Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Billy O’Brien
Written by: Billy O’Brien & Christopher Hyde
(based on the novel I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER by Dan Wells)
Starring: Max Records, Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Tim Russell, Christina Baldwin & Karl Geary
I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER is yet another in a long line of adolescent literature being adapted into films, but it sticks out for a few reasons. The source material wasn’t about a generic romance set against a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a fantasy revolving around a supernaturally gifted teen or a melodramatic coming-of-age tale. Instead, this novel was a dark thriller that involved blood, gore, a possibly violent sociopathic protagonist and a few unexpected twists. This film is mostly true to the source material, but fails to fully captivate, entertain or thrill. That’s truly a shame, because I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER clearly wants to do all three of those things…but gets bogged down in uneven pacing and mixed bag performances.
John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is a teenage sociopath working in a mortuary with his mother. Obsessed by gore, death and serial killers, John created rules that keep him from going over the edge. He hangs out with a weirdo best friend, pays compliments to bullies that he wants to hurt, and relieves his bloodthirsty tendencies by dissecting cadavers in the mortuary. As far as I can tell, he’s a perfectly normal teenage boy. However, John’s life changes when a wave of grisly murders pop up in his small town and it appears that a serial killer is on the loose. Fascinated by the mutilated bodies that keep hitting his workplace and desperate to catch this monstrous maniac, John becomes a would-be detective…but he may not like what he finds.
SERIAL KILLER’s performances range from great to tolerable to dull. Christopher Lloyd (as elderly next-door-neighbor Mr. Crowley) is easily the film’s biggest highlight, with young Max Records (WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE) as a close-second. The scenes between Lloyd and Records become high points in a thriller that isn’t very thrilling. Cleaver is a difficult protagonist to identify with, but the book aided this with first-person narration. This is something that the movie could have benefitted from, because Cleaver’s amoral attitude can occasionally force the viewer to stand an arm’s length away from him.
This movie doesn’t have many supporting characters. Laura Fraser is believable enough as John’s stressed out parent/boss. Karl Geary plays John’s therapist, but doesn’t contribute anything more than pretentious observations that could have easily been excised for the sake of time. Lucy Lawton plays a would-be love-interest, but only has five minutes to show that she cares about John and that’s it. Apparently, this character plays a much bigger role in the second book, so it might be possible the screenwriters were setting up a sequel. I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER tries to incorporate all three of these characters into the proceedings and half-asses all three of them.
In a story where a teenager stalks a mysterious serial killer, you’d expect tension, creepy moments and a thick atmosphere. While SERIAL KILLER attempts to create a bleak tone from a dreary color scheme and a snow-covered landscape, this only feeds into the film’s already tedious pacing problem. This movie doesn’t get exciting or suspenseful for three-quarters of its total running time. There are definitely ingredients for a good horror-thriller here, but they aren’t fully realized. There are three total sequences that make any sort of creepy impact. These cat-and-mouse bits are well-executed, but the entire film should have strived to be that way. Even though I didn’t exactly love the book that this film was based upon, it still had a menacing sense of dread.
In other hands, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER might have been something truly special. One big plot revelation (something that I won’t spoil here and is revealed almost halfway into the novel) plays out a lot better on the screen than it did on the page, but the film botches that up with goofy special effects that don’t seem threatening or grotesque. I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER feels like it wanted to do something special, unique, and brave, but wasn’t granted enough rewrites, budget or talent to do so. It’s ambitious in some ways and completely falls apart in many others. It’s not as if this movie is terrible, because it does have a few stand-out positive qualities. However, the dull pacing, boring script, and plot threads that go nowhere ultimately make it one of the year’s bigger disappointments.