A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life is a devilishly clever title for a horror-comedy, immediately invoking the kinds of dark, twisted thoughts many of us harbor about those irritating strangers who ruin our days by cutting in line or walking into us. Most of us, of course, don’t do anything about those little annoyances aside from maybe stewing silently for a bit afterwards. Lou, the film’s heroine, doesn’t do anything either but, as the story begins, she’s fantasizing about following a rude woman and beating her to death with a rock.
A lonely thirty-something living in the kind of picturesque coastal town where seemingly hundreds of murders take place annually (if those ads on CBS Reality with the serious man in the glasses and high-collared coat are to be believed), Lou is a self-help addict, the ideal candidate for all that “believe in the power of you” bollocks. In particular, she’s enamored with Chuck Knoah (is the spelling of his surname a nod to Leslie Knope? We can only hope), an obnoxious American wellness peddler who wears soft turtlenecks and gazes down the lens at saddos like her, promising them success is only just out of reach and they simply need to aim higher.
One day, while attending a local seminar led by a snake oil salesman hilariously described as looking a bit like a pedophile, Lou stumbles upon a mysterious, glamorous woman with a killer (sorry) red lip named Val (Poppy Roe, wife of director Staten Cousins Roe, with whom she runs the production company who made the movie, his debut). Although Val seems entirely unimpressed with everything and everyone around her, she takes Lou under her wing. The two women then embark on a road trip around small-town England, meeting all manner of insufferable, mostly white, hippy-dippy middle class “wellness” types, all of whom Val dispatches without smudging her perfectly-applied makeup.
The fact Val is a serial killer, obviously, isn’t a spoiler since it’s in the title of the movie but thankfully the great pleasure of A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life has nothing to do with murder for sport, rather it’s about the burgeoning friendship between these two women. Lou and Val are complete opposites, the former a gullible, easily led woman desperate for human connection while Val has an air of Rosa Diaz-like disapproval to her at all times. Their interplay as the journey traverses variously green and isolated locations involves Lou telling Val repeatedly “you’re the best life coach ever!” and Val barely acknowledging her existence. It’s a funny setup, brilliantly played by both actors.
A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life‘s road trip aspect evokes Sightseers, with which it shares a similarly black comedic edge, but it’s also not unlike Alice Lowe’s superb debut Prevenge in its approach to women committing murder as though it’s just another chore they have to get through. Val’s kills are interspersed with other normal activities, and scored by jaunty orchestral strings, making them appear boring and everyday. The violence is all implied, with basically nothing shown on camera, meaning the film loses a bit of Prevenge‘s gory edge. At the same time, maybe the idea of female killers shouldn’t be so shocking nowadays that we need to see it to fully believe in it. To be fair, Val’s victims deserve it, particularly the sicko who makes a tuna sandwich with butter (barf) and she’s arguably wiping out the competition, so her crusade also has an economical slant.
As a life coach, Val is perfectly suited to the desperate Lou, whose existence is so grim it involves her washing her horrid (and clearly unhinged) mother. Val may be a cold-blooded killer, but she still represents a better way of life for poor Lou. She even gives her a pep talk after Lou has tripped and is lying face down in the mud. There are plenty of close-ups of her Brayben’s open face throughout A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life, emphasizing how easily Lou might turn at any moment. In fact, the film doesn’t even really rest on whether or not Lou may eventually murder herself, since it’s hinted at from the beginning she has the inclination, if maybe not the courage.
This, then, is a female empowerment story told via a dark, and deliberately outlandish, premise similar to Prevenge‘s killer mother or Sightseers‘ killer scorned woman. The difference here is there are two women at the story’s heart and, for much of the movie, they’re the only characters onscreen, or at least the only ones we get to know or care about. It may not have been written or directed by a woman, but this is an inescapably and very proudly female story. The deadpan, irreverent sense of humor suits the material perfectly and, while A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life feels as English as its two most obvious comparables, the central hook, and Lou as its lovable protagonist, will have universal appeal.
This is also a ruthless, and very funny, skewering of so-called wellness culture, particularly in the personification of the useless Chuck. Lou’s journey, mad as it is, is about self-belief rather than finding the answers elsewhere, as many still sadly look to do. Although the film loses a bit of steam as the ladies reach their inevitable final destination and doesn’t quite hang together as a cohesive whole once they arrive, Lou is easy to get behind and believe in regardless, while Val, as psychotic as she clearly is, represents the irresistibly cool id we wish we could give in to more often. A Serial Killer’s Guide to Life, then, is just as empowering as Val’s influence on Lou, as wonderfully strange as that may sound.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Staten Cousins Roe
Writer(s): Staten Cousins Roe
Stars: Katie Brayben, Poppy Roe, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Sinead Matthews
Release: January 13th, 2020 (iTunes and Digital HD)
Studio/ Production Co: Forward Motion Pictures
Runtime: 81 minutes