[Guest reporter Jenny Nulf shares her impressions of three movies from this year's South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, including I Am Not a Serial Killer, I Am a Hero, and Pet.]
I Am Not a Serial Killer: What happens when a movie gets stuck in limbo for three years? Well, the director is given enough time to create a slow-burning monster movie that will lurk in the back of your mind long after viewing it.
In a tiny Midwestern town, John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) works with his mother and aunt at a funeral home, helping her embalm the dead bodies. A possible sociopath, John also chats regularly with his psychologist, Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary), about how to subside his murderous tendencies. Then things start to go wrong when an actual serial killer sweeps through the town, and when Max discovers the identity of the killer, it takes him down a terrifying path of self-discovery. This is not your average, sweet coming-of-age story.
I Am Not a Serial Killer’s slow and methodic pace will keep some at bay, but director Billy O’Brien carefully crafts John’s teenage angst and combines it with a chilling and understated monster movie. The monster creates a great foil for John, bringing to light his flaws while also steering his character in the right (and sometimes the wrong) direction. The final reveal of the creature is particularly incredible. A mixture of CGI and puppeteering, the monster is unlike anything you’ve ever seen—inky and skeletal without being too ferocious or harsh.
It’s amazing to think about Max Records playing this role at 13, the age he was when originally attached to the film. A 13-year-old’s psyche is much different from a 16-year-old’s, and the weight he brings to his character is more profound and mature. The spark in his eye when he thinks about death is disturbing, but also nostalgic in a weird, eerie, and creepy way. Paired alongside Christopher Lloyd, he holds his own and their interactions have a spark all their own. Lloyd’s role as the mysterious, old neighbor is a little different for his career, and it’s beautiful to see him play such a caring and complex character compared to his more popular, eccentric roles. It reminds you that Lloyd has exquisite depth, and he was cast perfectly.
The film’s cold atmosphere is curated wonderfully by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose blue-and-gray color tinting really brings the entire film together. Paired with the frigid snow, the film’s atmosphere intertwines so well with the story being told.
At the end of the day, the only real problem with I Am Not a Serial Killer is that it’s probably 15 or 20 minutes too long. The film drags a little in its second act, which doesn’t really propel the film’s third act. It suffers slightly from this, but there’s still a lot to fall in love with.
I Am a Hero: Based on the popular manga series, I Am a Hero is Japan’s first big-budget zombie movie. The film begins with Hideo (Yô Ôizumi), a man in his 30s who works as an assistant in a manga studio. Saying his life sucks would be an understatement: his relationship is on the rocks, he’s not living up to his full potential, and he doesn’t even get along with his coworkers. Instead, Hideo poses with his legally acquired shotgun in front of a mirror in the dead of the night. Then things go totally wrong when a zombie outbreak occurs in Tokyo, infecting his girlfriend and his coworkers. Taking his gun with him, Hideo sets out to Mt. Fuji, where the virus has supposedly been kept at bay.
The first half of I Am a Hero breaks the same old zombie mold and breathes new life into the genre. The jokes hit, the setting is trendy, and the zombies are wicked. After being kicked out by his girlfriend, Hideo rapidly returns when she rings him, confessing that she didn’t really want to lose him and that she loved him. Desperate to make her happy again, Hideo rushes over only to find that his gal has been infected and would rather sink her teeth into his skin than kiss and make up.
As the first act progresses, Hideo tries to escape the big city and is constantly pelted with the living dead in new and hilarious ways. He also earns a partner, a cute schoolgirl played by the delicate Kasumi Arimura, who winds up being bitten in a brutally hilarious car debacle. The two make a great team, and there’s a moment when their awkward mannerisms become almost romantic. In fact, if the story had progressed in a romantic direction, it would have been a sleek and simple Warm Bodies 2.0.
However, once the second half of the film kicks in, the movie starts to go through the motions. Hideo and his zombie sidekick discover a group that’s been living in the Mt. Fuji outlet mall, where they have created a base that hovers over the zombies that wander below. He meets the female leader of the group, played by Masami Nagasawa, and her villainous male counterparts who are just as simple and dumb as the next. This is where the movie tries to get serious, but instead it flounders and it’s clear that the first half and the second half are two separate films. The dark tone doesn’t bode well for the film’s last hour, which slogs away, dragging its limbs as it searches for the brains it originally hit the ground running hard with.
Even though I Am a Hero doesn’t quite live up to the promises of its first act, this film will really click for the zombie lovers out there. It’s funny, relatively new, and has incredibly likable characters. The zombie fan is a diehard breed, and their love for the living dead is definitely admirable. Director Shinsuke Sato’s movie will resonate with those it aims to please, which will ultimately be the key to its undeniable success.
Pet: Pet is a passion project, a film stuck in Hollywood limbo for close to a decade until it was kindly released by MGM to director Carles Torrens (Apartment 143). While it’s clear the intensions behind making this film were incredibly sincere, something in the film’s conclusion just doesn’t click, and perhaps there’s a reason this film took so long to get on its feet.
Pet follows a lonely man, Seth (Dominic Monaghan), whose day job cleaning up at a local animal shelter is as dismal as they come. Things start to perk up when he spots an old high school classmate, Holly (Ksenia Solo), who loves to write but is forced to work a dead-end job at a local diner. For Holly, running into Seth wasn’t even noteworthy enough to remember, but for him, it was destiny. After heavy social media stalking, Seth tries to make a connection with Holly at her place of work, but when she doesn’t remember his face from a few days before, things get a little creepy. Seth starts to stalk Holly in person, and once he has her routine down, he kidnaps her and locks her away in the tunnels below the animal shelter.
If you think you know where Pet is going from here, you’re probably not giving screenwriter Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect) enough credit. The film pounds in twist after twist, but unfortunately every twist it makes earns a lot of exposition from the film’s leading stars. Not that there’s much to do for them otherwise, with Holly locked in a cage for most of the film.
Visually, Pet is dry. The grayscale cinematography doesn’t bring much to the film’s aesthetic, instead making it look like your average Saw film, which at this point in time is a little “been there, done that.” A dark setting can bring a certain coldness to a film’s atmosphere (like in Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs), so that when the gore comes, it really pops, but when the bloodbath begins in Pet, it looks more like rust.
The chatter between Seth and Holly is also very dense. The beauty of film is that you can tell a story with little or no exposition, but Slater’s script doesn’t trust its audience enough. He takes you step-by-step through his characters’ psyches, and there’s nothing left for the audience to infer. All of their dirty laundry is on the table, and it’s certainly for the worse.
For what it’s worth, though, Pet really does try. The twists Carles Torrens weaves into the movie really makes the story progressively more interesting as time passes, but at the end of the day it’s still not as subversive as it strives to be. Perhaps that is because this film is ten years too late, and maybe if it came out when it was originally intended to, the film would have felt a little more original. As it stands now, Pet falls into the general slush of indie horror and doesn’t quite hit enough high points to make it memorable.