Film Review: The Clovehitch Killer

Ah! I have to say with all due respect, the poster for The Clovehitch Killer, is terrible! They should have gone the other way with it to capture the terror of a serial killer in our midst: The poster should be a family photo or Don Burnside in his Boy Scout leader get-up.

The most horrifying thought about serial killers (and I specify serial killers because theoretically, not all sociopaths are violent) is that they are living in our midst, cosplaying as “normal” while concealing this other side of them. It’s a sort of suburban Jekyll and Hyde, if you will. For weirdos like me who are fascinated by serial killers, I think that’s what makes someone like the BTK serial killer so fascinating.

Dennis Rader, known as the BTK killer (his self-anointed serial killer name, meaning “bind, torture, kill”), was the personification of the suburban Jekyll and Hyde case I’m talking about. He killed 10 women between 1974 and 1991 and then … seemingly stopped. In the years in which he was “inactive,” he was the local dogcatcher and compliance officer and also a Boy Scout leader, and he was the president of a local church. Yes. He was considered “normal” and “well-mannered.” He had a wife and child.

As it happens though, I think a serial killer can only suppress those urges for so long before they need to act upon them again. Thus, Rader began taunting the police and the media in 2004, which directly led to his capture.

A young Kerri Rawson is seen here with her father, Dennis Rader, opening a Christmas present in 1981. Mind you, 1981 is when he was still “active.”

All of this wind-up is because the events described is what the 2018 film, The Clovehitch Killer, is loosely based upon.

The film, described as a “coming-of-age” film, which is fun given the context, follows 16-year-old Tyler Burnside (played by Charlie Plummer, who I loved in the TV series, Looking for Alaska that I reviewed earlier this year), who begins to suspect that his father, Don Burnside (played by Dylan McDermott), is the infamous Clovehitch Killer.

What makes this film interesting is that it’s told from the perspective of Tyler, and then Kassi (played by Madisen Beaty), who is interested in the murders because her own mother was murdered by the Clovehitch Killer, as they try to unravel the mystery. I mean, what a question: Is my dad a serial killer?

And because we, as the viewer, know Don Burnside is the killer, it creates palpable tension whenever Tyler and Kassi are snooping around Don Burnside’s shed and crawl space looking for clues. My internal monologue is screaming, “GET OUT OF THERE, HE WILL CATCH YOU!” Even though I thought, and was proven wrong later, that while Don Burnside is a serial killer, he wouldn’t harm his own child.

One of the best examples of palpable tension is when Don takes Tyler on a “camping” trip, but it’s really to sit down and chat about the snooping. Don actually tries to blame his brother, that it was his brother who is the Clovehitch Killer and he hid all of that stuff to protect the family. It was a master class in McDermott’s acting abilities because he was equal parts terrifying and brilliant in portraying a serial killer who is trying to cosplay “remorseful dad emotions.”

Additionally, the narrative structure of the film is interesting, So, the first half-ish of the film is that mystery unraveling, which coincides with Don Burnside’s own undoing. That is, whether it’s his urges becoming manifest again, or knowing his son is snooping, or both, Don Burnside is unraveling himself. He’s dressing up as a cosplay of his torture victims again. He’s getting the urge to stalk and bind and torture and kill again.

Eventually, he does end up doing that. He goes to a woman’s house and it’s actually morbidly funny because he’s a middle aged now trying to kill again and complains about his bad back. Now that I think about it, though, I wonder if that was a ruse. Nonetheless, as he’s sitting in a chair watching his victim suffocate, Tyler pops up in the house with a rifle aimed at his dad.

My jaw dropped. Mostly because I’m wondering how the heck Tyler ended up in the house. Is this real? Is this a dream sequence? Because holy hell! Then, I was confused because we suddenly cut back to Tyler and Kassi having a conversation shortly after Tyler and another kid got into a fight earlier in the narrative storytelling. Then, I realized we were going to backtrack to how Tyler ended up in the house confronting his dad.

That is neat. Now, we see Tyler and Kassi “stalking” Don Burnside as Don Burnside becomes a manifest serial killer again. Seeing Tyler hiding under his dad’s bed when he comes in wearing high heels is a heck of an image. Because if Tyler had any doubts up to that point, they were eradicated in an instant.

We learn that Kassi is also in the house, and when Tyler confronts his dad, Don Burnside is able to incapacitate Kassi and convince Tyler to hand over the gun. Although, since it wasn’t loaded, did Tyler know it wasn’t loaded and handed it over to his dad to see if his dad would actually shoot him? Or did he not know it wasn’t loaded? In any event, I was proven wrong by the fact that Don Burnside does try to shoot his own son. But there’s no bullets. A scuffle ensues, which is a great callback to an earlier “playful” scuffle between the two, where Don Burnside nearly chokes Tyler to death until Kassi intervenes with a lamp.

From there, we learn that Tyler and Kassi killed Don Burnside and made it look like a suicide, again, to protect the family. Which, given that Don Burnside killed Kassi’s mother, I’m surprised she was okay with going along with a narrative where Don Burnside dies a hero to the rest of the community.

The other hole in the cover-up is that while Tyler and Kassi were stalking Don Burnside, Tyler was supposed to be out of a town at a scout leadership camp, which he also lied to his mother about. Wouldn’t that come to a head? That he wasn’t actually there?

In any event, I loved this film because it captured that suburban Jekyll and Hyde element so well to create a lot of unease and tension. In fact, to the point where I almost was like, “Dang, come on, Don, don’t start killing again. Don’t ruin all of this.” Ha.

So, if it wasn’t clear, I highly recommend watching this one. It reminded me a bit of 2007’s Disturbia, which I loved, in that you have two young kids who suspect that their neighbor is a serial killer. Just, in this case, the serial killer was one of the young kids’ dad.

See, this image from the beginning of the film would’ve made for a much better poster.

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