Serial killer movies are the dark heart of the crime genre. Unlike true-crime podcasts or the written word, the crimes themselves. Often executed with a degree of preparation usually reserved for much more joyous occasions and invariably gory need to be visualized. This can make for a troubling viewing experience but also gives filmmakers the chance to pose challenging questions of society’s failings and our voyeuristic urges.
Since Fritz Lang ended M with a kangaroo court passing sentence on Peter Lorre’s killer, serial killer films come in all shapes and sizes. From the procedural mysteries of David Fincher’s Zodiac to the co-opted horror tropes of Silence of the Lambs. Some are straight-up exploitative, and others are provocative and shocking. Hopefully, some on this list will be new to you – others may have left bloodstains on your subconscious.
Perhaps that’s why cinema contains such a fascination with the more glorious, manic version of the serial killer. These stories thrill us even as they distract us from everyday evil’s more pressing danger and mundanity. The concept of “a serial killer on the loose” has been rich cinematic soil for almost films that have existed. Go back to the 1920s, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and what you have is a serial killer story. Albeit one in which a hypnotized somnambulist is carrying out the murders. But the point stands.
Here are 10 of the very best films about the very worst of humanity.
Director: David Fincher
It’s difficult to think of a film that did more than short-term damage to the length of your fingernails in the ’90s than David Fincher’s Se7en. Sticking close to detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and almost-retired William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) on the trail of John Doe.
A murderer who plans his kills around the seven deadly sins, the film allows us to watch Somerset teach a still-naive Mills valuable life lessons around the case, which has morally charged outcomes aimed at victims, including a gluttonous man and a greedy attorney. For all the disturbing crime scenes considered, Se7en’s never as unpredictable or emotionally draining as in its infamous finale, in which Mills and Somerset discover “what’s in the box” after capturing their man.
2. Zodiac (2007)
Director: David Fincher
This lengthy 2007 has everything you could want in a crime drama: a true story, incredible visuals, and outstanding performances from the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. Zodiac features some of the grisliest murder scenes ever, and tells the remarkable true story of the Zodiac killer, who killed 37 people in the bay area, left hints in the newspaper, and was never brought to justice.
Zodiac is considered by many to be director David Fincher’s masterpiece. Considering others on his resume, The Social Network, Fight Club, and the next movie on this list, that’s saying quite a lot. If you’re a fan of Mindhunter, which Fincher also plays a big part in making, this is a movie for you.
Director: Terrence Malick
Why did two seemingly ordinary people go on a cross-country killing spree, and what is it that makes theirs so strikingly different from all the other movies about serial killers on the run? Those two broad questions steer first-time director Terrence Malick in Badlands. It begins with Spacek’s narration as Holly; the entirety of her backstory comes from this first monologue.
Through which we’re told her mother died of pneumonia and how, after her death, “[Her father] could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house.” Then the film gives us a montage of images from this small town in Texas before introducing us to Kit (Martin Sheen), who’s shown working as a garbageman. Finally, kit sees Holly twirling a baton in front of her house, and their fates are sealed.
The basic plot of Badlands was drawn from Charles Starkweather’s murder spree with his girlfriend in 1958. Still, Malick only uses that story as a loose frame for his big questions about the nature of evil and our compulsion to watch movies like this. “Our sense of the past is always already influenced by our present understanding of the world (we see the past through the present). And yet our present understanding of the world is itself always already influenced and determined by the past (we see the present through the past).”
Theorist Leland Poague’s understanding of the “reception theory” provides an ideal framework for Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut feature. It’s impossible to view Badlands outside the lenses of his later work. Still, it’s also impossible to view his last work outside the lenses of Badlands.
4. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
One of the most brutal mainstream horror films ever released, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, based on notorious Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, resembles an art-house verité built on the grainy physicality of its flat Texas setting. Plus, it introduced the superlatively sinister Leatherface, the iconic chainsaw-wielding giant of a man who wears a mask made of human skin.
Whose freakish sadism is upstaged only by the introduction of his cannibalistic family with whom he resides in a dilapidated house in the middle of the Texas wilderness? Together chowing on the meat Leatherface and his brothers harvest. At the same time, Grandpa drinks blood and fashions furniture from the victims’ bones. Still, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might not be the goriest horror film ever made. Still, as an imaginal excavation of the subterranean anxieties of a post-Vietnam rural American populace, it’s pretty much unparalleled.
Twisted, dark and beautiful all at once, it careens through a wide variety of tones and techniques without ever losing its singular intensity. (And there are few scenes in this era of horror with more disturbing sound design. Where Leatherface ambushes a guy with a single dull hammer strike to the head before slamming the metal door shut behind him.)
5. Summer of Sam.
Director: Spike Lee
Summer of Sam technically isn’t about the Son of Sam killer. Who terrorized New York City during the summer of 1977 with his weapon of choice, a 44-caliber handgun. Instead, it’s a return for director Spike Lee to explore how much irreversible damage unfounded paranoia and unchecked prejudice can inflict on neighborhoods, friendships and relationships. In a way, Summer of Sam operates as a mini-Do The Right Thing retread, focusing less overtly on race and more on how society marginalizes people who, for whatever reason, are different.
