As weird as it sounds, “I Am Not a Serial Killer” feels like a “Back to the Future” episode gone horribly wrong, proffering a twisted, satanic version of the Doc-Marty relationship.
Doc (Christopher Lloyd), the older mentor, and Marty (Michael J. Fox), the teenage protege, were a little crazy, but they were fun to be around and their rapport and friendship warmed our hearts. In 1989’s “Back to the Future 2,” the pair traveled to 2015 only to discover that the world had turned bad and dark (but with cars that can fly). They tried to fix things up and bungled some stuff, but ultimately they succeeded in turning the tables on fate.
In “Serial Killer,” the present-day world is a bleak place, cars don’t fly and Christopher Lloyd has parted ways with Doc, his signature and most beloved character. The 78-year-old veteran actor has decided to take on what is arguably his darkest role yet in “Serial Killer”: a suspected dispatcher of innocent folk who could be hiding the most hideous impulses behind a veneer of senile helplessness.
Lloyd plays Mr. Crowley, who seems nice enough until he doesn’t, and fierce menace starts seeping through the cracks. Crowley is a good match for the story’s protagonist, the sinisterly named John Wayne Cleaver (played by Max Records from “Where the Wild Things Are”), whose creepiness is also a far, far cry from the wholesome, bright-eyed, skateboard-toting Marty. John has no time to skateboard under a bright blue sky — he spends his days cleaning up and pumping fluid into corpses in the mortuary run by his mother (Laura Fraser).
Crowley is John’s neighbor in suburban Minnesota, and though he’s polite and friendly to the older man, John can’t shake off the feeling that something about Crowley is not quite right. John can spot all the signs of bloodlust since he himself has an inordinate fascination with dead bodies and violent crime, and often finds it hard to control his own murderous impulses.
When a string of brutal killings happens in their town, John is inwardly thrilled and gladly helps his mom clean what’s left of the corpses, all of which are missing organs and have been torn limb from limb. He suspects Crowley is the killer and decides to tackle the older man to extract a serial killer confession, if only to distract himself from the thought that he’s this close to heading down the same dark path.
Co-writer and director Billy O’Brien does a masterful job of building up the creep factor but gets too ambitious in the second half of the story with a detour into the supernatural. What’s more compelling is Crowley’s persona: Fragments of Doc keep surfacing, especially during the most tragic moments as he attempts to impart nuggets of knowledge and some hard-won life wisdom to John. The final scenes are touching, which is bizarre considering that “Serial Killer” is all about mutilation and murder.
If Lloyd can work that sort of magic on a character like Crowley, imagine what he could do with a “Back to the Future” redux. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.