How to be a Serial Killer is the next logical step in the general media’s new found, and surprisingly open, love affair with habitual murderers. From the raging success of TV shows like Dexter, the disturbingly widespread fandom of both the cinematic and book versions of American Psycho, to the almost decade long dominance of the SAW films, we as a collective unconscious are showing some complex, yet favorable, emotions towards people who commit the act most of us could only dream of. Whether we are sucked in by our inherent voyeuristic human tendencies or by our desire to live vicariously through those characters who can turn fantasy into cold, hard, and very final reality, there is no doubt that the business of death is, at the very least, profitable if done in an interesting way. How to be a Serial Killer (referred to as How To… from now on) taps into many of the principles and ideas that have proceeded it by those movies and others, while putting an educational and humorous spin on the etiquette and intricacies that serial killers face when applying their trade.
Instead of trying to spend its 90 minutes run time generating sympathy and compassion for our lead, the enigmatic and confident Mike Wilson, How To… leans on a darkly humorous exploration and examination of the morals, patterns, and rules that any good serial killer should follow into order to be the best that he or she can and, of course, not get caught. Mike (played with uncanny magnetism by Dameon Clarke) is adamant about respecting those who are less fortunate than you (played out with a scene involving a homeless man), the importance of never involving children, never stooping to becoming a rapist or thief who also just happens to kill their victims, and so on. Of course, without conflict we would have no movie, but I’ll allow you to experience for yourself how breaking any of these guidelines is the on ramp for a quick decent into trouble with the law. Our story is anchored by Mike’s willingness to share his knowledge and experience with those who currently hate their life, and are usually subject to be stomped all over by society in general. Mike takes a video store clerk (Bart, played by Matthew Gray Gubler, who looks EVERY bit the part) under his wing as an apprentice, and begins to mold him into a stronger individual, albeit through murders which Mike commits. It is at this point where the films begins to resemble a quest for personal identity, and even a coming of age tale, more than a horror, crime, and comedy mash-up. Mike turns this anxious, failure-prone loser of a man into someone who resembles a human with a modicum of dedication and confidence within himself. See, what I found to be the glue that holds this otherwise very risky and pseudo-experimental film together, is that I don’t think this is a movie about serial killers in the slightest. Much like “Signs” (Yeah, I know everyone hates that movie now, but give me a minute to explain the comparison) was a a movie about personal grief and general faith (in and out of religious context), How To… is more like a buddy comedy where someone who knows his end is, most likely, inevitable decides to impart wisdom onto to someone less fortunate who may never have a chance to fulfill a dream, let alone just feel some kind of true companionship or being wanted and needed. Normally, those kind of films are predictable and rather sappy, and written off (and rightfully so). How To… takes that sentiment, and fuses it with a pitch black sense of what is funny, all while gleefully prancing around in a world that should certainly stay in make believe land. The fictional realm where movies exist is what makes a flick like this work so well because if you can separate the messages it has to offer from the slayings it depicts ,you actually get a movie that works on two levels that couldn’t be more opposite.
Stepping outside of the headier discussion about the weighty concepts that How To… seems to sneak in under the radar, this is a film that looks, sounds, and plays like something with a much larger budget than I suspect it had to work with. As I mentioned before, Dameon Clarke doesn’t steal the show, he IS the show. The segues which shows a cross between an infomercial and a seminar are brilliant and captivating in their style, presentations, and brevity. When they are finished book ending the chapters of the main narrative, the story itself does a more than commendable job of never dragging its feet by resting on the movies quirky and quaint vibe that is sure to win most over within the first act. The third act, if there is something to nitpick, feels a bit uneven, and at a particular moment, very out of sync with the rest of the film. This lasts for only a few jarring minutes however, before the films snaps firmly back into place with a tidy little epilogue piece that puts a pleasantly disturbing spin on the overarching motive of Mike Wilson. Director and writer Luke Ricci deserves a pat on the back for both eyeing a good looking picture that uses a lot of natural lighting to give a real world feel and scripting a piece that teeters, dangerously at times, between comically subversive and intriguingly maniacal. Ricci easily could have lost his grip on the tale and let it slip into either amateur hell or”been there, done that” land, but he sticks to his guns and sees the vision through, for better or worse. Technically speaking, it is a very solid package, but the real measuring stick for something as out there as How To… will really be how it resonates with each individual viewer. Chances are, you may see something very different that I did.
How To… earns a classification as “daring”, if nothing else. While you can soak this in just focusing on what is at the surface, it is my belief that you should try to look a bit deeper to find what makes this picture just a bit different, and maybe even a touch special. I’ve said it before and I will pound that drum again. In a day and age where nigh everything is a remake of an older film, a foreign film, based off a book even though the movie has nothing to do with it except ripping the title, or a copycat, it’s a treat when a movie comes along that isn’t trying as hard to be the next big thing as it is trying to make changes to the formulas and see if something magical comes out. Passing the final verdict on whether or not How To… has what it takes to create waves of transformation in the genre is a test only time can administer. As far as being a slightly radical departure from the trite and predictable that also happens to be fairly entertaining, I can attest to How to be a Serial being just that.