Did you walk past a serial killer today? Maybe it was in the carriage of a packed commuter train, maybe a brushed shoulder in the refrigerated aisle of the supermarket. You probably didn't... but, maybe? They could be anywhere or nowhere and you'd never even know. Until they started murdering you, that is.
Clandestine killers have long been a grisly obsession for movie directors and cinema-goers alike. The thing is, there's a lot (and we mean a lot) of below-par slashers out there. So we decided to do the heavy lifting for you, with a list of all the best serial killer movies ever made.
Dirty Harry (1971)
San Francisco is under attack by a lone wolf sniper called Scorpio, who's taking out innocent bystanders until he gets the $100,000 ransom he's demanding from the city. And how do you fight a lone wolf? You unleash your own, state-employed lone wolf. 'Dirty' Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, who was actually at least seventh on the list to play Callahan) stops bank robberies in his lunch breaks, has a gigantic horn for his .44 Magnum, and has a torture first, ask questions later outlook generally. As a film, there's a bit of a fascist undercurrent within Dirty Harry – when things get bad, the answer is one big, hard man with a gun – and in terms of empathy, there's very little between Callahan and Scorpio besides a badge.
Sue Ann 'Ma' Ellington is a middle-aged woman who becomes a hit with the neighbourhood kids when she decks out her house as a party base. Things start getting weird, though, when she insists on hanging out with them and stealing their jewellery. Driven to avenge an early trauma, Ma goes on the rampage. It's not a slam-dunk, but Octavia Spencer's sly, dry, slightly knowing performance as Ma holds together some increasingly mad handbrake turns toward the end of the film.
Hot Fuzz (2007)
It's easy to forget, despite having likely watched it a thousand times, that Hot Fuzz is about a serial killer stalking the Somerset badlands. Yes, it's obviously a buddy cop action movie homage first and foremost, and yes, it does turn out not to be a serial killer in the end, but it's easy to miss how smoothly and smartly it nicks bits of the finest slashers of the Eighties to drive the action along and give the hooded murderer a genuinely frightening edge.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Long before Parasite won him an unexpected Academy Award, Memories of Murder was the film that shot director Bong Joon-ho to international acclaim. In fact, it often ranks amongst 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 and set during the military dictatorship in 1986, Bong Joon-ho’s second film begins with a shocking scene: two woman have been raped and killed in the small rural town. The police detectives put 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, as well as their own lack of experience and personal ethics. The actions undertaken at the scene are ruinously sloppy, and their interrogation techniques are even worse. They rely on violence and their own deeply flawed instinct (“My eyes can read people”) to identify the culprit, and 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, to much reluctance. What follows is a powerful and grisly portrait of police corruption, brutality and incompetence, as well the dark impact of social inequality and ablism. In 2019, over three decades after he committed murder in 1986, Lee Choon-jae, the serial killer who inspired the movie, was finally identified and charged. He confessed to the crimes, but was already serving a life sentence at a prison in Busan.
Happy Death Day (2017)
A slightly sideways kind of a serial killer film, this larksome Blumhouse time-twister is actually the same murder happening again and again. It's Groundhog Dead. College student Tree Gelbman wakes up on her birthday, noodles about a bit, sacks off some mates, continues dating a scummy professor, and, suddenly, finds herself being hacked about in a tunnel by a baby-masked lunatic. But then she wakes up in her own bed and starts all over again. Perhaps if Tree can work out who keeps murdering her, she can get back to living again.
William Friedkin's cop drama, which saw Al Pacino's officer Steve Burns go undercover in the gay S&M scene in San Francisco to catch a serial killer preying on men picked up in clubs, caused a lot of controversy when it was first released. Filming was picketed by gay rights groups, and Friedkin had to hack it about to even get an R certificate, and critics hated it. It's undergone a bit of a reappraisal since though, and is a deeply atmospheric and suspenseful ride.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Christiane survived a car crash but was badly disfigured by it. So, her dad decides to help her in the only way he knows how: by murdering young women and trying to steal their faces in the hope of giving Christiane another bite of the cherry. Haunting and poetic in roughly equal measure, this is a more thoughtful and outright disturbing spin on the mad scientist genre which digs into the quest for physical perfection and the obsession with youth.
