I always have a hard time watching many serial killer movies if for no other reason than serial killers exist, and the crimes depicted onscreen could and sometimes do happen to real people. In serial killer movies in particular, much of the violence is directed towards women, which makes my viewing experience more difficult.
But I find such films can be worthwhile despite their grotesque, depressing subject matter. In our culture, we have a fascination with serial killers. They do not kill for reasons society considers “justifiable.” They seem to do the unthinkable, killing for pure personal gain, for profit, or to fulfill some twisted sense of morality. It seems to go against all human decency to kill so needlessly and frequently.
Our fascination expresses itself with many questions—how does the killer select his victims? Why those victims? How does he kill them? How long has he been doing this? How has he never been caught? Yet those questions come secondary to the ten-million-dollar question:
Why does he kill?
We can’t stand not knowing. We may tell ourselves it’s because we are morbidly curious, that we are gawking at a terrifying freak of nature, but we need some reason, some explanation.
Personally, I think we ask that question because we want assurance that we are different from the killer. These serial murderers often go unnoticed and unsuspected. There is no way to call out the evil in our midst until it is too late. So we grasp for any shred of evidence to say, “Look at how messed up this person is. I could never be like that. They aren’t human at all.”
The danger is, with all that poking around in a killer’s head trying to find a motive, you might empathize with him. You might even sympathize with the killer. You might find the common human ground between that person and yourself. You might come to realize that his isn’t much different from you after all.
That’s the really scary part.
In the spirit of introspection, I’ve compiled a list of nine of the best serial killer films to introduce you to this disturbing yet insightful subgenre. Be warned, there are spoilers in my descriptions, and many of these films are very graphic. If you have any other film suggestions, let me know in the comments!
Peeping Tom (1960)
Hailed as “The British Psycho”, Peeping Tom is the story of Mark, a young man who works as a camera assistant for a film crew by day and a pin-up photographer by night. He is also a serial killer with a nefarious purpose beyond murder, selecting attractive and unsuspecting women to be his victims for his demented personal project. Things are going well enough before Mark begins murdering in earnest, until a series of mistakes putt the police hot on his trail.
Peeping Tom, is notable for its inventive and still shocking use of point of view—several scenes are rooted in the point of Mark’s camera, which he uses in all his murders. This filmmaking technique forces the audience to step into Mark’s shoes, to act as a participant in the murders rather than watch as a passive voyeur. It’s truly uncomfortable, giving the viewer a front row seat to terrible violence and asking some tough questions about the consumption of onscreen violence. Many other horror and serial killer films have attempted to recapture the shock of the first-person point of view (think 2012’s Maniac), but none have ever done it as well as Peeping Tom.
This film doesn’t need any introduction, notorious as it is, though I will try.
Pretty blonde secretary Marion Crane has just stolen $40,000 from her boss so she and her boyfriend can start a new life. Using less-traveled back roads to allude police, Marion stops for the night at the near-empty Bates Motel. There she meets the motel owner, Norman Bates, a handsome yet timid young man with an overbearing mother and conflicted feelings towards women.
Never one to shy away from the unpleasant, director Alfred Hitchcock explored misogynistic attitudes towards women and how society dictates their behavior. Norman, having endured a lifetime of his mother’s possessiveness and jealousy, has internalized the idea that women who are sexual are bad. It led him to kill his mother and her new husband. It also leads him to kill women he is attracted to. In his deranged mind, he attributes his own sexual feelings as deviant and the women who inspired those feelings as cheap sluts. As he is unable to reconcile his split-personality, Norman is unable to reconcile his own desires with his mother’s idea of how women should behave. As much as Psycho is a gripping character study of a young man who has gone insane, it’s an insightful interpretation of how society forces women into unattainable roles and then punishes them for not conforming.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Based on real-life sonuvabitch Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer follows the murderous exploits of Henry, fresh out of prison. He has recently murdered his mother and is just getting started. Teaming up with prison buddy Otis, he goes on a tear, murdering people every chance he gets. He and Otis prefer to slaughter women, but they also like to shake things up, at one pint killing whole family in the film’s most savage and infamous scene. When Otis’ sister Becky temporarily moves in with the pair, things get even more horrific.
