It's Just Monkey Stuff: The Clovehitch Killer

I’ve noticed a trend in this year’s slate of horror films. We seem to be afraid of our families. Our families seem to not have the best interest for us or let us down when we need it. The infanticidal mother. The teen who invokes demons to get back at her mother. Parents so drawn into their own shit that they don’t notice a serial killer lives next door. Spouses who learn that maybe their partner is a monster. The list goes on and on. Historically, you can see trends in horror films that, whether consciously or not, speak to the things that fear us right now. And right now, our families scare the shit out of us.

In a small Kentucky town, a serial killer terrorized a town a decade earlier. The killer, who’d bind his victims and leave a clove hitch knot behind as his calling card, was deemed The Clovehitch Killer. He claimed at least ten victims. And just like that, the murders stopped. He was never caught. Now, every year, the town memorializes the victims.

Tyler (Charlie Plummer) is a naive teenager living in the Bible Belt. Courteous, meek, very inexperienced in the world. Of course he’s a Boy Scout and his father Don (Dylan McDermott) is his Scout Leader. He goes to church, where all his friends are good Christian boys and girls. He has a little sister, perennially smiling and chipper. And putting the cherry on top of this good Christian family is the mother Cindy (Samantha Mathis) who is as god-fearing as they come. They have that typical family dynamic you’d expect. Lots of “sirs” and “ma’am’s.” Stuffy, forced family time. Disciplined.

One night, Tyler does the unthinkable and sneaks out of the house at night, takes his father’s truck and meets up with a girl he’s been crushing on. Before anything PG-13 rated can happen, she finds a Polaroid picture of a naked woman, bound and gagged. She understandably freaks. He says it’s not his. And just like that, not only is the romance killed but rumors start to spread throughout the church kids that Tyler is a Perv. The only person he can turn to is another social outcast Kassi (Madisen Beaty), a narrative contrivance that gives Tyler someone to talk to, who is also very interested in the murders years ago.

That’s when Tyler starts to realize that there’s something strange about the way his dad keeps a shed in the backyard under tight lock and key. And it’s at this point that I would recommend potential serial killers to not use your kid’s birthday as the number on your padlock because Tyler goes snooping and discovers a box filled with bondage mags and more Polaroids. But most troubling, he starts to think that his father; his pious, Scout Leader, goofy father…might be The Clovehitch Killer.

Upfront what I found interesting was how quickly we establish that his father is up to no good. It’s not so much a question of whether he’s the killer; in the first fifteen minutes we go from a wholesome family to one where the father is an elusive BTK-esqe killer. Yes, there are wrinkles to that story and the events become a lot more complicated than that so the above isn’t a spoiler. But writer Christopher Ford isn’t interested in a “is he, or isn’t he?” type of narrative. We go in with the assumption he is. And the drama and terror comes from what would you do as a young naive teenager who obviously loves his father who discovers his father might be a sociopath? The tension comes from those relationship interplays, complicated by a mother who sees her son’s sneaking around at night as him looking for porn. Family guilt weighs heavily on the poor kid.

The cast is uniformly great. Charlie Plummer is endearing as the Bible Belt kiddo who’s completely out of his depth and wants to believe the best in his family. The way he handles the social stigma the original picture puts him in as well as how he interacts with the increasingly unsettling situation he finds himself in brings pathos to the story. And special mention should also go to Samantha Mathis who is given a more subtle role to work with. As the obvious disciplinarian and religious woman, she still manages to bring warmth to the character. One scene that resonated with me was at dinner as Tyler was introducing his “girlfriend” Kassi and Kassi’s sense of humor about wanting to be a Wiccan is met with surprised, yet courteous and bewildered responses. Social graces are a must, you know.

But this is Dylan McDermott’s show and he excels. Dylan brings a certain amount of goofy smarm to the role that felt authentic. I’ve known fathers just like him; the dorky, some would save lovable, Scout Master who knows that rascally “boys will be boys” (ugh, by the way). The kind who might have impure thoughts, but would never act on them. The kind that would, on pressure from the mother, have an awkward conversation with their son about sex, over a cherry cola. The kind that would refer to those impulses as “monkey stuff.” He truly feels like a real person, which makes the story that much scarier.

What really surprised me was the midpoint where the narrative does something interesting and inventive and becomes a different beast than I expected. The way the story twists and folds in on itself is fantastic and the action leading up to the climax is thrilling. But even after, the denouement further complicates the story and raises the stakes. I was left breathless but sad at the tragedy that plays out. As a jaded horror fan, it takes a lot to unsettle me, but The Clovehitch Killer managed to get under my skin and linger.