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The 10 Best Serial Killer Movies You Need To Watch

24 September 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Emilio Santoni

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)

frailty-bill-paxton

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)

american-psycho-2000

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.

 

 

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  • Alex Nasaudean

    Silence of the Lambs should have been higher. A little seen Austrian film called Angst is more disturbing than all of the above, while the German film The Deathmaker also comes close.

    • José Manuel

      Ha! I was about to post the same!!! And the soundtrack by Klaus Schulze rocks!! I also recommend Jorg Buttgereit’s “Schramm”

      • Alex Nasaudean

        Yeah Schramm is also disturbing…

    • Kriss_Kringle

      Angst isn’t that good,to be honest.Sure,it fits somewhere in a bigger list of serial killer movies,but the voice-over ruins it and makes it fall flat on its face.It doesn’t leave anything for the audience except some disturbing killings.

      • Alex Nasaudean

        It’s bone-chilling enough to make it to any serial killer movie list, it has cult movie credentials, it’s unique and brutal.

        • Brian Lussier

          Well, the point was “The BEST Serial Killer Films”, not the most disturbing. So if you yourself even agree it’s not better, than you should know it doesn’t qualify. You just defeated your own purpose.

          • Alex Nasaudean

            I just added those two movies as further viewing options, thus not defeating my purpose. You should mind your own business, if you have any.

          • Brian Lussier

            Who’s pretentious, you douchebag?! You’re the one who called someone else’s list shit. How’s that not pretentious?

          • Alex Nasaudean

            you are an unwashed joke u creepy cunt

    • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

      Angst, while brilliant, isn’t a serial killer film.

      • Alex Nasaudean

        What is it then?

        • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

          Spree killer.

          • Alex Nasaudean

            Got it , just another pretentious idiot.

          • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

            How dare I discuss a film on a film discussion site! Clearly I was an idiot for even thinking of such a thing.

          • A spree killer aka Rampage Killer is someone who kills two or more victims in a short time in multiple locations ala George Hennard, Baruch Goldstein, Toi Mutsuo, Cho Seing-hui, etc.

            A serial killer is one who has a methodology and chooses his or her victims based on fetish or demented psychology ala Andre Chikatilo, John Wayne Gacey, Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, Albert DeSalvo, Ted Bundy, etc.

            The person you call pretentious is correct.

          • Alex Nasaudean

            When talking about the movie sub-genre, most people use the shorthand
            ‘serial killer’ movie. People who like to unnecessarily split hairs in order to appear smart to strangers are pretentious idiots. Correct?

          • No they are not. It is very rude and insulting to call someone names like that and it is not splitting hairs to the know the difference. Killing Spree movies is a sub-genre and so is true crime.

          • Alex Nasaudean

            Prove it! Unnecessarily capitalizing words is not exactly cool either. So, again, the words pretentious and idiot should not be taken as insults but as accurate, objective descriptions of you. Coupled with a pretty unhealthy preoccupation with sick murderers…

          • Prove it? LOL You are blocked.

      • Alex Nasaudean

        Almost all viewer reviews on imdb call it that, it is based on a true crime.Do you know something nobody else does?

  • AlekhyaDas

    Se7en is the best 😀 That twist!

  • Jay Dobis

    You missed my favorite serial killer movie. It’s from Korea:
    TELL ME SOMETHING

    • Alex Nasaudean

      I Saw the Devil is the best south Korean serial killer movie. should have been top 5

      • Terry Shannon

        Agreed.

  • FlyteBro

    What, no mention of “the boogie nights of serial killer movies”: Ted Bundy (2002)?

    • Daxton Norton

      I would’ve included M and Peeping Tom.

      • Brian Lussier

        It’s just fucking stupid M isn’t here.

  • Joey Muñoz

    Wanted to read the article because of the screen cap of Seven. Glad to see it was ranked #1. Not usually into serial killer movies but Seven was just a great movie period. Perhaps my favorite of all time. Loved Sommerset’s character and Hemingway quote at the end. And who can forget the scene where Mills is trying not to kill the murderer. Most powerful scene in that movie. Stayed on my mind for weeks.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    The Boston Strangler was pretty good, Tony Curtis puts in a great performance.

  • Elisabeth White

    How did Monster miss ? .. women kill too

    • Brian Lussier

      It’s not a great movie. The only reason it’s worth watching is Charlize Theron. The movie itself is an oversentimental piece of crap.

      • Elisabeth White

        Theron was brilliant and I found it quite disturbing.. but each to their own 😉

        • Most women find such things brilliant and disturbing. You are the product of your gender.

  • Eazy Magen

    Frailty is incredibly bad.

  • BLAKnoize

    Summer of Sam??

  • Terry Shannon

    Kalifornia is underrated. Cold Fish also deserves a mention.

  • Ankur Deb

    There should have been more better serial killer movies since the genre is so inherently interesting but i guess good directors have a lack of interest in that sort of thing.

