I Am Not a Serial Killer has a promisingly schlocky title, but Billy O’Brien’s adaptation of Dan Wells’ YA novel (scripted with Christopher Hyde) never quite escapes its adolescent inspiration. John (Max Records, last seen as the kid in Where the Wild Things Are) lives with his mom (Laura Fraser) in Clayton, a small town in the frozen heart of America. Here, he helps with his mother’s mortuary business which has begun to get more business due to the activity of a suspected serial killer in the vicinity.
John is increasingly fascinated by the killings as he suspects that he too has sociopathic tendencies, an idea nurtured rather than dispelled by his counsellor (Karl Geary). Aside from that quirk, John has to put up with high-school bullying and small town dreariness and so the killings come as an opportunity for some exciting sleuthing. It doesn’t take much for suspicions to focus on elderly neighbour Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). The apparently avuncular old geezer, it soon becomes apparent, might well be responsible for the deaths and at the same time be something more terrifying than a serial killer. O’Brien’s film never fully decides what it wants to be. Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives Clayton a tactile down-to-earth reality, but the movie at times wants to lurch into social satire, especially with the repeated media reports on the killer.
There’s a dark humour here that echoes Heathers and Donnie Darko, but the us-against-them dynamic of youth-versus-age is not sufficiently established and the wit isn’t as scalpel sharp or subversive as it ought to be. Crowley and John have no real relationship to play with. In fact, John’s condition means all his relationships are uncinematically bland. When a local girl he has a crush on says “You’re not a freak,” the slightly clichéd approach should usher in a relationship, but the film forgets her entirely. Another ‘best friend’ is likewise dismissed. John’s family relationships are the most developed but even those are drained of emotional impact.
Are we supposed to think of John as a Dexter character? A kind of psycho with feelings? Or is he simply a bit of a poseur? And why would you let your weirdo son help you as you prepare dead bodies for burial? “That door’s going to be locked from now on,” says his mom, when she captures him tinkering inappropriately. I Am Not a Serial Killer is an entertainingly oddball watch, the kind of midnight movie that goes well with friends, beers and low expectations. But although adapted from the first in a series of novels, it’s unlikely to usher in a new franchise. And for that we must be thankful.