"She's more a man than all the other guys on the 4 to 12 put together," security guard Jim Tahna (Michael Cudlitz) says of his work colleague Sanchez whom he relieves every night for the graveyard shift. "She's like a friend. We share a vice." Jim's words, spoken in voiceover, are carefully weighed and frank – franker, certainly, than his actual interactions with other people. Jim is drawn to Sanchez even though she is a lesbian and he is overtly homophobic (Hollywood, he tells her, is "for faggots") – but tellingly, to this man who seems incapable of forming normal human relations, she is only like a friend, much as he merely pretends to be 'buddies' with the incoming office workers he greets each morning. Initially we see him at work, going all clean freak on his security booth and carefully laying out his snacks and music cassettes like someone with OCD – but it is the holidays that truly define his psychological hang-ups.
The vice that Jim shares with his colleague is 'grief tourism'. Every vacation, limping, appetitive Jim travels to places once haunted by serial killers, taking in their sinister vibe the way other holidaymakers might soak up the sun. This year, he is travelling from his Yonkers apartment to the small (fictitious) town of Hetacomb, California, following in the footsteps of 1960s arsonist and mass murderer Carl Marznap. Yet as we try to work out what deep dark void in his own life Jim is trying to fill, we see him connect with two very different people - the grieving widow Betsy (Melanie Griffith) who serves him food at the local diner, and the blonde prostitute Iris (Suzanne Quast) who is working out of the room neighbouring his in a low-rent motel. Introducing himself to both of them as 'Carl', Jim seems headed down a path of reviving past sins and traumas, even as the long-dead Marznap (Pruitt Taylor Vince) keeps appearing to him with a mixture of guidance, insight and sad resignation.
While the subject of serial killers will always come with fixed genre coordinates on the movie map, director Suri Krishnamma keeps sensationalism largely at bay by having the central character consume true crime at the same frisson-filled distance as filmgoers consume horror, and so poses confronting questions as to what draws anyone to such dark materials. This reflexive element ensures that Dark Tourist (its original title The Grief Tourist was better) fully earns its place on the FrightFest slate, even if so sombre and muted a piece is ultimately more tragedy than horror. For this is a deadly serious psychodrama with the emphasis on (finely acted) character, where even the odd transgressive twist serves and illuminates the story's integrity rather than just adding another cheap thrill. Frank John Hughes' screenplay is so tightly written that only serial viewing will reveal all its nuances – but revisiting this excellent film's scenic narrative route will provide special, contradictory pleasures that make grief tourists of us all.
'Dark Tourist' screens at Film4 FrightFest 2013...
Main Screen, Sun 25th August, 3pm
Follow Anton on Twitter: @AntBit