The worst crime a person can commit, both legally and morally, is murder – the intentional and premeditated killing of another human being. What is worse is when someone is going around murdering people for their own sick pleasure and gratification. Despite most of society being against their horrid crimes, society also cannot help but be fascinated by the mind of a serial killer. Why do they do it? What made them become like that? These are complex questions that society has been plagued by ever since the beginning of time, and many movies have tackled this subject.
While there are countless movies about serial killers, there are some that stand out within this subgenre. Filmmakers have had to come up with fresh takes on the serial killer story. Whether the film’s take on the subject is unique, or the killer has a very peculiar pattern, there are some serial killer movies that don’t just have a generic psychopath killing people simply for pleasure. The “why” of the matter is just as important, if not more so, than the “how”.
These are films that are not only very creative in their approach to telling the often-told serial killer story, but which also try to at least somewhat explain the killer’s motivation and who they are. This list will forgo discussing the more well-known movie serial killers like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, as those articles on those characters have been done to death (pun intended).
Some of these films have been criticised for glamorising serial killers and making them look cool, but anyone with a reasonable state of mind will know that murder is wrong and that these are just movies.
10. Copycat (Jon Amiel, 1995)
They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that is certainly the way of thinking of Peter Foley (William McNamara), a disturbed serial killer. Foley wants to make his mark in criminal history with his bloody handiwork being his way into serial killer folklore while paying sick tributes to his favourite serial killers of yesteryear, such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy.
What makes Copycat unique is that its antagonist emulates the murders of real life serial killers, which is a sickening thought as it could very well happen in real life. With the frequent references to past serial killers, Copycat could almost be considered a history lesson in famous American serial killers. Foley ultimately kills people to become famous and to feel validated as a person. There are photos of the real life murders committed compared with the murders in the movie, adding a sickening feeling to these scenes.
Sound plays a big part in the uncomfortable feel of the film, which is appropriate for a film about creepy murderers. The sinister score throughout the movie is haunting, and in one particularly nasty and squeamish sequence, a video with images of Foley’s next victim has the woman’s face turn into a skull that is accompanied with horrible shrieks of a woman being killed.
It is a shame that Copycat is not more well known, as it is a compelling thriller. It is also too bad that McNamara did not go on to have a bigger acting career, as his performance as a disturbed young serial killer is fantastic. In fact, the whole cast is great in this; Harry Connick Jr’s brief appearances as a serial killer are creepy, and he should be cast in more villain roles.
9. Taking Lives (D.J. Caruso, 2004)
Everyone has imagined what it would be like to live someone else’s life. The grim side to that way of thinking is the crime of identity theft, and also potentially the murder of the person whose identity has been stolen. This fear is the basis of Taking Lives, where a serial killer has been murdering men who have a similar appearance to him in order to pretend to be them and live out various lives using their names.
Taking Lives has a great cast, with Angelina Jolie playing the detective who is assigned to track down the serial killer pretending to be the men he has killed for the past 20 years. Director D.J. Caruso made the excellent crime drama The Salton Sea in 2002, and his distinct visual style and flair are on show in Taking Lives, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for viewers to experience.
While Taking Lives had mixed reviews upon its theatrical release in 2004, the premise of it is intriguing and terrifying. A common crime is when criminals who use other people’s’ credit cards to buy stuff for themselves, leaving the real person in debt. That in itself is a horrible thing to happen to an innocent person. So imagine someone entering your life out of nowhere who then kills you and pretends to be you so they can live out their sick fantasies. It is a very creepy and sobering thought, a thought that Taking Lives utilises to make itself a solid thriller.
8. Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980)
Murder has always been a controversial subject, but another subject that just as taboo, perhaps more so, is homosexuality. Many people and religious groups have shamed homosexuals throughout history for their sexuality being supposedly unnatural and disgusting. Director William Friedkin put both murder and homosexuality together in his thriller Cruising, set in the leather bars of the gay nightclub scene. Whether the graphic sexual acts in the nightclub scenes or the brutal aftermaths of the murders in the film are more confrontational is up for debate, but it is a powerful film nonetheless.
In Cruising, a serial killer is going around the gay leather bar scene in New York City brutally murdering gay men out partying and performing sexual acts in these clubs, sometimes after having sex with them. Young police officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is sent deep undercover to infiltrate these nightclubs to lure the killer, as Burns fits the look of the type of men the killer is targeting.
Cruising is unique for its controversial use of gay nightclubs and the sexual activity that happens inside them being the setting of a murder mystery, for its depiction of New York City’s former rough state, and for its constant dark lighting and eeriness. It is a shame that this film is considered the beginning of the end of Friedkin’s career, because it is a solid, gritty thriller that depicted a controversial subject matter.
Cruising mixes the styles of his previous two successful films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, in that it is a frantic police drama, but it also has a dark vibe and visual style that feels like the film has gone into the depths of pure evil. The killer himself is stoic and cold, and thanks to his calm and emotionless voice being dubbed in, has an otherworldly presence that is very sinister akin to the possessed girl in The Exorcist. Pacino’s performance as an inexperienced cop who slowly becomes more hollow and starts losing his sanity is amazing. His work here has been underappreciated and should be more recognised among film enthusiasts.
