Suzanne Collins famously stumbled on her inspiration for “The Hunger Games” trilogy while channel surfing between newscasts of war zones and reality competition shows. In the case of “I Am Not a Serial Killer,” based on the first book in Dan Wells’ YA series, it’s not hard to imagine its author slipping into a similar fever dream after binge-watching all of “Dexter,” “Fargo” and “Six Feet Under” in one go. The tale of a likable teenager, raised by a mortician family, whose own nascent sociopathic tendencies make him a perfect amateur sleuth when a serial killer strikes his folksy Midwestern town, director Billy O’Brien’s film adaptation strikes a tone that’s far more unique and endearing than that premise might imply, helped in no small part by a sharp-witted performance from former child star Max Records. A strange, clumsily handled third-act turn undoes some of its charm, however, and while it could entice a cult viewership on VOD, the film is likely too dark and odd to kickstart even a minor franchise.
To be fair, “I Am Not a Serial Killer” never surpasses the body count of any single “Hunger Games” installment, though “Catching Fire” always refrained from repeated on-screen eviscerations, and Caesar Flickerman never once referenced the BTK killer in his interview segments. For protagonist John Cleaver (Records), however, neither the insides of the human body nor the peculiarities of famous psychopaths are worth much more than a curiously raised eyebrow. As an opening depiction of the embalmment process lovingly displays, John has grown up among cadavers in the mortuary of his snowy hometown, and as we learn during his visits with a friendly shrink (Karl Geary), the kid has tendencies far darker than your average troubled teen.
John believes himself to have inclinations toward mass murder. Yet unusually for someone who is incapable of empathy, he actually seems to have a pretty good heart, and has set up a system of checks and balances to keep him from heading down the wrong path. He genuinely seems to like his harried single mom (Laura Fraser), harbors an awkward crush on a cute classmate (Lucy Lawton), and is always willing to shovel snow for his elderly neighbor, Mr. Crowley (a very effective Christopher Lloyd).
Fresh from an acting hiatus after his child parts in “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Sitter,” the 18-year-old Records does interesting work with his lead role, never overindulging in gothy angst or straining for likability. One of John’s anti-kill-spree tricks is to pay someone a compliment whenever he feels the urge to hurt them, and the aggressively cheerful way Records delivers a string of smiling pleasantries to a neighborhood bully is both hilarious and terrifying.
For its first two acts, “I Am Not a Serial Killer” locks into a compatible rhythm, balanced on the precarious intersection of quirky and creepy. John’s obsessions come in useful when a crazed serial killer begins stalking the town, stealing body parts from each of his victims and leaving a puddle of tar at each murder scene. As John trudges through town looking for clues in his bulky winter wear, the effect is less “The Young Dexter Chronicles” than “Encyclopedia Berkowitz,” and O’Brien maintains a half-comic, almost sweet mood even as the bodies pile up.
It doesn’t take too long for John to find the killer, and the film starts to lose bits of its idiosyncratic flair as the slayings come closer to home, tipping further and further into straight horror before losing its bearings completely in the final reel. Though vaguely hinted at earlier, the pic’s full plunge into the supernatural realm comes out of nowhere toward the end, and the full explanation for this twist — like a number of the film’s subplots — seems to have been set aside for future installments that may or may not see the light of day.
Even when the story hits some snags, the film, nicely shot on 16mm by Robbie Ryan, retains a winningly unique look. O’Brien conjures an infectious sense of place on a small budget: dark but never dreary, haunting but oddly cheerful.