Now that we live in a post-elevated horror world, navigating the line between what genre fans and mainstream film critics consider horror can be difficult. Both disturbing and heartbreaking, The Clovehitch Killer should appeal to audiences on both sides of that divide.
The film opens with a voice over by its main character, 16-year-old Tyler (Charlie Plummer), who informs the audience that every year for the last decade, his Kentucky town has a memorial to the victims of The Clovehitch Killer, a serial murderer responsible for the deaths of 10 women; one who was never caught.
It doesn’t take long for the film to present the idea that Tyler’s dad, Donald (Dylan McDermott in a career-best role), is Clovehitch. However, screenwriter Christopher Ford (who also wrote Cop Car) sets things up so the audience witnesses events through Tyler’s eyes, thus allowing one to feel sympathy instead of disappointment at learning the reveal too soon.
So much of the success of this audience identification is due to Plummer’s tender performance. He plays the role of an awkward teenager with conviction. There is an early shot of Tyler moving a turtle to the side of a road so it won’t get hit by a car. This not only conveys that he’s a sensitive young man, but also evokes similar opening scenes from The Invitation and Get Out, only in reverse. The audience knows there will be violence and that Tyler will try to prevent it somehow.
There’s a lot of symbolism in Tyler’s eventual ostracization from his evangelical Christian peers, but rather than painting the residents of the conservative, religious town as caricatures, director Duncan Skiles and his cinematographer and frequent collaborator Luke McCoubrey utilize a hands-off, naturalistic touch. There are no fancy camera angles, no gory set pieces. It makes the horrors on screen that much more difficult to watch.
The horrors The Clovehitch Killer depicts are achieved in concert with the film’s flawless production design. Anyone who has lived or spent a lot of time in a working-class, fundamentalist Christian environment will recognize the shabby department store furniture, the worn carpets, the squeaky floorboards. There is a scene that cuts from violence inside of a normal suburban home to the exterior of the house, contrasting the sounds of anguish within against that of a lawnmower in the distance. While some may find this edit to be heavy-handed, the fact remains that seemingly normal, devoutly religious white men continue to commit atrocities with reckless abandon and with no end in sight.
Any concerns about the film’s depiction of BDSM culture as deviant or disgusting is handled with subtlety in a scene where Donald has “the talk” with Tyler about the difference between sex and fantasy. It’s a credit to the filmmaking team that no moment is wasted. There are many layers here, from the performance within a performance by McDermott to superbly executed and terrifying foreshadowing and Tyler’s slow-dawning realization that his father is not the man he thought he knew. It’s awful enough to find out your father is flawed, but it’s far worse to find out he’s a notorious serial killer who liked to torture his victims.
There is a procedural element to The Clovehitch Killer that is expertly woven within the film’s narrative. Tyler begins to learn more about the case from his friend Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a classmate who is somewhat obsessed with the killings and finding the real identity of Clovehitch. “This isn’t CSI!” Tyler argues when she starts talking about rope fibers, “This is my family.” It drives home the idea that there are more victims here than the women Clovehitch has killed and their families.
The Clovehitch Killer also throws a slight twist into the mix, but it’s not the typical kind of reveal. Instead, the film withholds some information so that when the audience eventually sees the full picture, it carries more of an emotional weight than it may have had otherwise. It also emphasizes the idea that this is Tyler’s journey, and that it’s one he must make alone. The Clovehitch Killer offers much for the audience to ponder: what it means to be a man and a human, what it means to keep secrets and what it means to face monsters and survive.
The Clovehitch Killer was released by IFC Midnight and opened in theaters on November 16.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.