Cruising is also a great time capsule of the hedonistic underground gay nightlife only a few years before the AIDS epidemic caused fear throughout the world, especially in the homosexual community. It also depicts a politically incorrect society where people were far more blunt with their negative attitudes toward homosexuality, with one scene showing a newspaper with the crude headline “Homo killer on the prowl” with the word “homo” being used with a negative tone. The homosexual community had only started receiving more civil rights at the time the film was made, so Cruising was making a strong statement about homophobia in both society and the police force.
7. Kalifornia (Dominic Sena, 1993)
Serial killer folklore has always fascinated people, with tales of violence, brutality, and overall evil. What no one expects though is that they will encounter a serial killer themselves, let alone be targeted by one. It is a sick fascination that people think they can read about safely from afar. Photographer Brian (David Duchovny) and his girlfriend Carrie (Michelle Forbes), who are researching serial killers for a book they are working on together, also naively believe they will never be harmed by a serial killer themselves, but that is exactly who they have unknowingly brought along with them.
The two plan to travel from Pennsylvania to California to sites all over America where famous serial killers committed their disgusting acts, without knowing that one of the people they brought along with them is indeed a serial killer. The ferocious Early (Brad Pitt) and his innocent girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis) terrorise people they encounter on their road trip, and Early eventually turns his violent tendencies towards the artsy couple they have been travelling with, whom up to that point dismissed Early and Adele as stereotypically stupid rednecks.
Like in Natural Born Killers, Lewis yet again plays the abused white trash woman in the killer couple alongside her male partner in both crime and romance. Kalifornia is a cool 90’s thriller about how and why serial killers do the evil things they do, but also showing that one of the reasons why serial killers exist is because no one believes they will be confronted by one themselves, allowing these murderers to successfully lurk in the shadows.
6. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)
Although some of the aforementioned films on this list discuss peoples’ obsession with real-life serial killers, what makes Scream unique is that its characters are obsessed with serial killers in movies. Most people think the closest they will get to a serial killer is by watching movies, but what makes Scream great is that it plays with the clichés and “rules” of the teen slasher movies; it is both a homage and a critique of at the same time.
Scream has teen serial killers who kill their classmates while wearing the iconic Ghostface mask and black cloak, who base how they murder people on the rules of classic slasher movies like Halloween and Friday The 13th. The teens figure this out and have to play by the rules of horror movie conventions in order to defeat the killers.
This same idea was used in the sequels, but they did not have the impact that the first Scream had. Besides the many amusing movie references throughout the film, another factor that makes Scream so good is how brutal and terrifying the violence actually is. Every murder scene in Scream has this nasty sense of dread to it, unlike the sequels where the kills happen too quickly and seem too slick to be scary.
When the killers in this film show their true identities, they reveal just how evil and insane they truly are; their facial expressions truly are spine-chilling. The famous opening scene with Drew Barrymore’s death is particularly harsh and grim, and it is rightfully still considered one of the most effective scenes in horror movies to this day.
5. Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003)
As the titles suggests, Monster is about a serial killer who many view as a monster for their horrific crimes. But what the title does not indicate is that the titular monster was not always this way and the film is about how the protagonist became a monster, specifically a serial killer.
Prostitute Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) grew up with various men abusing her and taking advantage of her sexually, giving her an extreme hatred of men. She gets raped by one of her clients, whom she kills in self defence. After failing to get a legitimate job due to her criminal record and lack of work experience and skills, Aileen returns to prostitution, but uses her role to kill and rob her clients, even the ones who treat her well.
Monster is told from the killer’s point of view, in how Aileen justifies her crimes with the belief that all men are out to hurt her. It depicts how she became a killer through her abusive and rough childhood, and discrimination for being a lesbian. With the tough upbringing Aileen had in the ‘white trash’ world and the bad luck she faced in her life, viewers cannot help but feel sorry for her, as it is almost as if Aileen’s life was always pushing her into a life of crime. What makes Monster more disturbing is that it is based on a true story; Charlize Theron’s performance rightfully won her the Best Actress Oscar in 2004.
4. American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
American Psycho is based on the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name that has been banned in some parts of the world for its graphic depiction of violence that, frankly, makes the movie look tame by comparison. However, that is not to say that the film version is bad; it is a great movie that is in equal measures hilarious and creepy, often at the same time, due to its stockbroker/serial killer protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale).
Although the film is thematically more about ’80s-era materialism, yuppie culture, and hedonism than it is about serial killers, Bateman’s bloodlust is inspired by his inner disgust at those things. Patrick Bateman is a rich, handsome, and ridiculously smug man who works on Wall Street, but this high social status still does not satisfy his evil urges and true nature. He kills people at night, mostly prostitutes and homeless people, to fill the dark void in his soul.
The restaurants and nightclubs are the cool places Patrick hangs out at and that is the image he wants to project to others. However, when he is outside in the streets or at home, he shows his true, sinister nature with the people he is often alone with in order to kill them without witnesses.
