An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · December 22, 2019, 9:55 PM PST
Serial Slayer

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on December 22, 2004, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Don’t be fooled by the DVD cover art Lions Gate came up with for Serial Slayer (which the company retitled from Claustrophobia); the movie is not a killfest, its villain goes largely unseen and none of it even takes place at night. Writer/director Mark Tapio Kines goes for something different and, given current horror trends, risky: generating fear from a story that takes place entirely during a sunny day. Thanks to solid pacing and a more seasoned young cast than one usually finds in an independent digital feature, he overcomes a few plausibility issues and pulls it off.

The leads are Melanie (Heavenly Creatures) Lynskey as Lauren, Sheeri (Little Witches) Rappaport as Gina and Mary Lynn (24) Rajskub as Grace, the only people to show up at a co-workers’ party at a big house in a tony LA suburb. The low turnout is due not to interpersonal politics but the fact that a crossbow-wielding serial killer has been on the prowl, scaring a lot of the local residents right out of the neighborhood, and thus leaving no one to notice when the murderer lays siege to the three young women. Kines and the actresses nicely sketch the trio’s contrasting and conflicting personalities before they realize that their lives are in jeopardy, and then build palpable tension as they try to figure a way out of their predicament. The writer/director aims for a realistic depiction of ordinary women under pressure rather than heroics, and while not everything about the situation rings true (he almost gets away with tossing off the revelation that none of them has a cell phone), he and his cast are able to convince that this is what ordinary people might do if a maniac was stomping around on their roof.

Since the daytime setting doesn’t allow the killer to lurk in the dark, Kines instead creates a sense of menace simply through the sounds of his footsteps above his would-be victims before the villain eventually gets serious about attacking them. The DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 audio makes the most of such simple tricks, even as it’s limited by Kines’ low-key approach to the sound. The fullscreen image gets murky in some of the darker interiors but is satisfying for the most part, though the fact that the video original has been used without filmlooking may be distracting for some viewers. It’s also a bit puzzling, given that advance Claustrophobia screeners sent out by Kines had the process applied, with no adverse effect to the picture.

Beyond a collection of Lions Gate trailers (largely non-horror titles for some reason), the key supplement is commentary by Kines, an entertaining discussion of turning limited means to his advantage. While he devotes plenty of attention to the process of building suspense, he also points out details like the placement of his actresses (who receive due praise) in the frame to evoke their relationships. There are also fun low-budget tech revelations, like the fact that he “performed” all the killer’s footsteps himself. Given that the movie runs just under 80 minutes, he never runs out of subjects to cover—and he reveals that the movie might even have been shorter without an opening scene (featuring Night of the Living Dead’s Judith O’Dea) and a chilly little coda that were added after the fact to beef up the running time.