The Death Apprentice
There’s a delightfully mischievous visual joke at the beginning of Billy O’Brien’s wonderful dark comedy (axe) slash horror movie ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer’ (2016) that metaphorically immediately lays all it’s cards on the table, but given the subject matter, intestines have replaced said deck, and if the splat doesn’t press your lurid laugh button, well you’re going to miss out on a small treasure of a movie.
John Wayne Cleaver (there’s a macabre heroic comedy in his name alone, superbly played by Max Records) is a seemingly directionless typical teen slacker wandering around the cold streets of Clayton on his bmx. Winter is coming, and so is death. Living in a Midwestern town with seemingly not much to offer, John is both searching for something and seemingly running away from himself. The fact he is obsessed with the history of serial killers brings both concern to his single mum April (Laura Fraser) who he helps run the local mortuary with, his school, and his therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) who admits he ticks all the check boxes of a serial killer, and hypnotically caressing cadavers certainly isn’t giving off the right vibes. Basically instead of starting the next Nirvana, John seems set on slashing his way out of purgatory and into heavenly fame.
John comes alive at the discovery of a murder, the body left in such a state that everyone believes that it was an animal attack. His instincts and profound knowledge of killers goes into homicide detective overdrive (even the local cops hail ‘What’s your prognosis John?’, ‘Well he’s dead for sure’ the literal deadpan Donnie Darkoesque reply) and with unfolding events, missing body parts and horrifying discoveries, things REALLY aren’t as they seem, at all.
Also living on John’s homely/neighbourly street is a girl he fancies, but is too adolescently embarrassed to do anything about it (except stare longingly through windows at) and the delightful doting old couple (the Crowleys) across the street, Mr Crowley played by the fantastic Christopher Lloyd. Everything would seem idyllic, maybe somewhat sleepy if it wasn’t for his somewhat dysfunctional family, the ever increasing body count and pools of black stuff at the scenes of the murders. It being Christmas, an already stressful time, trying to hunt down a murderer is certainly taking its toil. Both John’s sanity and salvation are at stake, is he hunting a killer or an incarnation of his future self?
Adapted from Dan Wells’ 2009 book (the first in a John Wayne Cleaver trilogy) there is a timeless instant classic ambience around the whole film. It’s incredibly beautifully shot on 16mm by the many award winning cinematographer Robbie Ryan, to not bring attention to this would be a disservice, it really is that stunning looking. The grain of the film makes it feel full of heritage, as though Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman may stroll into a scene at any moment, or De Niro’s Travis Bickle is actually driving the cab that strolls by. Adrian Johnston’s score adds and points to an almost simplistic Americana time too, with eerie funeral home keyboards, not quite John Carpenter, but unnerving all the same. The opening 80s style title sequence set to the grunge delights of The Family Dog ‘On Your Side’ create the tone beautifully and aptly painting the landscape of this dark adventure ahead.
There’s a very assured, confident leisurely pace to the whole film that only adds enjoyment to the unfolding dread. The script has some autopsy sharp lines that are delivered with dark glee and quiet menace especially by Records and Lloyd whose shared screen time is a delight to behold. Having first seen this in the cinema, it’s a pleasure to have the blu-ray now as it admirably succeeds in a blend of respectful nostalgia tone, but with the awareness of contemporary times. It looked great on the big screen, but equally resonates on a smaller one in the same way many VHS favourites were watched again and again. There’s some added bonus material too with the short mood film that set the tone for potential investors, deleted clips and various other pieces. All in all, it’s a refreshing delight of a dark movie and once again shows the strength of modern horror. I’ve not read the rest of the trilogy, but based on this first chapter, I REALLY hope they continue the movie series.
8/10 ‘I Am Not A Serial Killer’ is out on blu-ray and digital HD now.