A serial killer with mother issues? Get out of here! George Snow’s “Us Sinners” walks the razor’s edge between straight-faced genre exercise and broad parody but slips and cuts itself every step of the way. Although he struggles to create a “sympathetic monster” slasher film, Snow only manages to string together a series of awkwardly amusing scenes that undermine any real terror and, worse, fail to provoke any reaction at all.
Creepy janitor Tim Connolly (Brandon Schraml, who looks like a demonic Michael Rapaport) works at a stuffy office with a group of snobby coworkers who always exclude him from their lunchtime conversations. At night, Tim’s dark side takes over, driving him to kill prostitutes and write his initials in blood right above the scene of the crime. How the police haven’t caught this genius is never clear, especially since everyone at work suspects him of the crimes and since he even writes the staff death threats with the same initials at the bottom. Tim’s home life is ostentatiously the cause of his violent behavior. His mother, it turns out, is (Guess what!) overly religious, accusing Tim of dating loose women and forcing him to say Hail Marys while she spanks him. Now that we have Points 1 and 2 of the formula in place, we’re ready to move on to the rest: Tim’s sympathetic coworker Louise (Brenda Cooney), who wants to see the best in him, and the nasty (but admittedly smart) Betty (Glenys Javier), who reports Tim to the police.
The best slasher films often offer a psychological profile of the subject. Norman Bates, the obvious prototype, has our sympathy even when we realize he’s a lunatic. My sympathy for Tim was tested every time he pulled out his knife and went on the prowl. He’s not an entertaining sociopath; he’s just another guy with a traumatic childhood and an axe to grind. Schraml’s histrionic performance doesn’t help much, either. He’s only capable of nervous stuttering and wild-eyed anger, and he’s not exactly a master at either one. I’ll bet this guy was a riot on the set, but in front of the camera, he’s excruciating.
Tim’s encounters with his mother, the film’s psychological backbone, would be hilarious if they weren’t so nauseating. The spanking scene and a later exchange in which Tim’s mother (Leslie Hughes) forces milk of magnesia down his throat are two of the film’s queasy highlights. Other scenes stretch the boundaries of good taste for no justifiable reason.
The “Us Sinners” experience is like gazing into the void to discover a “Back in 5 Minutes” sign. All the darkness and desolation are there, but it’s still not much to see.