Saturday, September 3, 2016

Movie Review: I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (2016)

The evening of the first day of DragonCon 2016, I had the opportunity to see a screening of mystery-horror film I Am Not A Serial Killer, with Dan Wells, author of the novel on which it was based, answering questions before and after the show. The panel discussion will be its in own blog post; now it's time for the review...

The Plot

Teenage John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) works in a funeral home, has a fascination with serial killers, and has recently been diagnosed as a clinical sociopath. To prevent himself from harming others, he lives by a strict series of rules. However, a serial killer has begun stalking his small Midwestern town and Cleaver may have to break his rules to defeat him...especially since the killer isn't human.

The Good

*The film has some extremely creepy and suspenseful scenes. Even though I knew the general outlines of what was going to happen, there are many scenes where you fear just what Cleaver or his seemingly-benign elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) are going to do.

*The film has a lot of really good dialogue, including Cleaver's Crowning Moment of Awesome from the book where he terrifies the oafish high school bully at a Halloween dance. Records delivers the lines with what another review I read describes as aggressive cheerfulness in a sequence that drew laughter, applause, or a combination thereof from the audience. Cleaver's reaction to catching his mother at dinner with his therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) is pretty funny too, as is Neblin's reaction to his comments. The confrontation between Cleaver and the killer in a chapel just before the film rolls to its violent conclusion is also well-done.

*Geary and Lloyd deliver the best performances in the film. Neblin is extremely witty and obviously cares very much for Cleaver, while Lloyd lets the occasional flash of creepiness or rage shine through Crowley's kindly old neighbor persona, setting up something much worse to come.

*There are lots of interesting character moments. Although Brooke (Lucy Lawton) plays a smaller role than I remember her playing in the book, the friendliness and kindness that marked her character are still made clear in a couple scenes. Crowley displays some interesting depths--in one scene he quotes William Blake's poem "The Tiger" to reveal what in hindsight is self-loathing.

*The filmmakers do a good job showing rather than telling Crowley's love for his wife, which is an extremely important motivator for his character.

*I noticed the film looked kind of old-fashioned in terms of the coloration, how things appeared on the screen, etc. It turns out it was shot entirely on 16mm film, film that is no longer made but the filmmakers kept cooled in their garage for years. Wells said they were going for an "old, gritty-looking" feel and in that they succeeded.

*The violence in the film is sudden and brutal rather than stylized. This is much more like real-life violence than movie violence.

*Per my comment above, the scene where the killer's true identity--and true nature--is revealed is very well-done. John's reaction is also done well.

The Bad

*The movie was rather slow-moving. That was my single biggest problem with the movie. I remember checking my watch multiple times, which is my main indicator of whether a film is entertaining or not.

*It's not clear why Cleaver decides to interfere with the killer's activities at all, although when he does decide to, the movie does make it clear why he chooses to challenge Crowley personally. It's been many years since I've read the book, but the book jacket suggests he's doing to protect his family and the town--he's fighting "a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could." Although he doesn't have an emotional connection with anybody, he knows he should and is acting accordingly. Yes, Cleaver is a psychopath, but instead of thinking nothing is wrong with him, he knows he's damaged and wants to be better.

*Records delivers some of Cleaver's snarky dialogue really well, but I never got a creepy incipient psycho-killer vibe from him. In the book there's a scene where he discusses with Dr. Neblin trapping and torturing prairie dogs in a way that comes off like he's discussing playing with Legos. That illustrates just how warped he is, but didn't make it into the movie. He does watch Brooke and her family through a window early on, but the creepiness in that scene was too subtle. I expected someone far more intense and overtly unsettling. The closest we get to that early on is a scene where he has to restrain himself from attacking a trio of bullies, but that could have easily been him trying to avoid escalating a situation into a fight he can't win, not checking murderous tendencies.

*At one point Cleaver catches the killer in the act, but the killer frightens him away rather than immediately attack him as well. Wells said during the panel that in the novel it was explicitly stated he was too weak to kill Cleaver and finish what he was doing with the corpse at the same time and the film let the reader draw that conclusion. However, I didn't get that, which is why I had to ask in the first place.

*The final confrontation between Cleaver and the killer is rather underwhelming.

The Verdict

A rather minimalist film, but still creepy and suspenseful. 8.5 out of 10.

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