“Be me, then be yourself,” so says Chuck Knoach (Ben Lloyd-Hughes, “Me Before You”), a best-selling self-help guru who has an avid fan in Lou (Katy Brayben, “Luther” TV series) a 30-something woman with a dead-end job and a suffocating mother (Sarah Ball, “Doctors” TV series) for a housemate. As we see her enjoying rare moments of escape whilst walking on vast picturesque clifftops, director Staten Cousins Roe injects an early (and important) sense that there is something bigger waiting to be discovered outside of the boundaries of Lou’s hometown in his sharp horror comedy, A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life.
With a hoard of self-help books and an inspiration board which she keeps under the bed (hidden away from her conservative and domineering mother) Lou clings desperately to the notion of “discovering herself” and “unleashing her full potential.” Unable to define what she is looking for, however, means that she finds herself drifting from listening to the tapes of self-proclaimed guru Chuck to attending second-rate seminars held in community centers delivered by patronizing egotists who look down on their captivated audiences but have no qualms when it comes to taking their hard earned cash. Lou’s situation is heart-breaking: She’s a gentle, humble and moral character whose future happiness we watch slowly being squashed into nothingness and her refusal to settle for this monotonous existence endears us to her even more.
It is said that the greatest opportunities often arise out of the blue and when we are not looking for them — cue then Val, a well-spoken woman with a “me first” attitude who, dressed top to toe in black, has the aura and appearance of an ass-kicking assassin. Val, played exquisitely by Poppy Roe (“The Big Finish”) is instantly enigmatic and mesmerizing and Lou is just as taken in as we are. Lou’s new acquaintance presents her with an invitation to join her on a journey of self-discovery, but we soon learn that there might be more than meets than eye to this mysterious woman who lives in a caravan without a trace of any friends or family.
After an initial hesitancy, Lou agrees to accompany Val and packs a bag of essentials including a copy of Chuck’s self-help book. A scribbled note is all she leaves behind for her mother to find. This is shown in a lingering shot next to a dead spider which reminded me of the artist Louise Bourgeois who used the image of the spider as a representation of maternalism and the mother in her work.
As they tick off the various therapies that form part of Val’s meticulously arranged itinerary which she declares will culminate with a visit to Chuck, Lou becomes aware that her new “life coach” has a deep, dark secret: She is in fact a serial killer. When Lou and Val finally make it to Chuck’s house, however, what they find is not the man they — nor we — expect.
The strength of A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life rests on its performances, both of which are individually successful and create a fascinating dynamic when onscreen together. The tone is deftly inventive and offers surprises (all of which work) at each turn; I was at once reminded of “Thelma and Louise” as the pair don sunglasses whilst on their road trip adventure, and when they are seated around a campfire with home-brewing, nature-worshipers, of Mike Leigh’s “Nuts In May.” With its dark undertones and deep cutting humor the film also felt reminiscent of Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers.”
As the film edges towards its final act and several alternatives begin to look impossible, the ending chosen is so familiar and recycled that it felt as though the director was reluctant to make a bolder decision which, if employed, may have rendered the film stronger overall. This causes minimal harm, however, as A Serial Killer’s Guide To Life is otherwise well executed and thoroughly entertaining.