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Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Ten Best Serial Killer Movies

Se7en (1995)
It’s not quite certain if serial killer movies constitute a genre onto themselves or they can be seen as a sub-genre of thrillers whilst at times even verging into horror film territory. Either way, films about serial killers seem to capture the public’s imagination and some of the titles presented in this list have been major critical as well as commercial successes.
We’ve shied away from titles which delve too far into the realm of the fantastic, therefore titles like Halloween, which one might argue deals with a serial killer, have not been included. As per usual, we have also stayed away from television productions, which explains the omission of a title like Citizen X, which fans of genre might expect to find here or should seek out if they haven’t seen it yet.
With those guidelines set, we simply attempted to find ten of the best films dealing with serial killers. Some of these films deal primarily with the killer, others are more police procedurals focusing on the hunt for these killers although most titles are often a combination of the two.
It goes without saying that the majority of these films are not for the faint of heart but those who don’t mind a bit of a darker thriller, should find plenty to like here.

10. Frailty (Bill Paxton, 2001)
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The directorial debut of Bill Paxton, perhaps best known for his various roles in James Cameron films, Frailty is an underseen little film that deserves to be more widely recognised. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Powers Boothe and Bill Paxton himself.
The movie starts as Fenton Meiks (McCaughey) walks into an FBI office in Texas and ask to speak to agent Wesley Doyle (Boothe). He informs him that his brother Adam is in fact the “God’s Hand” serial killer the police has been looking for for quite some time. He then proceeds to tell the main portion of the film, which is presented in flashback, describing how he and his brother grew up on a farm with their widower father (Paxton).
One night the boy’s father came into their room and told them he had received a vision from God, instructing him to find and destroy demons. Soon after he brings his first victim home and makes his sons watch as he kills the woman in cold blood after he claims to have seen her sins by touching her.
Fenton is disgusted and fears that his father has lost his mind but the younger Adam claims he can see the demons’ sins too and is eager to participate in his father’s holy task. And when the young Fenton escapes and makes his way to the town’s sheriff, things go from bad to worse.
The only film on this list to have some minor supernatural undertones, Frailty is worthy of this list as it presents an original and intriguing premise by first time director Paxton. He keeps most of the gore and violence off screen but manages to keep the tension high, especially during the flashbacks in which the strain on a young mind, whose father has seemingly gone insane, is explored.
Frailty received plenty of positive praise, plenty of nominations and wins at various festivals and award ceremonies and was singled out by James Cameron, Sam Raimi and even Stephen King as an exceptional frightful film. Whilst not perfect, as the pay-off simply isn’t quite as a good as the set-up, it’s a film that is well worth seeking out for fans of the genre and a confident debut by a first-time director.

9. Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)
Manhunter
Based on Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon, Manhunter was the first movie to bring Hannibal Lecter to the screen before the same character was made famous five years later by Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. For some reason, however, his name is spelled differently in Manhunter (Lecktor as opposed to Lecter in the both the books and all other movies featuring the character).
Criminal profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) has retired ever since he caught Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) in a case that took too much of a toll on him. His old boss, however, asks him to come back to to investigate a serial killer known as “The Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan). Will agrees to do so but as part of the investigation he must meet with Hannibal Lecktor, the man he put behind bars, and his fragile mind state will be tested as Lecktor still holds a grudge against the FBI profiler for putting him there.
Manhunter was remade 20 years later under its original title Red Dragon after two previous films with Anthony Hopkins had made the Lecter character extremely popular. Manhunter is the far superior film of the two adaptations of the same book and it also has to be noted that even though Hopkins created a classic villain with his interpretations of the Hannibal Lecter role, Brian Cox also portrays the killer in a highly chilling, disturbing and far more realistic manner.
One of Michael Mann’s earliest and best films, Manhunter is a great addition to the serial killer sub-genre and absolutely worth seeking out for those who have only seen the Hopkins films, if only to experience a totally different take on the character and material.

8. American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
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Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name, American Psycho is a scathing satire of 1980’s greed and excess as well as a very darkly humorous spin on the serial killer sub-genre. The film was arguably Christian Bale’s breakthrough performance as he still best known for his role in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun thirteen years earlier when he was only a twelve years old kid.
Patrick Bateman (Bale) is investment banker, who embodies the greed, selfishness and cynicism of 1980’s yuppies. He is obsessed with success, fashion and style but has no taste whatsoever and neither do his friends. But what does set him apart is that he leads a double life as a seriously deranged serial killer. As a detective (Willem Dafoe) starts investigating him, Patrick’s cool seems to slowly fall apart and lines between reality and sick fantasies start to blur.
The most inspired choice of this adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ best-seller was to hand over the directorial duties to independent female director Mary Harron, who turned the satire of 80’s greed into a far more multi-faceted film giving the story an added layer of misogyny and masculine power plays.
A deeply dark black comedy and disturbing picture of self-absorption and 80’s excess, American Psycho divided audiences at the time but has since rightfully become a cult classic and is in some ways the most fun entry on this list, perfectly combining satire with gruesome violence.