Henry is a ferocious film, unrelenting in its gritty and all-too-realistic depiction of violence. To say that it is a difficult viewing experience is a gross understatement. What separates this film from other violent films is that it is fully aware of how trying it is to watch. Director John McNaughton set out to make a film that questioned these of gratuitous violence in slashers and challenged the consumption of such violence. The film will lead you to believe, initially, that the violence in Henry will be entertaining in the expected morbid way; however, during the home invasion theme, the film suddenly switches tactics, holding the terrible images up to our faces and asking, “How entertaining is this?”
The violence is overwhelming, but not gratifying, not done for any satisfaction of a deep-seated human bloodlust. What Henry and Otis did is appalling and the film judges them for it. But, as in Peeping Tom, the audience does not escape judgement either.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Buffalo Bill, a frightening serial killer, has alluded the FBI for too long. Desperate for a breakthrough, FBI agent Jack Crawford enlists FBI trainee Clarice Sterling to assist. Sterling must interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter, an incarcerated cannibal serial killer and genius psychiatrist. Intrigued by Sterling, Dr. Lecter engages her in a morbid game of quid pro quo, exchanged bits of his own profile on Buffalo Bill for painful details of Sterling’s past.
We get not one, but two serial killers in this movie! And they’re both terrible people with fascinating psychological profiles. In a strategy similar to Henry, though never as gory, Silence of the Lambs renders its horror in measured realism that shocks because it is so feasible. When Sterling recounts Buffalo Bill’s crimes in a clinical, matter-of-fact way, as the body victim is examined, her wavering voice is a powerful reminder that these crimes happen every day. Buffalo Bill’s strange behavior is undercut by his calculated approach to kidnappings, and his frenzied bouts with rage never cross into campy territory. And Anthony Hopkins, stealing the whole movie, theater, and everyone’s popcorn, wisely chose to forego an over-the-top, scene-chewing portrayal of Dr. Lector. As screenwriter Ted Tally put it, “I actually had the temerity to ask him how he was going to play the part: ‘Do you think you’ll choose moments where his madness shows through?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Oh, no. I think if you’re mad, you’re mad all the time.’”
It is a terrifying, compelling, masterful film offering uncomfortable lessons on pathology while underscoring how very human serial killers are, despite everything.
Directed by the magnificent David Fincher, Se7en follows seasoned Detective Somerset and impulsive Detective Mills. Their latest murder case turns into a nightmare—a serial killer has started murdering people he feels embody each of the seven deadly sins. Each of the murders is modeled in such a way as to punish each victim for their “sin.” Little do the detectives realize that their own lives will be forever entwined with John Doe’s grand design.
Of course, everyone who has seen this movie cannot help but be traumatized by that heartbreaking ending, where John Doe basically wins. Though, for real, pretty sure God would have given Mills a pass for that one. At any rate, there is not a jury in America that would convict Detective Mills and not a prosecutor that would try him, trust me. Kevin Spacey’s performance is so, so, so, creepy and disconcerting. I’ve always thought that John Doe was terrifying as an unforgiving portrayal of the worst kind of religious zealot who thinks it more pious to murder than to tolerate “sin.” His psychopathy is horrifying to me because his twisted mind justifies everything he does with his…loose interpretation on Christianity. His use of religion to justify his enjoyment of murder is a cold reminder that human beings throughout history have readily used as justification for all manner of depravity and violence.
American Psycho (2000)
Adapted from Bret Easton Elli’s controversial novel, American Psycho is about Patrick Bateman, a handsome yuppie in Manhattan. By day, Patrick is an investment banker and by night, he’s a gruesome murderer. His victims range from high-end prostitutes, women who have “wronged” him, colleagues who intimidate him, and the occasional homeless person. Patrick seems to have everything under control initially, but the higher his body count rises, the more his sanity slips.
American Psycho is no exception in terms of depictions of violent misogyny—Patrick Bateman is unapologetically misogynist. But the interesting, compelling thing about the film is how far it goes into Patrick’s psychosis. Director Mary Harron focuses on Patrick’s own sense (and insecurities arising from) the weird toxic masculinity of 1980s Wall Street. Every day Patrick indulges in a myriad of shallow rituals, exercise, face cream, vying for reservations at the best restaurant, and other superficial markers of consumer culture. His lifestyle of wealthy, powerful frat boy is a constant battle for supremacy between his coworkers, as exemplified in the film’s hilarious yet tense scene about business cards.
