The genius in the John Wayne Cleaver books by Utah author Dan Wells was in the creation of his protagonist: a sociopathic high-school student who commits himself to studying cold-blooded mass-murderers because he fears the capacity in himself to become one. Co-writer/director Billy O’Brien nails that part in his casting of Max Records in this adaptation of the series’ first book, which finds John investigating grisly killings in his small town that may be connected to his elderly neighbor (Christopher Lloyd). There’s a gritty, understated quality to the way O’Brien navigates the narrative’s shift towards supernatural thriller, finding eerie moments in something as simple as the sound of an elliptical machine resembling a demon’s wail. But Records’ strong performance anchors everything, complicating his role as the story’s “hero” when you can see the hint of a smile on his face in his response to a brutal murder. O’Brien may get clumsy in his exposition—there’s no excuse for an unironic use of a TV reporter saying “This reporter has learned…”—but it’s a unique achievement for a genre film to make it tricky to decide who’s the real monster.
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