I am cautious about the term “indie horror;” As someone who likes independent and horror films, I appreciate that horror can be both smart and scary. ‘Terrifying’ doesn’t mean gratuitous amounts of violence or cliché jump scares anymore. It helps of course to possess those theatrical tropes, but it isn’t a deal breaker if a movie lacks the axe-wielding, gut spilling terror that is often associated with the genre. Even though I can appreciate how far horror movies have come since the late 70’s/80’s… I am turned off by movies with horror elements that only end up taking itself, its plot, and its characters too seriously.
It Follows is a prime example of “indie horror” gone awry. I excitedly saw this movie in theaters because of the hype surrounding the independently released horror movie. While It Follows in no way coined the “indie horror” craze, it, in many ways, represents the shift in mainstream attraction to the genre. As long as horror is packaged in a neat PG-13 rating, it can achieve cult-like status and acclaim.
When It Follows was released, I was game to watch horror’s new it child, a movie that was converting even the harshest critics to its side. It was a regrettable choice and remains one of the only two movies where I nearly demanded my money back because of the disappointment and annoyance. I found it pretentious, confusing, and dull, but mainly, I felt duped for falling into the mainstream indie horror bubble that continues to produce lackluster films while generating critical acclaim and buzz.
When I came across a newly released horror movie called I Am Not a Serial Killer, I thought I was doomed to repeat an It Follows disappointment. I must admit I hadn’t heard of this film until recently. As it is produced by IFC Midnight, I expected the usual low-budget, okay-acted but ill-conceived plot driven horror movie.
The movie takes place in a small Midwestern town where nothing bad ever really happens. The local cops busy themselves with traffic stop violations and handing out minor citations, and the teens spend most of their spare time participating in sports or attending school functions. It’s as boring of a place as possible, until a string of unexplained murders begin to take place and the main suspicion falls on a high school student named John Cleaver.
John Cleaver immediately comes under suspicion because he is a sociopath. And no, I don’t mean he’s your typical moody teenager who plays violent video games and watches too many horror movies. He is an actual sociopath who lacks empathy and is prone to unspeakable acts of violence. He thinks about killing people all the time and is diagnosed by his therapist as possessing homicidal tendencies that could one day manifest into real violence. His mother (and local medical examiner) knows John is a sociopath, his classmates know it, the local police know this and his therapist, who classified him, is aware of the dangers John could one day pose to society.
John is Dexter 2.0 in the making, but because he hasn’t acted on any of his murderous desires, he’s allowed to lead a normal, though heavily monitored life, in hopes that normalcy can distract him from his urges to kill. For the most part, these diversions work. His therapist meets with him weekly to help John suppress his desires to hurt people. His single mother allows John to work part-time at the funeral home in hopes that embalming bodies will prevent him from killing anyone. And outside of casually stalking the local neighborhood girl and fellow classmate, John is managing the unmanageable surprisingly well.
That is until a series of brutal murders rock the small town and everyone’s sense of safety and security diminish. John quickly becomes the first and only suspect because of his sociopathy, but he is convinced that the true killer is more sinister than anyone could imagine. The killer removes internal organs from his victims, soon after dismembering them and John believes that his killer is less human than he is. As the body count grows, John sets out to discover who the real murderer is, not because he wants to clear his name, but because by destroying the killer, John might be able to carry out his own form of violence against someone as evil as he is.
This movie was surprisingly fantastic. The plot, the characters, the murderer, and the subtle humor all worked to create an intense but fun movie. What makes this movie such a standout is John’s complete and utter lack of empathy, which makes him a cold and calculating person to watch on screen. As the deaths become more prevalent and gruesome, John is more intrigued than scared. John knows he is capable of committing the acts of violence now terrorizing his small town and because of this there is something so satisfying about him stalking and then confronting the real killer, if only to relate to someone who is as evil as he knows he can be.
Don’t get me wrong, this movie was gory and scary in parts that I was not expecting (and Christopher Lloyd is in it… need I say more!?), but it was also a smart horror movie. The whole time you can’t help but question whether John’s interest in killing the real murderer will make him the murderer he has tried so hard to suppress.
I did not expect much from I Am Not a Serial Killer, but I must admit, it was better than I could have imagined. I can’t explain much more about the plot without giving serious spoilers away, but it is an unexpected slasher/supernatural/dramedy wrapped up in one. The additional 80’s vibe creates an awesome homage to classic teen horror and contains just the right amount of blood and gore to turn this flick into an enjoyable and creepy indie horror gem.
This one receives my final rating of 4 dismembered limbs out of 5.