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
While other films in the genre mess with your sympathies – ie cult hero Patrick Bateman –The Killer Inside Me stays true to the logic that serial killers are irredeemably evil. Adapted from the 1952 Jim Thompson novel, this Michael Winterbottom movie came out in the same year as The Trip, though the two have seldom been confused. Casey Affleck plays Lou Ford, a Texan deputy sheriff, who is also a sociopath who falls in with Jessica Alba’s prostitute character Joyce Lakeland. Stylishly shot and unflinchingly grisly, at one point or another a version of this film had been attached to Marilyn Monroe, Quentin Tarantino and Tom Cruise.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
The always-great Ben Whishaw is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a notorious murderer with a unique passion: armed with a super-human sense of smell, he attempts to recreate the scent of a girl he’s accidentally suffocated. Reviving the career of perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) along the way, there’s an in-your-face visual style that was arguably of its time, but for OTT thrills it still delivers. Based on the Patrick Süskind novel, which is also excellent.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Set in Depression-era West Virginia and based on the 1953 novel by Davis Grub, The Night of The Hunter endures in the popular consciousness thanks to Robert Mitchum’s indelible performance as Harry Powell, a serial killer posing as a priest. Powell’s MO is to marry widows for their money and then kill them off, suggesting he’s doing the work of the Lord. Filmed in nostalgic, expressionistic black and white – and with a terrific score to match – The Night of The Hunter frequently polls among the best films of all time, though it’s really in a class of its own.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
We're going to talk Alfred Hitchcock a fair bit in this list, and we're starting with the first time he propelled a story along with a string of murders. The Lodger was his third feature and entirely silent, but even this early on a lot of his touchstones and motifs are already there: a juicy murder, identity mix-ups, and the first of his cameos, as a man on the phone in a newsroom.
As the fog lies thick around the city, a serial killer called The Avenger has terrified Londoners after a string of murders. They're all young blonde women – a demographic Hitchcock would continue to merrily butcher and terrorise for the rest of his directing career – and when handsome but creepy young man turns up at a lodging house suspicions are piqued. The evidence mounts up, but not everything is as it seems.
Dripping with dread and the influence of German Expressionism, it's a spooky, Gothic introduction to the two themes that would intertwine over the rest of Hitchcock's oeuvre: sex and death.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Between Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the serial killer slasher had pretty much peaked by 1984. A Nightmare on Elm Street, though, sharpened the dulling blade with its queasy mixture of suburban teenhood, fantasy, gore and supernatural terror.
It did it by weaponising the last space that America's unsuspecting middle class teens had to retreat into. Michael Myers stalked suburbia and Leatherface would do in any townies venturing out into the sticks; Freddy Krueger kills them in their dreams. Desperate to sleep but terrified of Freddy, dreams and reality begin to spill over into each other. Inventive, funny, strange and full of some of the most haunting images in all of horror cinema.
There haven't been loads of films about serial killers written and directed by women, and Alice Lowe's feature debut is a welcome blast of dark humour and fresh energy. Recently widowed and soon to be a mum for the first time, Lowe's Ruth is very apprehensive about the whole thing, and not just about the usual stuff like nappies and sleeping and unexplained rashes.
"I'm not in control, I don't want to know what's in there," Ruth explains to her midwife. "I'm scared of her."
"Baby knows what to do," says the midwife. "Baby will tell you what to do."
What baby wants to do is kill. And kill again. And again. Vengeance for her partner's death turns into a random killing spree, egged on by a tiny voice from inside her bump. Alienated from her own body, Ruth's pregnancy becomes an invasion of the tiny body-snatcher which also meditates on grief, loss, and learning how to carry on.
Forget the impossibly knotted web of sequels, prequels and reboots which followed the first Halloween. The original is perhaps the essential horror film of the last 50 years, pitching the voyeurism of Hitchcock's creepiest films into anonymous suburban America's back yard. Michael Myers could be lurking in your neighbourhood.
Myers, sent to a psychiatric hospital after murdering his sister when he was 6, escapes 15 years later and stalks more victims. His blank, hollow eyes light on Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her first big role), who enlists the help of Dr Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) to evade him. It's got a belting soundtrack too.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1978)
Tobe Hooper's extraordinary, visceral, darkly hilarious slasher had one of the best poster taglines ever written: "Who will survive and what will be left of them?" In it, chainsaw-wielding giant Leatherface and his ghoulish, partially undead family take literal and psychological chunks out of a group of country teens lost in the sticks.
Made on a tiny budget, its power is in its vérité style and lulling rhythms which suddenly jerk you from atmospheric road movie to quasi-occult chiller riddled with post-Watergate paranoia and mistrust. It's also the source of loads of horror conventions that lesser films trot out by rote, like the faceless masked murderer and the power tool as weapon. None ever did it so well as this, though.
10 Rillington Place (1971)
This underappreciated little gem wasn't much liked when it was first released, but its retelling of the desperately sad story of the Christie murders of the 1950s deserves another look.
Richard Attenborough is the softly spoken serial killer John Christie, who presented himself as a doctor to women near in his flat who he'd then murder, and a very young John Hurt is the patsy he tries to frame for murder of his wife and child. It's a creeper rather than a straight-up horror, and just to add to the chill factor, it was filmed only two doors along from the actual house in Notting Hill where the killings happened.
