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Serial Killing 4 Dummys
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Fun-Filled Comedy Chiller"
4 stars

This may seem like the kind of thing best skipped over at the video store, but, believe me, it's of far better ilk than you think.

Thomas Hayden Church made a deserved Oscar-nominated splash as Paul Giamatti's quintessentially horny actor friend in the critically-praised Sideways. Before that, he appeared in a slew of films where he wasn't given much of an opportunity to stand out; like a lot of character actors, he had to wade through less-than-stellar film roles before landing one that enabled him to take advantage of his talent. In Sideways, he was simply outstanding, taking the screen like a born natural and enthralling us with his every word, his every gesture, as only an actor who's blessed with the unbeatable combination of imagination and technique can. Picking up an astounding fifteen awards from national critics' groups is no small feat, and the main question after his undeserved Oscar loss to Morgan Freeman last year was what wonders this richly-gifted actor would bestow upon us in the future. Yet there's a little-known standout Church performance to be had from his past, in the 1999 film-festival-circuit oddity unsubtly titled Serial Killing 101 (aka Serial Killing 4 Dummys); and like Sideways, it's about an alienated male choosing an eccentric hobby in a feeble attempt to stand out amongst society and rise above his mundane existence.

Church doesn't play the lead role, though -- Justin Urich, nephew of the late, great actor Robert Urich, does, in the role of Casey Noland, a high-school student with no career-oriented goals. His guidance counselor, who predicts a career for him of nothing higher than that of a toll-booth operator, is frustrated at his lack of direction and disregard for authority. He listens to Marilyn Manson and dresses in rebellious shirts that sport such attention-getting slogans as "I Am the God of Fuck". He's a self-made outcast whose policeman father was killed the year before, and his single mother is both understanding but also worrisome over his future. That all changes when a Goth chick named Sasha Fitzgerald (Lisa Loeb) catches his eye in the library; when he spies her reading books about murder, he absently grabs a copy of John Douglas' non-fiction serial-killer book Mindhunter and becomes fascinated by the subject, and so much so that he suddenly fastens upon a "career" that will endear him to Sasha and fascinate the rest of society: that of a serial killer, of course. And he's not shy about voicing his unbridled glee over it -- he even writes a school paper on it, which draws the ire of the guidance counselor and concern of the school psychologist, and also the suspicion of the local cop, who's investigating the murders of a serial killer at work in the town. And when Casey's not catching flack from the aforementioned, he's going head-to-head with his martinet of a high-school gym coach, Vince Grimaldi (played by Church), a bleach-blonde, ex-military type from Alabama who makes R. Lee Ermey's gunnery sergeant in Full Metal Jacket look like Sgt. Bilko by comparison.

The central joke of the film is that Casey, for all his talk, is too intrinsically nice to kill anybody. He's enthralled while watching a true-crime serial-killer segment on television yet gets quesy during the dissection of a fetal pig in science class; he's ecstatic over going to the hardware store and choosing his murder weapons -- saw blades, which he clips to his clothes, and a leaf blower, which he hangs by his side and intends to drop metal objects into to act as lethal projectiles -- yet can't bring himself to do in even the pesky neighbor's small dog that keeps him awake at night with its barking. Sasha, herself an outcast, wants to be his first victim so she can stand out in the eyes of society, too (to be "the Sharon Tate of the '90s"), but try as he might, Casey ends up falling in love with her. He can't seem to get anything right. And even when he chooses a seemingly perfect array of victims in a retirement home consisting of people who he sees as just waiting to die (acting as the "Dr. Kevorkian of serial killers", as Sasha puts it), he falls under their ingratiating charm and is persuaded to join them for some getting-to-know-you talk. Meanwhile, the actual serial killer at work is striking victims a little too close to home, the latest being the school's beautiful Ms. Stuck-Up, who just happened to be one of Casey's adversaries. Is the culprit the temperamental guidance counselor, the perverted janitor who likes to look at Barely Eighteen nudie mags, or the drill-instructor-like gym teacher?

In case one hasn't surmised by now, Serial Killing 101 is one of those films that will either engage or repel its fellow viewer. It's basically a one-joke premise masquerading as an organically-realized film, and the joke will not be in the least bit amusing to those who can't quite take to its chosen subject area as black comedy or any kind of comedy. That's their problem, as I see it, because the debuting director, Trace Slobotkin, a TV-series writer who also penned the screenplay, has a good deal of fun with the proceedings, and while the laughs don't naturally tumble out of the material they spill out occasionally enough to make things reasonably enjoyable. Where a lot of directors would end up making the violence too heavy-handed so it clashed with the comedic aspects, Slobotkin gives it an engaging comedy-chiller tone reminiscent of Rospo Pallenberg's Cutting Class and Ron Oliver/Peter R. Simpson's Prom Night III: The Last Kiss. A dream sequence where Casey stabs Ms. Stuck-Up in super-gory fashion to an audience of fellow students has the right amount of naughty outlandishness to it, and so does an even better dream sequence later, where Casey decapitates his guidance counselor and, in an insanely nice touch, the head cringes its eyes shut right before colliding with the psychologist who's just had a knife thrown into her (this prompts Casey's mom to exclaim, "Will you stop killing your teachers! You're never going to graduate!"). Some may view as a demerit the lack of gore overall, though the occasions when it is employed are satisfying enough. And, as far as these things go, the scare factor is decidedly low -- Slobotkin doesn't show much affinity or capability with engineering suspense, so the film isn't quite as frightfully fun as it should be. There's also a distressing absence of nudity. But considering how thin the screenplay really is, for every mistake there are three to four good things alleviating it, like when Casey realizes, in light of the high IQs of most serial killers like Ted Bundy, he's going to have to start doing better in school.

The film is fun, and as the "hero" and "heroine", Urich and Loeb give good-natured performances that never venture into the kind of self-adoration that's possessive of most teen performances. (Actually, the eternally-youthful Loeb was actually thirty-four when she shot this!). But it's Thomas Hayden Church's rip-roaringly manic work as Coach Grimbaldi that gives Serial Killing 101 its live-wire watchability. Slobotkin has given the juiciest dialogue to him, and Church takes each and every line and invests it with an intensity that turns every word into sleaze that all but emanates from his pores. "Say it like you got a pair of boulders and not pebbles!" and "I'm proud of Grenada -- hand-to-hand combat with Mexican medical students." are just a couple of his choice one-liners, and his phenomenal power of inflection and of phrase enables him to get a laugh simply from emphasizing the first syllable in "buttocks". Church takes what Grimbaldi says and processes it into lip-smackingly-fine obscenity, acting with such concentrated energy that he's suggestive of Dennis Hopper's classic villain Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. In fact one of the funniest moments is when, as a moonlighting locksmith while unlocking Casey's car with Sasha around, he temporarily acts with a put-upon niceness that suggests an inner demon cackling with joy at fooling these kids but at the same time wriggling almost uncontrollably to lash out and tear out their throats. The astonishing thing is that Church never overacts with uncouthness; it's a disciplined, centered performance that always maintains a well-grounded center, so he's not overbearing the way, say, Jim Carrey would be if he played the part. The film is recommendable, yes, but make no mistake -- this is Church's show, and like Matthew McConaughey in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he serves up a delicious entrée of thespian magic in a film where you're least apt to expect something of such high-echelon quality.

Noting classic, but its time-killing watchability makes it a recommendable rental.

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originally posted: 09/16/06 05:17:35
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  30-Mar-2004 (R)
  DVD: 30-Mar-2004



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