Patrick spends his days desperately trying to convince himself he’s a hotshot, trading barbs and hateful glances with those who intentionally or unintentionally expose his insecurities. At night he unleashes rage at those insecurities by murdering (mostly) women to feed his ego. Of course, there is much debate over whether or not Patrick’s murders are real or if he’s merely fantasized them, and to what degree. But that’s not the point. The horror of American Psycho is that Patrick’s narcissism and insecurity demand violence and power, as a way of reasserting his masculinity. His sense of self is entirely dependent on the degradation of others.
I wrote about this little-seen movie for my Texas Horror Movies Post, and I just had to include it here. Set in small town Texas, Frailty is the story of a mysterious serial killer whose moniker is the “God’s Hand Killer.” This serial killer believes his murders are part of God’s will. The FBI is investigating the murders without much success. That is, until a young man claiming to be the brother of the God’s Hand Killer strolls into the FBI office.
I chose this film as an important counterpart to Se7en. In that film, John Doe is presented as a zealot who uses religion to justify his murders. At no point does the film treat him as anything other than a raging hypocrite. But I Frailty, the horror comes from the film’s own stance that the serial killer is divinely inspired by God. And this isn’t warm and friendly New Testament God—this is fire and brimstone Old Testament God. To be quite frank, Frailty has a shocking question at its core: How dedicated are you to your faith? How far would you go in service to the Lord, if it isn’t definitely proved that the Lord has commanded you to kill demons who look like people? Just as we abhor religion used to justify ghastly violence, it’s even worse to consider that such violence might be truly divinely mandated.
I have to be honest: I really don’t like Saw. However, I will be the first to admit that it’s had a huge impact on the entire horror genre, so I have to include it here.
Saw opens with two men, Lawrence and Adam, waking up in a locked underground bathroom. Heavy chains fix them to thick pipes. There is no obvious way to escape. Each one is given a separate set of instructions to survive. At first, the men have no idea what they’re doing there or why, but Lawrence realizes eventually they are the latest victims of the malicious serial killer Jigsaw. Jigsaw’s modus operandi is setting up sadistic, perverse “games” to teach each victim a tailor-made lesson about life and survival. But his victims rarely survive the games.
Saw was obviously largely influenced by Se7en (I’d say Saw is a Se7en rip-off), but it has some genuinely terrifying and grisly moments. Particularly disturbing is the character of Jigsaw, who takes Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, removes the religious motivations, and turns the torture up to 11. The best part of the film is the increasingly imaginative, nasty, and outlandish traps Jigsaw lays for his victims. In his own grim view of morality, he’s asking his victims to prove their will to survive in the face of near-impossible obstacles. It’s interesting to find out that Jigsaw himself is dying from inoperable brain cancer, and this whole terrible game is really just his own projections of regret and helplessness. He picks people he deems do not properly “appreciate” life and takes out his struggle on them. Like John Doe, the hypocrisy is strong with Jigsaw, who likes to loudly proclaim that he’s not a murderer because he doesn’t “technically” kill anyone. Frankly, that’s a bullshit excuse but a fascinating characteristic of a man who, deep down, knows exactly what he’s doing.
David Fincher makes this list twice for his terrifying psychological thriller based on the real-life Zodiac killer. In Zodiac, a masked murderer terrorizes 1970s San Francisco with his audacious and appalling crimes. Detectives struggle to bring him to justice, as the killer is skilled enough not to leave behind much evidence. He’s so good, in fact, that he beings to taunt the authorities with coded messages boasting of his prowess. A political cartoonist with a knack for code-breaking becomes obsessed with deciphering the messages and learning the identity of the Zodiac.
This film has many themes and messages, and while Zodiac is not straight horror, I have to include if for Fincher’s expert depiction of the killer. “Audacious” doesn’t quite cover it—the way the Zodiac kills is remorseless and brazen and vicious. He just walked right up to people and attacked them, torturing and murdering them without mercy. It happens so quickly that his victims are too shocked to react, an outcome the Zodiac has expertly manipulated.
The scenes unfold with starkness—no flashy shots, no disorienting camera angles, no over-the-top blood spurts. Just coldly executed murder. The scene with the couple picnicking at Lake Berryessa was awful and brutal and messed me up for days afterward, as did the scene with Kathleen Johns and the man who gave her a ride. The really disturbing thing to me was that a horrendous monster of a person could slaughter innocent people in broad daylight and never be caught. Not even identified. And because the film is (mostly) true, the horror is way worse. We like to think that the bad guys are always caught, always brought to justice, but that’s not the way it works sometimes.