Although the violence seen on screen is nasty, Bateman’s most brutal acts happen off screen, leaving the disgusting acts Bateman inflicts on his victims up to the viewer’s imagination, much like the violence in the book the film is based on. What makes American Psycho unique as a serial killer film is that the murders are often both comedic and horrific simultaneously. Although some of the murders are indeed creepy, especially with the film’s sometimes sinister score, some are obviously played up for laughs.
3. Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)
Director Oliver Stone was never shy to confront controversial subject matters in the films he made in the 1980s and 1990s, but Natural Born Killers could be the film that elicited the most vitriol of them all. The original screenplay was written by Quentin Tarantino early in his career and was eventually brought by Stone, who rewrote it to better suit his vision. Despite the changes, the film is ultimately a combination of both Tarantino’s trademark brash violence with Stone’s ballsy criticism of American society, which is a match made in heaven – or hell, considering the violence and subject matter.
Troubled young couple Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis) drive around America killing innocent people for their own amusement, as they see people as inherently evil due to the constant abuse they received as children. Both the police and the media are after them, to bring them to justice and television, respectively.
Told from the killer’s point of view, this film satirises the media’s glorification of serial killers and how the public makes killers icons, akin to the real-life criminal legend Charles Manson. One thing that really makes Natural Born Killers stand out in the serial killer genre is its weird and sometimes nauseating, but also hypnotic, visuals throughout the movie. The visuals represent the Knoxs’ insanity and the surreal nature of their lives and everything happening around them. The frequent use of real-life television commercials and news footage satirises the media’s cynical glorification of these serial killers for ratings.
While most serial killers are sneaky and calculated in the murders they commit, these two have no restraint at all with their killings. In fact, they are very open about committing the crimes they have committed, so much so that they always leave one person alive to tell the tale of how they survived encountering Mickey and Mallory Knox.
A film like this was always going to ruffle feathers, especially under Stone’s direction. The public finding the violence the killers inflict upon people entertaining could be compared to how the ancient Romans found the brutal deaths that happened in colosseums to be an entertaining pastime. People have always found murders to be equally horrific and exciting at the same time, representing the ugly duality of man’s opinion on violence.
2. Seven (David Fincher, 1995)
Director David Fincher is one of the most acclaimed directors in modern cinema, particularly known for his work in the thriller genre. While Fincher made Zodiac in 2007 about the real life Zodiac killer in 1960s and 1970s California, that was a pretty basic serial killer and police procedural film overall. However, his first film about a serial killer, Seven, is far from basic.
In Seven, each victim is murdered as they have committed one of the seven deadly sins written in the Bible. The victim is killed in a disgusting way that fits with their particular sin, such as an obese man eating food until his stomach ruptured for committing the sin of gluttony, or how a prostitute was repeatedly stabbed in her genitals for tempting men to commit the sin of lust.
Despite one of the Ten Commandments specifically tells its followers “Thou shalt not kill,” the mysterious serial killer only known as John Doe (Kevin Spacey) has contradicted his extreme religious beliefs by repeatedly committing murder. He feels his actions are a case of where the end justifies the means.
Although many societies have condemned sinners ever since the rise of Christianity, Seven discusses how the modern world has come to mostly care less about people committing these immoral acts. While Seven is indeed a serial killer film, it is also about some of the foundations of both the modern world and present day America, a predominantly Christian country.
You never see the murders actually happen, just the aftermaths that the detectives investigate, but with such horrific crime scenes, would viewers actually want to see these crimes happen? Being a David Fincher film, the dark visuals are captivating, creating the grim, hopeless, and indeed sinful world the characters live in. The famous ending is simply one of the bleakest endings from a Hollywood film, and the overall film still haunts moviegoers to this day.
1. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)
The subject of murder is always a nasty one with horrible aspects to it. What may be just as disturbing as the murders themselves are the mindsets of the murderers who commit these awful crimes. The 1986 film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was considered gruesome upon its release, and was banned or heavily censored in many countries around the world, meaning it did not get seen in many countries until years after being filmed. In fact, despite the film being completed in 1986, the film did not get a theatrical release in the United States until 1990.
In the film, a disturbed young man named Henry (Michael Rooker) moves into an apartment with his friend from prison Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’s sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Henry and Otis start a brutal killing spree through town, leaving a horrific path of destruction and death. Henry has a self-described “them or us” attitude to justify the murders and he and Otis’s enjoyment of their actions.
Most serial killer movies have a police aspect to them, where the cops are investigating the murders. However, in this film, there are no police officers investigating Henry’s crimes that could eventually lead up to Henry’s arrest.
The film is very focused on how Henry sees things, from his bloodlust and remorseless attitude toward his crimes, to having to deal with his partner-in-crime Otis’s own problems, such as Otis lusting after his own sister. In fact, Henry and Otis purposely perform every murder differently to make the police think they are unrelated murders. This makes the film far creepier, as there seems to be no hope of the police stopping Henry and Otis’s killing spree.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Thursday 10 August 2016