June 4, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Charles Scharfman
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror flick “Killer Among Us” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American and Hispanic) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: A rookie cop joins forces with her detective boss to catch a serial killer who has been targeting African American prostitutes.
Culture Audience: “Killer Among Us” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching low-budget and derivative horror flicks and crime dramas that exploit racial tensions for an extremely unimaginative story.
“Killer Among Us” is one of those movies where it’s obvious that the filmmakers took the same ideas from the type of low-budget blaxploitation movies that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s and just updated the story to have the serial killer as a white supremacist fanatic who listens to an Alex Jones-type of podcast filled with ranting conspiracy theories. There is nothing creative or unpredictable about this very amateurish film, which tries to look more suspenseful than it really is. The movie is almost unwatchable because the characters are just lines of dialogue with no real personalities, and the cast members’ performances range from mediocre to just plain awful.
“Killer Among Us” is the feature-film directorial debut of Charles Scharfman, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Daniel Lichtenberg. Even though the protagonist/hero of the story is a African American female police officer, it doesn’t erase the filmmakers’ problematic and borderline racist decision to make it look like only non-white women are drug-addicted prostitutes in this unnamed city. It’s just lazy and negative stereotyping that further lowers the quality of this already tacky movie, which tries to pretend it’s not a racial exploitation film, even though it really is.
The first scene in the movie shows the white racist serial killer (played by Andrew Richardson) disguising himself with false teeth and a prosthetic nose. He drives in his car and picks up an African American woman in a deserted area somewhere at night. As soon as she gets in the car, he gives her an injection of an unnamed drug that renders her unconscious. He then slits her throat and sets her body on fire. It turns out that this woman was a prostitute and this serial killer has been specifically targeting African American prostitutes.
Three months later, the killer does almost the same thing again: He disguises himself, picks up an African American prostitute, drugs her and kidnaps her. This victim’s name is Ricki Fennel (played by Imani Lewis), and it’s later revealed that she’s a 16-year-old runaway who’s addicted to heroin. Instead of the killer murdering her right away, he takes Ricki to his remote house in the woods.
Before that happens, Ricki almost gets away from him by escaping from the car while it’s driving on a busy street. Ricki has been drugged by whatever was in the needle that the killer injected into her, so she stumbles out of the car when it happens to be in front of a convenience store. The killer immediately gets out of the car to grab Ricki and force her back inside, while an incapacitated Ricki tries to resist.
A rookie cop named Alicia Parks (played by Yasha Jackson) happens to be in the convenience store and sees this altercation, so she goes outside and asks if everything is okay. The killer lies and says that he’s helping a drunk person get home. And then he puts Ricki in the car and speeds off.
Everything happens so quickly that Alicia doesn’t have time to get his license plate number. But one big clue was left behind: the hypodermic needle that was used to drug Ricki. Alicia suspects that she witnessed a kidnapping, but there’s no proof. No one fitting Ricki’s description has been reported kidnapped or missing for that night. And the police don’t know yet that the killer disguised himself, so it will be harder to identify him.
Alicia takes her suspicions about the kidnapping to her boss Sergeant Corbucci (played by Bruce MacVittie), who suggests that she investigate on her own time. And that’s exactly what she does, but Sergeant Corbucci eventually ends up helping when he starts to believe Alicia’s theory that the man whom Alicia saw outside the convenience store is the same man who’s been killing African American hookers in the city. Alicia is portrayed as methodical and “by the book,” but she doesn’t think about a certain crucial thing about that hypodermic needle until much later in the story, in an “a-ha” moment that a seasoned investigator would’ve thought of much earlier.
About halfway through the movie, the killer’s undisguised face is shown, and later it’s revealed that his name is Vince. It’s also somewhat explained why he doesn’t murder Ricki but decides to keep her captive instead. It has to do with the fact that after he kidnapped her, he realized that he’s met Ricki before, whereas his other victims were total strangers. Because he’s met Ricki before, it throws him off of his routine of murdering strangers, so he doesn’t quite know how to handle it. It’s really just an excuse for the movie to have scenes of Ricki being tied up and tortured.
The investigation plods along at a very predictable pace with very inaccurate portrayals of what a rookie cop would and would not be allowed to do on a case like this one. It’s not stated how big this city is (the movie was filmed in the New York towns of Harris and Mount Kisco), but the police force that’s working on this serial killer case is very small. It’s a low-budget film, so there doesn’t have to be a lot of actors cast as cops.
The bigger problem this film has is that the two cops who are the focus of the story have very generic and bland personalities. Viewers will learn almost nothing about Alicia’s background or personal life, even though she’s supposed to be the protagonist. There’s an unnecessary scene of her near the beginning of the movie that shows her giving boxing tips to another woman at a boxing gym, but this scene has no bearing on the rest of the story. Alicia’s personality is a blank void that’s never filled in this movie.
However, the movie has a lot of cliché filler that lazily recycles stereotypes and tropes of crime dramas that involve junkie hookers and serial killers. Before Ricki gets kidnapped, she’s shown hanging out with another heroin addict/prostitute named Evelyn Esperanza (played by Angelic Zambrana), who uses the alias Molly. There’s the inevitable scene of Ricki and Molly talking about how much they want to get a fix and then cooking up heroin to get high.
And it should come as no surprise in an exploitation flick like “Killer Among Us” that there’s a sex scene with Ricki (before she was abducted) and a prostitution customer, who’s a middle-aged white man. The filmmakers don’t just have Ricki as a hooker and a drug addict. They make her a thief too, because she tries to steal cash from this customer’s wallet. He catches her in the act and gets angry, so he pays her less than what he normally would pay.
The serial killer Vince is a bachelor loner who doesn’t talk much, but when he does, it’s in a stereotypical voice of a nerdy psychotic creep. He’s shown going to a strip club, where he fixates on a dancer named Destiny (played by Kate Rogal), who doesn’t become his murder victim because Destiny is white and she knows him as a frequent customer. This serial killer targets African American prostitutes whom he kills the first time that he meets them.
One of the things that this serial killer likes to do to his victims is take Polaroid photos of them while he tortures them. But just like there’s no background information on Alicia, there is no backstory for this murderer character to explain why he turned out the way that he did. It’s eventually revealed what he does for a living, but it still doesn’t give a reason for what caused him to turn into a murderer.
The big inevitable showdown toward the end of the movie is supposed to take place on the Fourth of July. And you know what that means in a predictable movie like this one: The climactic scene will have fireworks. “Killer Among Us” isn’t the worst movie ever, but it’s so simple-minded, hackneyed and filled with such poorly written characters, that it’s ultimately the type of junk that’s forgettable.
Vertical Entertainment released “Killer Among Us” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 16, 2021.