7. Vengeance is Mine (Shōhei Imamura, 1979)
Vengeance is Mine (1973)
Based on the book of the same name by Ryūzō Saki about the real-life serial killer Akira Nishiguchi, Vengeance is Mine is a classic of seventies Japanese cinema and, being one of the earliest entries on this list, an important entry in the serial killer sub-genre.
The movie deals with Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), who at the start of the movie is taken into police custody. Whilst being interrogated, the film presents us with the events leading up to Enokizu’s arrest through a series of flashbacks, initially presenting the viewer with his first two brutal murders as he kills two men and takes off with a large sum of money.
From there on in the film alternates between the present police interrogation, Enokizu’s 78-day period of being on run after his first two muders, in which he scams his way through Japan whilst committing further atrocities, and scenes of Enoziku growing up as a violent and rebellious child to a typical conformist Japanese father who also happens to be a devout Catholic on top.
Shot in a distant almost documentary-like fashion, Vengeance is Mine excels at portraying the complete lack of morals and remorse of a psychopathic individual. Enokizu seems to kill without giving it a second thought, at times without a clear motivation and certainly without any regret. The film gives plenty of food for thought as to why he might have turned out his way but refuses to give any clear or easy answers.
Vengeance is Mine was nominated for twelve Awards of the Japanese Academy and took home six, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Cinematography. Additionally the film also won Best Film, Director and both Supporting Actor and Actress Awards at the Blue Ribbon Awards, which are awarded by Japanese film critics and writers.

6. Memories of Murder (Joon-ho Bong, 2003)
memories-of-murder
The second feature of director Joon-ho Bong and arguably his real breakthrough as the film became a great success in South Korea, Memories of Murder is based on a 1996 play which in turn was based on the events relating to the country’s first serial killer case in the late eighties an early nineties.
A series of rapes and murders are occurring in a rural area in South Korea in 1986. The local small town cop assigned to the case, Park Doo-Man, has no idea how to handle the situation. After he arrests the wrong person an expert from Seoul , Seo Tae-Yoon, is sent over to help with the investigation. Both men’s styles couldn’t be more different as the local cop is used to beating confessions out of his suspects whilst Seo takes a more pragmatic investigative approach.
Initially Park isn’t even convinced he is dealing with a serial killer until Seo’s predictions come true and another woman is found raped and murdered. But as the investigation is not providing any results, both men seem to slowly be reaching the end of their tether.
Based on a real case which took place between 1986 and 1991 and which constituted the country’s first recorded serial killings, Memories of Murder was a huge critical as well as commercial success upon its release. It was also one of the films that really upped the ante for South Korean filmmaking at the time.
The film clearly deals with the rapidly changing political situation in South Korea in the late eighties as the country was emerging from a dictatorship as exemplified by the local police force’s brutal tactics. But despite the dark subject matter, the film also manages to be darkly humorous and it put its director, Jooh-ho Bong, clearly on the map.

5. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
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Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs was Harris’ second book to be adapted to the screen featuring the character of Hannibal Lecter. Whilst Brian Cox gave a fine performance as Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, there’s no denying that Anthony Hopkins gave the definitive one when he made Lecter come to life in this classic chiller by Jonathan Demme.
Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is an FBI agent who gets assigned to the investigation surrounding Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who targets young women and removes their skin after killing them. Clarice’s superior, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), wants her to interview incarcerated psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins), as he believes he has vital information surrounding the killer and thinks that Starling might be the perfect agent to extract it from him.
But as a brilliant former psychiatrist, Lecter has a knack to get into people’s minds and in exchange for the information he might poses about Buffalo Bill, he insists on talking about Clarice’s past as well as being transferred to another facility. And as Clarice slowly hones in on Buffalo Bill, Lecter gets deeper and deeper into her psyche.
A fantastic thriller with such an intensity that it is often also referred to as a horror film, The Silence of the Lambs was a huge critical as well as financial success. Ted Telly’s screenplay, adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel, strikes a perfect balance between psychological study and gruesome excitement and both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins shine in their respective roles, although it is of course Hopkins who ultimately steals the show as Lecter.
Whilst his Buffalo Bill character is overshadowed by Lecter, Ted Levine creates a truly unhinged and terrifying killer in the short amount of screen time that he is given. Scott Glenn rounds of the cast nicely as Foster’s boss and for the horror fans there are two great little cameos by George A. Romero and Roger Corman to be enjoyed.
Only the third film in the history of the Oscars to win all five major statues (Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay), The Silence of the Lambs became a monster hit and none of the three films featuring Lecter which followed in its wake ever came close to the craftsmanship on display here. A superior thriller and a great addition to the serial killer sub-genre, it’s a genuine modern classic.

4. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
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Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by former political cartoonist turned true-crime author Robert Graysmith, Zodiac is David Fincher’s superb thriller dealing with the hunt for the notorious “Zodiac” serial killer in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late sixties and early seventies.
A month after an initial attack on a couple, where the boy survives but the girl dies from her sustained injuries, a coded letter is received at the San Francisco Chronicle from a person calling himself the “Zodiac” claiming responsibility for the crime. As more coded letters arrive, crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) both start looking into the case.
At first Avery wants nothing to do with Graysmith but as time goes on the two men start working together more closely. In the meantime more assaults and murders occur and detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the first case whilst detectives Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas) and Ken Narlow (Donal Logue) are assigned to another. As more letters are received and frustration mounts when no real progress is made, the case starts taking a heavy toll on all those involved.
Whilst Zodiac didn’t do well at the box-office, it is certainly one of David Fincher’s greatest films. His stylish visuals are complemented with incredible period detail and all lead actors put in top notch performances. The screenplay perfectly balances the tension of the crimes and the hunt for the killer with the frustration and effect the lengthy unsolved case had on those trying to solve it.
The film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and received various nominations at numerous award ceremonies but failed to win any. Nonetheless, Zodiac is one of David Fincher’s best works and an outstanding mystery thriller.

3. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)
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Loosely based on real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a chilling docudrama examining the psychopathic mind state of one of America’s most notorious mass murderers and his occasional participating roommate.
The movie follows Henry (Michael Rooker) as he randomly finds innocents targets and murders them. He lives with Otis (Tom Towles) who soon starts participating in the crimes and capturing them on video with a camera they took from one of their victims. The duo is also joined at their house by Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who has left her abusive husband. Becky creates tension between the two men as she’s attracted to Henry, which ultimately drives a wedge between the two men.
A clear reaction to the unrealistic slashers of the mid-seventies to mid-eighties, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a terrifying clinical study of a killer without a conscience. The film was finalised in 1986 but received an X-rating and consequently sat on the shelves until Errol Morris sponsored the movie at the 1989 Telluride Film Festival.
The film received much critical praise and won various awards at international festivals but also caused plenty of uproar due to its violent and disturbing subject matter. Certainly not a movie for everybody, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer comes highly recommended for those who can stomach this kind of thing.

2. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
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There is no way that Psycho was not going to feature on this list. The granddaddy of the slasher film and featuring a main character inspired by real-life murderer Ed Gein, who also inspired Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well as Buffalo Bill from the aforementioned Silence of the Lambs, Psycho is arguably the film whose massive success created the breeding ground for all the serial killer films which would follow in its wake.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) works for a real estate agent and when presented with the chance, she steals $40.000 on impulse and makes a run for it. After some time on the road, she stops at Bates Motel to spend the night. She is welcomed by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who owns the motel and takes care of his mentally ill mother.
After having been invited for dinner by Norman, Marion returns to her cabin to have shower and go to sleep but is stabbed to death in what is arguably the most famous murder scene in the history of cinema. Concerned about Marion’s sudden disappearance, her sister Lila (Vera Miles) and lover Sam (John Gavin) go in search for her, especially as the detective who had been hired to find her by her employer (Martin Balsam) also vanishes without a trace.
When the two make it to Bates Motel and investigate further, they are about to find out how special a relationship Norman has with his mother.
What is there to say about Psycho that hasn’t been said before? The film was a radical departure from all that came before it and pushed the boundaries of what could be shown in a mainstream feature film. From its depiction of an illicit sexual relationship and nudity, graphic violence (for its time), killing off the lead character one third into the film and its psychological subtext, Psycho covered a lot of unknown cinematic ground to great effect.
Add to that its classic haunting score by Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s master touch, especially evident in the classic shower scene, which uses 50 cuts of mainly close-up shots within a time period of three minutes and its twist ending and it is no wonder that Psycho became the sensation that it did. A film whose influence can not be understated and a must-see for every person interested in slasher films, serial killer movies or simply cinema as a whole.

1. Seven (David Fincher, 1995)
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A superior and highly stylized thriller, Seven was an unexpected critical as well as commercial success, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. It’s the second film on this list directed by Fincher but I simply had to include both Zodiac and Seven as they are both brilliant. Zodiac is obviously the more serious film out of the two but Seven holds a special place in my heart as it seems to do with a great many others too.
Detective William Somerset (Freeman) is a veteran in the police force and, weary from a 32-year career in which he has seemingly seen everything, ready to retire in a week. David Mills (Pitt) is the new kid on the block and eager to make an impression and a career for himself in the police force, as he is scheduled to replace the departing Somerset. But in the week before Somerset’s retirement, the two men are called to a gruesome murder scene, where a man has been force-fed to death.
Soon after, a second murder takes place in which a lawyer has been forced to cut off a pound of his own flesh. It appears a serial killer is on the loose, killing his victims in accordance with the seven deadly sins and neither Somerset nor Mills seem prepared for the diabolical game which lies ahead of them.
After having directed the troubled third entry in the Alien franchise, David Fincher came back with a vengeance when Seven was released in 1995. Starting with a magnificent credit sequence, set to an eerie remix of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”, the film grabs you from the very first moment.
Great cinematography by Darius Khondji of a seemingly always raining murky metropolis, a great screenplay, gruesome make-up effects and fine performances from both Pitt and Freeman, as well as from the supporting cast which includes Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey and John C. McGinley, as well as a remarkable down-beat ending all make Seven one of the best thrillers of the nineties. Often imitated but never surpassed, Seven is a highly stylized tour de force and must-see cinema for those who like their thrillers dark and tense.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.

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