The Clovehitch Killer is a creepy little movie about a creepy little idea, the parasitic kind that worms through the ear canal and eats away at brain matter.
By Isaac Feldberg
The Clovehitch Killer is an intriguing genre proposition: a horror movie with few scares to speak of, a thriller that holds back its thrills until well beyond the halfway mark, a portrait of a serial killer with an abnormally low body count. Its narrative, which focuses on a straitlaced young man who becomes increasingly suspicious that his Bible-thumping dad may be concealing a less-than-pious extracurricular, goes in two directions. It seems taken with the conventions that underline many a tale of suburban evil, from torture-dungeon basements to nerve-shredding dinner-table discussion, yet at the same time it is eager to interrogate them, in search of something a little more uneasy and intricate.
This, I would say, is to its benefit, though inconsistently so. In the composed hands of director Duncan Skiles, working from an understated script by Cop Car writer Christopher Ford, The Clovehitch Killer initially introduces itself as a coming-of-age story, one of those summer-of-XX liebstraums one senses is being recalled more than told for the first time. But beyond this frame, the film is the story of how a sheltered youth grew to see the world for what it was. Said youth, Tyler (Charlie Plummer, looking considerably younger than his 19 years), is a literal and figurative Boy Scout; his hobbies include volunteering at food drives, attending church, and earning merit badges with his local troop. Looming large across each is his scoutmaster father Don (Dylan McDermott), a pillar of the community who enforces fundamentalist Christian law in his household, quietly demanding compliance from each member of the family, most of all the dutiful son.
But Don’s grip on Tyler isn’t immediately of the insidious kind. The boy idolizes his dad and his authority. That is, until another coming-of-age cliché — the late-night fumbling-over-clothes make-out in his father’s secretly “borrowed” truck — leads to Tyler discovering bondage photography under the front seat. The unsettling incident calls into question just how wholesome his old man really is. Tyler’s date’s understandably creeped out, and his consequent fall from social grace at school is swift. But the boy’s got bigger problems, especially once a furtive raid on Don’s padlocked backyard shed digs up more photos, including one with a sinister inscription that leads him to a dark realization: dear old dad may just be the Clovehitch Killer, a near-mythic serial murderer with a bondage fetish who terrorized their small-town community a decade prior, murdering 10 young women before disappearing into the ether.
The idea takes root and evolves into a full-blown theory. This prodigal son is unnerved by the evidence he uncovers in their family basement as well as the chilling malevolence he can suddenly sense behind his father’s ill-fitted smile and cold eyes. By the time Tyler links up with local weirdo Kassi (Madisen Beaty), who’s obsessed with Clovehitch for reasons you’ll guess long before they’re revealed late in the second act, father and son have been set on a ghastly collision course, circling each other in the hollow confines of their domestic idyll with increasing wariness.
A mystery, The Clovehitch Killer is not; it’s clear very early on that Don is guilty of these heinous crimes. What tension there is in the film stems from the perverted patriarch’s attempts to retain the title of no. 1 dad in his son’s horrified eyes. McDermott — a handsome actor warped here by a prosthetic belly, a taskmaster’s rigid posture, and those awful mortician’s specs — is chilling in these scenes, shifting from cheery to sinister, loving to reproachful, innocuous to violent as he becomes gradually aware of his son’s snooping. There’s a camping trip taken by father and son where Don’s face is illuminated by the campfire until he’s a jack o’ lantern; the threat of violence hangs heavy as a crescent moon between them. Another armed standoff, amid a home invasion that’s horrifying in its cruel banality, feels like the earlier scene’s photo negative, Don’s true nature fully taking over, claws out, teeth bared. (McDermott gives a surprisingly, disturbingly physical performance, pitched somewhere between the sinuous evil of Stanley Tucci’s Lovely Bones psycho and Silence of the Lambs’ unhinged Buffalo Bill, and it is hands down the best reason to see this film.)
A clever editing choice flips our point-of-view at a critical moment in the film, initially seeming to steamroll its own suspense by going back in time and retelling part of the story. But this strategy proves wise.
The Clovehitch Killer, it turns out, is deceptively titled; this is not a profile of McDermott’s knot-tying psycho, but a study in trauma, concerned mostly with the terrible toll Tyler’s investigation is destined to take on his loved ones and on him. It’s a serial killer movie not about serial killers so much as the victims they didn’t intend, those who long after pay the price for their misdeeds.
In this, if little else, the movie resembles the year’s other serial-killer indie, RKSS’ profoundly terrible Summer of ’84, another loss-of-innocence narrative jerry-rigged over an inky-black tar pit. Differences abound technically— ’84 apes the synthy nostalgia-porn aesthetics of Stranger Things and IT, whereas Clovehitch offers a more deliberately ascetic color palette, telegraphing its pious setting. What connects the two is that shared fascination with fallout, of the consequences that stem from exposing evils in communities. Crucial to their narrative thrust is the terrible understanding that, once revelations are out, you can’t go home again.
Tyler realizes somewhere along the line that the loose thread he’s tugging could unravel the whole picture. But he won’t stop — can’t stop. He knows in his gut the evil that lurks beneath the surface of this suburban milieu. That it needs to be excised if any of them hope to survive. Don’s teachings, his wolf-in-shepherd’s-clothing’s decree that Tyler grow into an upstanding moral citizen, are in part what fuel the boy’s desperate quest to rid the community of a real monster. The hypocrisy of his relationship to the Church is also targeted; there’s a suggestion that Don’s restrictive lifestyle may either be therapy or theater, a way for him to conceal — if not purge — his real urges, indulging in other forms of control and dominance. A sparely written scene, where Tyler’s mother finally breaks down, sobbing into his stiff shoulder, crushed by the weight of what she has sacrificed for and to Don, exudes dreadful subtext. This is a spiritual and psychosexual awakening for Tyler as well, the perverse bleeding through the surface of his meticulously manicured all-American homestead.
A tighter, faster film could negotiate these ideas at greater length; in Skiles’ hands, it’s too slack and subdued to dig deep, only making good on its premise’s promise in an excellently haunting coda. Absent, too, is a satisfying exploration of what makes this murderer tick; he remains inscrutable, a ghastly suburban nightmare in dad sneakers, McDermott’s features eerily pressurized.
So The Clovehitch Killer ends up offering grim answers to the hypotheticals we daren’t ask ourselves about our loved ones: what if, we learned, they weren’t who they say they are? What if, we learned, they were something far worse? And what then do we do? Could we even bring ourselves to do anything at all? It’s a creepy little movie about a creepy little idea, the parasitic kind that worms through the ear canal and eats away at brain matter. Skiles and Ford shade the concept quite nicely without complicating their sparse atmosphere with too much detail; The Clovehitch Killer, like McDermott’s antagonist, is plenty creepy at face value.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston. Though often preoccupied by his on-going quest to prove that Baby Driver is a Drive prequel, he always finds time to appreciate the finer things in life, like Liam Neeson.