The first thing that hits you in Billy O’Brien’s adaptation of Dan Wells’ novel is the atmosphere. Dark, cold and rich, this is a wonderful slice of small town gothic that has some real surprises up its sleeve.
John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is a difficult teenager. Diagnosed as sociopathic by his therapist (Karl Geary), he spends his time in school trying to repress his violent urges towards the kids who bully him, and at night he helps his mum (Laura Fraser) and aunt (Christina Baldwin) in their basement mortuary.
When the bodies coming in start to look like the work of a serial killer, the fascinated John quickly latches onto his amiable elderly neighbour Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) as a potential suspect. But are John’s suspicions justified? What is Crowley hiding?
With a film like this, it’s so important to get the lead character right, and I Am Not A Serial Killer boasts an absolutely superb turn from Records (Where The Wild Things Are). The blend of John’s fascination and fear is compelling, and Records finds both the humour in his lack of empathy and the humanity in his struggling to avoid what could very well be his destiny.
The snow-bound small town is the perfect setting for this story: families fighting to maintain normality, a minimal law enforcement presence, and no real possibility of escape. With dead bodies in the basement and a panda-balaclava-sporting, possible-killer, definite-stalker antihero, it’s leaning into the horror genre even before the plot really kicks in but O’Brien and his team root their story firmly in reality and maintain a real emotional depth throughout, helped by cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Slow West) and excellent supporting performances (Breaking Bad’s Fraser is particularly good as John’s worried mother).
And then there’s Lloyd as the friendly old-timer across the road…It’s difficult to talk too much about his performance without ruining anything, but it’s some of his best work in years, as the veteran character actor switches between doddering and sinister beautifully.
The pacing and subject matter may alienate some viewers, but this is the kind of film that deserves to find a cult audience. It’s a chilling, surprising and sensitive horror that you won’t forget in a hurry.
This review of I Am Not A Serial Killer comes from its London Film Festival screening. It will be released in UK cinemas on 8 December.