Despite his anti-social attitude, his his primary interests (human anatomy, embalming, serial killer lore), his diagnosis of sociopathy, his propensity for troubling and even violent outbursts, and his name, John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is not in fact a serial killer. But someone in his town is, and they are dispatching bodies at an alarming rate. The killer’s trademark is the removal of a vital organ—a different one for each victim—something John notices as he helps his mother embalm bodies at the family mortuary. One day John witnesses the killer murdering one of his victims, and what he sees suggests he may be dealing with something more than a mere disturbed individual.
Starting out as a punky psychological portrait of a troubled teen, “I Am Not a Serial Killer” (adapted from the novel by Dan Wells) and gradually transitions into an icily deranged take on the my-neighbor-is-a-monster genre. Somehow, director Billy O’Brien finds a middle ground between “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “Fright Night.” And goofy as that sounds, the film works remarkably well, allowing us to get to know John—a troubled yet charismatic teen played by Records with a perfect balance of neuroses and self-awareness—before drawing him into an increasingly ludicrous battle against his elderly neighbor Crowley (Christopher Lloyd, who tones down his usual bug-eyed howling shtick to deliver a surprisingly understated and even affecting performance here).
Filmed in Minnesota, O’Brien has a nice eye for the bruising mundanity of a small factory town, the kind of place that’s covered in snow half the year and might drive anyone to consider a killing spree, just to leaven the boredom. There is a certain wryness to O’Brien’s style that prevents John’s diagnosed sociopathy from overwhelming the film. There is a certain wryness in O’Brien’s style that turns the film away from a study of evil toward a more nuanced psychological examination. “I Am Not a Serial Killer” turns out to be less a depiction of sociopathy than of teen angst and small-town boredom.
As a storyteller, O’Brien takes his time, which allows for some nice, extended scenes between John and his therapist (Karl Geary). Things get a tad long-winded when things turn away from the psychology toward John and Crowley’s cat-and-mouse game, but the payoff is sufficiently gonzo that it’s hard to complain. Whenever the film threatens to settle down into straightforward thriller mode, O’Brien finds a way to twist things, if only slightly, to keep us our toes. Injecting a comic detail here or a disarmingly beautiful shot there, O’Brien subtly suggests a world richer and deeper than the gonzo story he’s telling. “I Am Not a Serial Killer” is a tricky mix of elements that come together to form a shockingly potent hybrid. This is the serial-killer-monster–movie-low-key-morgue-comedy-psychological-thriller you’ve been waiting for.