When Richie (Adrian Brody) returns to his conservative Italian neighborhood, dressing and acting like a proud member of a British punk band, the immediate reaction from his old friends is that he’s a freak, so he must be responsible for the murders that plague the city. Lee treating Son of Sam’s exploits as a sub-plot—Summer of Sam may feel a bit bloated and overlong, actually, with too many characters and sub-plots—actually works in heightening the visceral shock of the film’s killings: The death scenes lack the usual suspense of a standard serial killer flick so that when the killer casually approaches his victims and empties his gun, the violence begins suddenly and ends suddenly, allowing us to contemplate the matter-of-factness of it, in direct contrast to more strangely macabre sequences, like when the killer has a conversation with a dog.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
The big one. The biggest one, perhaps, though if not, it’s still pretty goddamn big. Almost 60 years after Alfred Hitchcock unleashed Psycho on an unsuspecting moviegoing culture, finding new things to say about it feels like a fool’s errand, but hey: Five decades and change is a long time for a movie’s influence to continue reverberating throughout popular culture, but here we are, watching main characters lose their heads in Game of Thrones, their innards in The Walking Dead, or their lives, in less flowery language, in films like Alien, the Alien rip-off Life and, maybe most importantly, Scream, the movie that is too contemporary horror what Psycho was to genre movies in its day. That’s pretty much the definition of “impact” right there (and all without even a single mention of A&E’s Bates Motel).
But now we’re talking about Psycho as a curio rather than a film. The truth is that Psycho’s impact is the direct consequence of Hitchcock’s mastery as a filmmaker and storyteller. Put another way, and it’s a great film, one that’s as effective today as it is authoritative: You’ve never met a slasher (proto-slasher, really) like Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and no matter how many times the movies try to replicate his persona on screen, they’ll never get it quite right. He is, like Psycho itself, one of a kind.
Director: John Carpenter
For students of John Carpenter’s filmography, it is interesting to note that Halloween is a significantly less ambitious film. Then his previous Assault on Precinct 13 on almost every measurable level. It doesn’t have the sizable cast of extras or the extensive FX and stunt work. It’s not filled with action sequences. But what it does give us is the first complete distillation of the American slasher film and a heaping helping of atmosphere. Carpenter built off earlier proto-slashers such as Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in penning the legend of Michael Myers.
An unstoppable phantom who returns to his hometown on Halloween night to stalk high school girls (the original title was The Babysitter Murders if you haven’t heard that particular bit of trivia before). Carpenter heavily employs tools that would become synonymous with slashers, such as the killer’s POV perspective. Making Myers into something of a voyeur (he’s just called “The Shape” in the credits) who lurks silently in the darkness with inhuman patience before finally making his move.
It’s a lean, mean movie with some absurd characterization in its first half that morphs into a claustrophobic crescendo of tension as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode first comes into contact with Myers. Utterly indispensable to the whole thing is the great Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis, the killer’s personal hype man/Ahab. Whose sole purpose in the screenplay is to communicate to the audience with frothing hyperbole just what a monster this Michael Myers is. It can’t be overstated how important Pleasance is to make this film into the cultural touchstone that would inspire the early ’80s slasher boom to follow.
8. Memories of Murder (2003)
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Long before Parasite won him an unexpected Academy Award, Memories of Murder was the film that shot director Bong Joon-ho to international acclaim. As a result, it often ranks among the best films of the past century and is a mainstay in other directors’ all-time lists. Quentin Tarantino even called it “one of the most interesting and complex movies” of the 21st century and “a masterpiece.”
Loosely based on the real-life story of South Korea’s first serial murders set during the military dictatorship in 1986. Bong Joon-ho’s second film begins with a shocking scene: two women have been raped and killed in a small rural town. The police detectives in charge of dealing with the case (played by Kim Roi-ha and Parasite actor Song Kang-ho) are immediately overwhelmed by the shocking magnitude of the crime and their lack of experience and personal ethics. The actions undertaken at the scene are ruinously sloppy, and their interrogation techniques are even worse. Instead, they rely on violence and their deeply flawed instinct to identify the culprit. It all leads them to one person: a local boy with learning difficulties called Baek Kwang-ho.
The murders continue, and it becomes horrifyingly apparent that they are dealing with a serial killer. A detective from Seoul named Seo Tae-Yoon, volunteers to help the small-town cops deal with the case, with much reluctance. What follows is a powerful and horrible portrait of police corruption, brutality, incompetence, and the dark impact of social inequality and ableism. Finally, in 2019, over three decades after he was murdered in 1986, Lee Choon-Jae, the serial killer who inspired the movie, was identified and charged. He confessed to the crimes but was already serving a life sentence at a prison in Busan.
9. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Director: John McNaughton
A white man with mommy issues, the classic serial killer set-up. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is uncompromisingly consistent in its intensity. Adapted around the real slayings by convicted killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis O’Toole. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel in this picture. The world is cruel, and Henry (Michael Rooker) makes it even worse. Along with his murderous appetites, Henry takes to tutoring a friend and frustrated white male named Otis, whom he stays with.
He teaches Otis methods that might obscure his guilt when he commits crimes. And Henry encourages his sadism—to a point. The morbid documentation they keep makes the duo as disturbing as any murderer, fictional or real. The performances and the raw presentation sometimes make the movie difficult to watch. But viewers seeking an authentic representation of a psycho-killer will find plenty to unpack in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
10. American Psycho
Director: Mary Harron
Based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho grew from being labeled as misogynistic, violent, pornographic trash to an all-time classic film over the 21 years since its release. It’s a comedic, bloody dissection of buttoned-up, toxic masculinity channeled through Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). Bateman is a successful, sexy corporate exec who, as the job requires, is a raving, homicidal lunatic. His dispassion for society and its occupants spills into diatribes concerning music, geopolitical unrest, and fellow human hunters.
Dry, hilarious corporate politics and a prickly depiction of Wall Street’s wealthy workers and their friends morph criticism into satire. The violence, and Patrick Bateman’s sadistic behavior, are still disturbing and disgusting. But laughing at bloodbaths alleviates some of the shocks of the brutality.