The Top 25 Best Serial Killer Movies Ever Made
We used to make up stories about monsters, but perhaps that was only because we didn’t truly understand the monsters within. The phenomena of serial killers, human beings driven by the urge to murder other human beings, was an alien concept throughout much of human history. Now, it’s one of our greatest nightmares, and the killers themselves are amongst our most potent boogeypersons, because unlike Dracula and the Wolfman, we know for a fact that they’re out there.
Of course, we still tell stories about old-fashioned monsters. And just because serial killers are de rigeuer, that doesn’t mean that all the movies about them are good. But many of the best films ever made have used serial killers to explore the grim nastiness of the human mind, in one way or another. Many of the best films ever made are serial killer movies, no doubt about it.
But when the time came for us to take a serious look at the genre, we realized that not every movie with a serial killer in it is a “serial killer movie”. There’s a big difference between a movie that just happens to be about people on the run from a murderer, and a movie about the murderer(s) themselves, and the impact they have on society. You won’t see many so-called “slashers” on our list of The Top 25 Best Serial Killer Movies Ever Made, even classic ones like Black Christmas or Halloween.
Instead, you’ll find a lot of deeply disturbing (and sometimes disturbingly funny) movies about the people who kill, the cultures that feed into their madness, and the people who become obsessed with their crimes. Not all of these movies are fun to watch, but they are all fascinating, disturbing works of art that are a must-watch for anyone looking to explore the dark side of humanity… and cinema.
The Top 25 Best Serial Killer Movies Ever Made:
The life of a serial killer isn't glamorous. In Hampton Fancher's The Minus Man, it's just something Owen Wilson happens to do. The actor's laid-back persona feels disturbingly appropriate in this languid, dire drama.
Photo: The Shooting Gallery
Seedy, even rancid, the low-budget Ed Gein-inspired Deranged gets you right inside the notorious serial killer's head, his home, and his gruesome predilections. The homeyness of the production is the exact opposite of charming.
Photo: American International Pictures
Alfred Hitchcock, finally afforded the freedom of an R-rating, directs a twisted twist on his "wrong man" formula. In Frenzy, a sleazy jerk is framed for a serial killer's crimes, but we spend so much time with the real killer as he haplessly tries to bury the evidence that HE almost earns our sympathies.
Photo: Universal Pictures
Copycat came out just one month after Se7en, and was written off as, well, a copycat. But Jon Amiel's smart, disturbing thriller deserves more attention. Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver give superb performances as two women tracking down a serial killer who recreates the murders of other notorious serial killers.
Photo: Warner Bros.
Lots of great serial killer movies try to capture what it's like to be inside the mind of a maniac, but William Lustig's Maniac may be the most repulsive rendition. Joe Spinell co-wrote and stars as a depraved murderer, loose on the streets of New York City, who himself is a victim of his own unyielding madness. One of the most violent and grotesque serial killer movies ever made. But it's a good one.
Photo: Analysis Film Releasing Corporation
Beloved comedy icon Charlie Chaplin directed, and plays a serial killer (yes, really), in the darkly comic Monsieur Verdoux. The title character is a man who marries rich women and murders them, and the humor derives - somehow - from how difficult it can be to kill someone. Chaplin also directed the film, and it isn't his funniest effort, but it may be one of his most nuanced and fascinating.
Photo: Janus Films
A film crew agrees to make a documentary about a real serial killer in Man Bites Dog, as damning an indictment of objectivism as you're likely to see. In the interest of purity they try to simply observe the brutality at hand, but gradually get pulled into the horror themselves. It's technically a mockumentary, but it plays more like an abyss.
Photo: Roxie Releasing
John Waters takes a scalpel to polite society in Serial Mom, a comedy about a seemingly "perfect" housewife who murders people in her neighborhood for their perceived imperfections. Kathleen Turner gives an all-time great comic performance as the title character, and John Waters delivers what may be his sharpest, slickest direction.
Photo: Savoy Pictures
Teresa Wright adores her uncle, Joseph Cotten, more than anybody else. Until she discovers that he's a serial killer. Alfred Hitchcock's unbearably tense Shadow of a Doubt is an early exploration into the horrors of living with a monster, and navigating a tightrope between love and fear.
Photo: Universal Pictures
Ryan Reynolds plays a nice young man who just can't stay on his meds in The Voices, a film about his descent into serial murder, at the behest of his talking cat and dog. What makes Marjane Satrapi's film so potent is that it acknowledges that, to a killer, madness is normal. Everything seems fine, but it may be necessary to do something unspeakable - repeatedly - just to maintain that illusion. A funny, insightful, and exceptionally creepy film.
Photo: Lions Gate Entertainment
A serial killer commits a series of murders based on the Seven Deadly Sins, but in David Fincher's Se7en, that hardly seems like a stretch. The film paints an oppressively bleak picture of society, filled with vice and moral compromise, illustrating clearly how this apocalyptic madman came to be... without ever actually showing his origin. A stylish, disturbing and intelligent film.
