*. By now I think we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of the “murderer next door” (to borrow the title from a very good book on the subject by researcher David Buss). We hear about it every time there is another serial killer or mass murderer revealed to be living in the suburbs somewhere who turns out to be a normal-seeming guy (maybe a bit lonely or depressed) that “nobody dreamed” could have ever done the things he did.
*. Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was one such case. There’s a book on him that’s even subtitled “The Serial Killer Next Door.” Rader was a married man with children, a scout leader and a member of his church council who also killed people. That disjunction between a seemingly normal and a dark secret life has been irresistible to authors and filmmakers. Stephen King wrote a novella based on Rader’s story called A Good Marriage that was later made into a movie. The Clovehitch Killer is another take on the same material.
*. Just as an aside, I don’t recall hearing A Good Marriage mentioned on the DVD commentary. This despite the fact that the discovery of the killer’s cache of mementoes is so similar to the identical scene in that earlier film that it feels as though it were taken directly from it.
*. Of course the broader theme, about the murderous horrors that lie beneath the surface of everyday suburban life, has long been a staple, usually taking as its target the Leave It to Beaver America of the 1950s. Think of movies like Parents (where the parents are cannibals), or The Stepfather, or countless others. So in 2018 The Clovehitch Killer was entering onto very familiar ground. So much so that even though it’s presumably set in the present day (tracking the movement of a cell phone using GPS is a plot point), the Kentucky town it’s set in has the feel of some kind of Christian Happy Valley that time has forgot. Aside from the cell phones and laptops it just feels like the ’80s.
*. Director Duncan Skiles refers to the genre as “normcore”: “My goal was to set everything in a very normal, relatable environment with minimal ‘traditional’ horror cues. So, everything’s happening in the daytime and there’s not a lot of music. I wanted simple angles that felt safe. Because I remember the feeling that I got when I was doing this research, about how horrible things can be injected into normalcy, and that was frightening. I kind of wanted to capture that feeling.”
*. I think he does capture the feeling well, and it marks an attempt to go in a slightly different direction with the material. The focus is more on the family, and this plays a major part in the story because Don’s grooming of his family is what keeps them in check and his secret safe. This is the real critique of Bible belt values, more than its moral hypocrisy. Children raised to refer to their parents as “Sir” and “Ma’am” are at all kinds of risk. The film’s final line gives some indication of just how much damage has been done.
*. I say it’s an attempt though because I don’t think it’s fully realized. The thing is, it’s perfectly obvious as soon as Tyler finds his dad’s secret stash under the shed what’s going on. And things get worse when he enters the crawlspace. There is no way anyone, even a dutiful son who really wants to believe, could buy the story that this was all Uncle Rudy’s stuff. That doesn’t make sense. It’s an impossible part and Charlie Plummer can’t be blamed too much if he doesn’t sell it.
*. This would then allow for some interesting angles to be taken on the story. Is Tyler just playing his dad? Or, if he really does believe him, how much does he suspect Kassi as being just some mixed-up chick? There are moments that allow for suspicion. Did Kassi really discover the clovehitch knot behind that house? Or did she tie it herself?
*. Unfortunately, none of this is developed. Instead we go along with a plot that, despite having one really nice swerve where we change points of view, falls into a routine pattern, no less routine for being highly improbable. The character of Kassi is the worst element here. She just seems to be there to perform various plot functions. No longer required at the end, she disappears.
*. Still, I enjoyed The Clovehitch Killer a lot more than I thought I would. I went in with low expectations and they were more than met. The events have a quiet fascination and the suspense is nicely managed. Dylan McDermott, unrecognizable in glasses and goatee, is very good. There are some missed opportunities here, but I think it comes out as much better than average, judged against its peers.