Sociopaths: they walk among us. Really, they do, and probably in greater numbers than you’d expect. Yet sociopathy is more stigmatised than other mental illnesses, and for understandable reasons: sociopaths have impaired empathy, which is obviously a significant factor in getting an audience on side.
Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not A Serial Killer makes its main character a sociopath, yet crucially stops short of making him a Patrick Bateman type. Instead, he’s high school kid John Wayne Cleaver, played by Where The Wild Things Are’s Max Records. An unlikely young-adult hero in an R-rated horror movie, he's aware of but unable to change his condition. Living with his funeral director mother (Breaking Bad's Laura Fraser), he maintains relationships only to keep up a modicum of normality. The closest thing to empathy he has is mutual respect, and he respects no one more than Mr Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), the dying old man living across the street. When his Minnesota town becomes beset by a spate of grisly murders, John is unable to control his fascination, and begins his own investigation into what kind of monster could cause such gruesome scenes.
Max Records brings John to life in a way that challenges the nature of audience sympathy. His sociopathy is treated honestly and with a sense of humour; John is not just self-aware, but possesses a reasonable degree of self-control. We don’t see characters like this often, and Records makes for a surprisingly compelling protagonist. He’s a paradox, completely uncaring about those around him - and occasionally terrifying as a result - yet aware that he's different, taking measures to integrate into society. Records also squeezes some wry humour out of his character, cleverly subverting high school movie cliche. His family’s funeral-home residence is perhaps a little on the nose, but it provides for some great sequences of both comedy and horror.
The serial killer A-plot goes to truly unexpected places, eliciting gasps from the Fantasia audience with whom I saw it. Deftly occupying the gaps between genres, it’s hard to describe without misrepresenting or spoiling its idiosyncratic qualities. In the third act, especially, the film jumps into the realm of full-on fantastic filmmaking - an approach that will alienate some viewers, but that offers a thoughtful and elegant mirror image to John’s sociopathy.
Serial Killer’s trailer goes to great lengths to disguise its surprises, but in doing so, it also conceals how much fun it is. Shot on grainy-as-fuck 16mm, hairs in the gate and all, Serial Killer is vibrantly dirty and down to earth, creating mood through medium without it feeling like an affectation. It suits the run-down, snow-covered town in which it was shot, as well as the punk nihilism of its sociopathic protagonist. O'Brien plays with tone throughout the film, creating a thrillingly fresh blend of laughs, scares, and emotion. Most delightful of all is the film’s turn into heartwarming folktale - somehow accomplished without betraying its horror roots.
A significant chunk of Serial Killer’s charm stems from the great Christopher Lloyd. Crowley is a character constantly on the verge of death, kept going only by his love for his wife Kay (Dee Noah). Their relationship is the beating heart of the movie, a counterbalance to John’s detached outlook on humanity. A sequence where the Crowleys attend a senior citizens’ dance evening is tender and joyful, thrown into fascinating relief when John fails to comprehend it. But as becomes increasingly clear, Crowley has a lot going on in his life, choosing to balance his substantial dark side with an all-consuming true love. It’s thrilling to see Lloyd take on such new and daring material this late in his career, and he absolutely kills it whenever he’s onscreen.
I Am Not A Serial Killer defies expectations in a dozen different ways. Simultaneously treading new ground yet honouring a number of horror traditions, it’s brutal, funny, emotional, and smart, striking a tone unlike the vast majority of horror flicks. It also provides a rare non-judgemental character portrait of sociopathy, engaging with it intelligently without ignoring its dangerous side. With a wholly original blend of horror and heart, it’s one of my favourite films of the year so far. The series of novels upon which it's based is nearly at six volumes; I'd definitely watch the further adventures of John Wayne Cleaver.