Photo: New Line Cinema
Oliver Stone isn't so much interested in the tragedy of mass murderers Mickey and Mallory Knox, he's just interested in why we're so interested. In the controversial and brutal Natural Born Killers he indicts all of society for creating a culture in which these maniacs could become cult icons, and does so by daring his audience to think of them romantic rebels against a pop culture-obsessed, consumer-driven culture. Not for the faint of heart, or the easily swayed, but fascinating cinema regardless.
Photo: Warner Bros.
All that Terry O'Quinn wants is the conservative American dream, filled with wholesome family values. In The Stepfather he repeatedly comes face-to-face with the reality that his fantasy is a lie, and he responds with violent, murderous anger. Joseph Ruben's film is a political screed and a barnburning suspense thriller, with a brilliant performance by O'Quinn.
Photo: New Century Vista Film Company
Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for her performance in Patty Jenkins' Monster, but her awe-inspiring performance sometimes overshadows the fact that the whole movie is great. It's an expertly crafted, up close and personal, intimate biopic of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, whose attempts to make a better life for herself take an extremely violent turn.
Photo: Newmarket Films
Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play teenagers who fall into a cycle of violence in Terrence Malick's debut feature, Badlands. Malick has an elegiac approach to his storytelling, staging this tale of horror and tragedy against a backdrop of natural beauty, attracting our attention to the stark contrast. But Spacek and Sheen are hopelessly naive to their own wickedness, and see themselves as a part of this vast tapestry, not aberrations.
Photo: Warner Bros.
The toxic world of affluent white masculinity is exposed as a breeding ground for virulent shallowness and casual violence in American Psycho, featuring a brilliant performance by Christian Bale as a yuppie who has every superficial need met, and nothing in his soul. His vapidity is humorous, and the society that allows his evil to flourish unchecked is wretched. Put them together and it all feels like a classic, comic tragedy.
Photo: Lionsgate Films
Much of Tobe Hooper's iconic horror masterpiece takes place with the victims, but once we're inside the house of the cannibal Sawyer family, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre becomes something altogether new and shocking. These aren't loners trapped in their own heads, they are a family supporting each other's perverse predilections. It would be wholesome if it wasn't completely evil in every possible way.
Photo: Bryanston Pictures
Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs is a tale of two serial killers, and the woman who tries to understand their warped visions of the world. It's too steeped in outdated psychology to seem quite as brilliant as it used to, but thrillers don't get slicker, the performances are ingenious, and the film's fascination and repugnance with the evils of men is captivating.
Photo: Orion Pictures
In David Fincher's Zodiac, as in real life, we never conclusively learn the identity of the Zodiac serial killer. But the film ingeniously makes that the focus, weaving an intricate tale of obsession and frustration as good people fall prey to the murderer, literally and - as their lives begin to revolve around his madness - figuratively. Zodiac makes what could have been a dissatisfying tale seem whole, and satisfying.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
Overshadowed by its contemporary, Psycho, and removed from theaters due to controversy, Peeping Tom still hasn't quite received its due. Michael Powell's exceptional drama about a serial killer who films his victims at their moment of death, struggling with a desire to overcome this obsession, is uniquely stylish and intimate, and features a powerful performance by Karlheinz Böhm as the ill-fated, murderous voyeur.
Photo: Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors
Michael Mann's Manhunter expertly explores the descent into madness that threatens to come along with studying the mad. William Peterson is trying to capture a killer and struggles not to become the very thing he's hunting, fending off skillful prods from Hannibal Lecktor, played insidiously by Brian Cox. The remake, Red Dragon, is more famous, but the original has more style, depth and emotional nuance.
Photo: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
Shôhei Imamura's bleak, matter-of-fact serial killer is like no other, a stark and unapologetic visit with a homicidal beast as he goes about his daily life. Vengeance is Mine is bitter, violent and just about as complete a portrait of life as a madman you could hope for, and Ken Ogata's terrifying performance is one for the ages.
It's easy to get wrapped up in all the novelty of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The subverted expectations, the unusual levels of prurience and violence, that one shocking twist, they all make Psycho a game-changing motion picture. But as a serial killer film, it's all about Anthony Perkins' stunning performance as Norman Bates, a young man just trying to keep it all together, never fully aware of his own madness. It's a performance that's often imitated but never replicated. He's the sensitive heart of an otherwise calculating motion picture.
Photo: Universal Pictures
Fritz Lang's ingenious M centers around a child-murderer in Berlin, played with despicable, almost childlike creepiness by Peter Lorre. So heinous are his crimes that, when the police are unable to catch him, the rest of the city's criminals organize a manhunt. You can feel the villain's desperation as the walls close in, but you never lose sight of who truly deserves our judgment. M remains one of the finest motion pictures ever produced.
Photo: Paramount Pictures
There are slicker serial killer movies. There are more stylish and insightful serial killer movies. But Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer stands alone. Watching John McNaughton's motion pictures feels like a ride along into a violent mind, a casual look at the most despicable human being imaginable. You aren't watching a movie about Henry's crimes, it's more like you're his accomplice. Michael Rooker gives his finest performance as the title character, a monster who takes up residence with an abused woman and her brother, who takes up the pastime of murder as well.
Photo: Greycat Films
Top Photos: Newmarket Films / De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / Paramount Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.