Horror films have frequently employed the trope of the killer next door, the seemingly perfect neighbor who charms your mom but still harbors a deadly secret only you can see. Duncan Skiles’ stylish and intimate feature directorial debut, The Clovehitch Killer, extends that sense of helplessness to your own home: What if the killer was your father?
Tyler (Charlie Plummer) is a pale, awkward teen in a small Kentucky town where the local hobbies are limited to coupon clipping, going to church, and ritualistically commemorating the anniversary of a spree by a local serial killer who’s been quiet for 10 years; the titular killer left a calling card of a clovehitch knot at the site of each of his murders. It’s the sort of flat, sepia-tinted world that seems like it’s just waiting for someone to introduce a Shirley Jackson-style culling.
Tyler borrows his dad’s truck to go on a date, and hidden under the seat he finds a clipping from a BDSM magazine depicting a woman held captive in knots. Alone, this wouldn’t be enough to rouse a son’s suspicion in his beloved father, the masculine Boy Scout leader and hunter, but Dylan McDermott plays Tyler’s father, Don, with the perfect mix of unsettling realism and genuine creepiness. In a goatee that might as well be a Ned Flanders mustache, Don wields his power over his son like a weapon, manipulating and twisting him like one of the knots they learn in the Scouts. “Men like you and me, we’ve got thoughts,” Don says jovially after trapping his son into a corner for a father-son sex talk.
Unlike so many recent horror movies, The Clovehitch Killer is patient with its thrills, almost excruciatingly so. “Atmospheric” seems like an adjective created just to describe this type of movie, in which coupon clipping can become a nail-biting event and shots are framed with an almost twee, Wes Anderson-like symmetry. The film falters with the character of Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a non-church-going outcast fascinated by the Clovehitch killings who pops up only to pull Tyler further along in the direction of the plot. Tyler might have been able to discover all on his own that his seemingly infallible father was less perfect than he appeared. B+