ambulance siren blaring, setting the mood for a flick that always maintains a concrete sense of place, namely small-town Americana, which helps Billy O’Brien’s film overcome its modest means.
Progressing from one kind of dangerous fantasy to another, Where The Wild Things Are-star Max Records plays the titular non-murderer. His character’s insistence on his lack of murderousness goes against not just his unfortunate name, John Wayne Cleaver, but also against the homicidal tendencies that manifest themselves in fantasies of occasionally killing passers-by. As far as teen outsiders go, there’s not a lot new to John on the surface. He exhibits a lot of the usual traits of the ostracised movie teen (Social awkwardness , small circle of friends), but there’s not a lot of proof he’s actually succumbing to his homicidal leanings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Records is very likeable in the lead, gifting John a lot of identifiability. It just means his character arc initially feels more familiar than it should.
But John and the film’s greater concern is the bodies that are suddenly piling up all over town. The funeral home run by John’s mother (Laura Fraser) is suddenly very busy as a spate of grisly murders begins. O’Brien and DoP Robbie Ryan generate a sense of place so well; John lives in a very recognisable small-town, where ‘OPEN’ signs offer warm glows in coffee shop windows, and violence is rare enough for this new spate of deaths to shake the populace to the core. John’s suspicions turn to his elderly neighbour Mr. Crowley. Christopher Lloyd is cannily cast in the role of Crowley, his quiet husk of a voice being both inviting and suspicious at once. The very presence of the erstwhile Doc Brown also helps ground O’Brien’s film in a very definite place and time. Though set in the present, the setup feels of the kind someone like Joe Dante would relish in the mid-late ‘80s. Adapted from Dan Wells’ cult teen novel, O’Brien and co-writer Christopher Hyde nail that Dante-esque mood of dread stalking sleepy suburbia. If we found out John or Crowley had Gizmo for a pet, it’d wouldn’t be surprising.
As more denizens of the town befall fates that become increasingly inhuman, John’s fear and Crowley’s paranoia grow. John’s personal issues do mean it’s difficult for him to convince his nearest and dearest, be it his mother or his therapist (Karl Geary), of his suspicions. The best scenes are always the ones between Crowley and John, as the teen finds his bloodthirst beginning to boil over in the presence of a potential killer. The two leads are key to I Am Not A Serial Killer’s success. Its reverence for ‘80s horror can bleed into a certain conventionality, but it has grit and grue, and a self-assuredness that belies its relatively small scale. There’s a lot here to make teen slasher and creature feature fans alike smile.