Late period Hitchcock can be a bit hit-and-miss, but his penultimate film was a triumph, recapturing the tone of his conspiracy thrillers of the 1940s with the sly humour of Anthony Shaffer's script and a classic set-up of the wrong man being chased for a crime he didn't commit.
Covent Garden market trader Bob Rusk sets up his friend Richard Blaney to take the blame for a string of stranglings. It's all done with energy and flair, and there are a couple of classic Hitchcockian set pieces in there too, most notably the tracking shot which leaves a room mid-murder and mingles among shoppers blissfully unaware of the horror happening feet away.
Based on the true story of a killer (who may or may not be United States senator Ted Cruz, if you ask certain (*WRONG) sections of Twitter), who terrorised San Francisco and northern California in the late Sixties, Zodiac is David Fincher's take on one of the most infamous manhunts in U.S. history (you better believe that it's tense).
Featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and lots of Fincher-esque close-ups in dimly lit interrogation rooms, Zodiac may be long (162 minutes), but who said catching a killer (NOT Ted Cruz) would be easy? Nobody, that's who.
Charlize Theron won a thoroughly-deserved Best Actress Oscar for her stark and despairing descent into the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a woman whose desperate attempts at roadside prostitution leads to far more sinister and irreversible acts.
A far cry from elegant fragrance icon Theron, Wuornos is pockmarked, dishevelled and emotionally crippled, while Christina Ricci as her naive sidekick is equally as impressive... and tragic.
Complex, moving and bleak, this is a serial killer movie to make you sit in silence for a while once the credits roll.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Come on Clarice, you knew this one was coming. The fact that Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for just 16 minutes of screen time as the Chianti and flesh-loving monster, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is evidence enough that - if by some grace of Lucifer - you haven't seen Silence of the Lambs yet, then you should really get on that right away.
"Whenever feasible, one should always try to eat the rude." Just one of many pieces of sage advice from Hopkins' Lecter.
Inspired by the story of Ed Gein, a murderer with a particular penchant for interior design that featured human body parts, Hitchcock's Psycho is a classic in the genre and one of the most influential films of all time; pushing the boundaries in violence, sexuality and shower scenes.
Terrifying in its build-up and stifling tension, Hitchcock famously bought up every copy of Robert Bloch's novel prior to his film's release, in order to maintain the mystery and horror of Norman Bates, his mum and his murderous motel.
Another one for Fincher, this time starring pre-sad-boy Brad Pitt as the dynamic foil to Morgan Freeman's tired old detective, the pair desperately hunting down a serial killer who employs ostentatious and gruesome techniques on his victims, each representing one of the seven deadly sins (gluttony is our favourite).
It's definitely very Nineties (Brad Pitt in a leather jacket staring up into the pouring rain of New York while some obnoxious orchestra plays in the background), but that matters little with a story that's as tight and fast-paced as this one.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
A filmed deemed so depraved by the American board of censorship that it was given an 'X' rating (meaning that cinemas wouldn't want to go near it), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer eventually found a release in 1990 and has since gone on to gain cult acclaim for its visceral, fly-on-the-wall portrayal of Henry Lee Lucas, a killer with mother problems, who confessed to killing up to 300 people.
Less of a psychological or smart thriller than an instrument for blunt trauma, it's the nihilism and pointlessness of Henry's killings that make it so disturbing. The idea that someone could murder you just because they feel like it.
American Psycho (2000)
Featuring elements of biting satire, farce and black comedy - along with the whole serial killer thing - Christian Bale played American Psycho's anti-hero Patrick Bateman, a soulless Wall Street finance bro prone to bouts of insatiable mania and murder, along with an obsession with clothes, restaurant bookings, business cards and Huey Lewis and the News.
A brilliant film in its own right, American Psycho also serves as a wry pre-crash portrait of the vanities and excesses of a selfish city lifestyle.
"Is that a raincoat?"
While many of the films in this list focus on the fully-fledged sprees of serial killers, Australian indie movie Snowtown shows us the dark and insidious descent required to get there.
At times unwatchable and often unbearably grim, here we see a teenager in search of belonging, only for his mentor to twist and bend that desire into the darkest of outcomes.
Another wall-starer for sure.
Based on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, teenage lovers whose 1958 murder spree across the Nebraska plains made headlines across America, Badlands is Terence Malick's best work (sorry, Tree of Life).
One of many great films about a young couple escaping onto the back roads of free America, Badlands is Bonnie and Clyde with more style, a better script and way more blunt psychopathy.
One for the genre heads out there, M is considered the first ever serial killer movies and a classic of the genre, following the frantic chase for a child murderer at large in the streets of Berlin.
Considering the year it was made, M still hold up remarkably well when seen through modern eyes. In fact, plenty of modern directors could learn a thing or 10 from its simple but suspenseful build-up and deployment of atmosphere.
Great outfits, too.
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