  • Richard McLin

    Great list, but missed a few.
    The Vanishing
    Kalifornia
    Monster
    From Hell

  • Django

    How I wish Dexter was a movie. Haha.

  • I saw the Devil??

  • Philip

    Copycat deserves to be on this list. Underrated film that explores a serial killer being hunted by two women — which is an angle not usually (ever?) seen on film. Goes for drama over cheap thrills.

    • Mariam MH

      I love this movie.

  • Escu Si Atat

    What about: I saw the devil, Taxi Driver, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sweeney Todd, any of D’Argento movies, Saw (First one), Man bites dog?

    • Brian Lussier

      Taxi Driver isn’t really a serial killer movie. Texas Chainsaw Massacre falls in the horror genre, which is separate; Sweeney Todd falls in the musical genre, also separate. Saw, whichever one we’re talking about, is total exploitation shit.

      • Escu Si Atat

        Oh! So I see. Aren’t horror movies mostly about serial killers? And why so aggressive?

        • Brian Lussier

          No, most horror films aren’t serial killer films. They actually represent a small portion. You’re referring to what came out of the ’70s and early ’80s, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Halloween series, Friday The 13th and all the Freddy Krueger films. Those were serial-killer horror films, I’ll agree. But before that, horror rarely touched the subject of serial killers, and actually, they rarely have since, outside all the sequels and remakes to the above-mentioned films. Perhaps what I meant to explain and failed at doing so, was that the true serial killer film exploits the nature of the killer itself (Zodiac, M, The Night Of The Hunter…), whereas the ones that emanated from the horror genre are more simplistic and are made to provoke easy jump-scares, not make a valid social comment of some sort. Many films on the writer’s list, as well as M and Night Of The Hunter (and plenty of others), actually have something to say about the world we live in. Freddy Krueger or Friday The 13th or Halloween and especially Saw do not. They’re made to scare, not analyze and dissect anything social or psychological or ideological or even spiritual and religious (that one goes for Se7en, obviously). As for Saw, it’s okay to like it as a piece of entertainment, like it’s okay to enjoy Transformers on a first degree, but calling it “one of the greatest” would be really pushing it. Sorry if I came out aggressive, that was not the intention.

          • Escu Si Atat

            I partially agree with you but if we like horror genre or not doesn’t matter, they exist and they made history based on that plot – a serial killer doing his job. Of course if you want to go back in time we can go and talk about Hitchcock movies who often referred to serial killers (Frenzy, Shadow of A Doubt, etc.).

            If you expect social analyze in a movie I think you expect too much, for that we have documentary films. Of course Ingmar Bergman did that in his movies but Bergman was unique. Ki – Duk Kim touched that plot as well – it comes into my mind The Isle.

            And I think people tastes in genres changed in time, we are what we eat and often we don’t eat what we want (LOL). I never liked Saw but was a great commercial success and I cannot deny that but still … even is not on my taste I cannot say it never existed.

          • Brian Lussier

            I agree. Just saying, the list states “The Greatest”. In that sense, Saw doesn’t belong on it. It may have been a success, but that doesn’t make it good. McDonald’s is popular, that doesn’t make it good, see what I mean? And no, I don’t expect social comment out of everything. I just mean that I personally separate the horror genre from the serial-killer film. It’s true, sometimes they intersect, and it’s happened a lot in the ’70s and ’80s, but to me they’re separate. However, perhaps I’m wrong about Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Come to think of it, it DOES belong here. It was a milestone in film history, so you’re right there.

          • Escu Si Atat

            I am glad that we managed it 🙂 Now let’s eat … not in a McD lol

          • Brian Lussier

            Haha! I probably eat there four times a week, sadly…

        • Damien1983

          Brian is one of those internet tough guys.

    • Alex Nasaudean

      Taxi Driver nu e serial killer movie. Sunteti student?

  • Brian Lussier

    What the fuck?!?! How can you NOT put Fritz Lang’s M?!! It’s the greatest and most important of them all! That’s just sacrilegious!

    • Joe Moe

      Totally agreed!…

    • Xanian

      I am staggered. M deserves to be here, it’s better than every single film on this list, except maybe Psycho.

  • Brian Lussier

    Badlands?

  • Crystal

    I loved this list!! Thanks!

  • Yolanda Anne Brown

    I’ll never forget when Seven came out, working as an usher. The way that everyone screamed in shock at the end. WOW!

  • Egg MacGuffin

    Peeping Tom.

    • VChild

      How’d I forget?

    • Mosco Yabas

      Great movie. I had forgotten about it too.

    • musics

      Terrifying…

  • VChild

    M, Shadow of a Doubt, 10 Rillington Place

  • afrangov

    Nice! I would definitely include Angst, a movie that inspired Gaspar Noe:
    http://www.mustseecinema.com/angst/

  • Lykkelig Gabriel

    Blue Velvet ?

  • Shahin Ghazzaee

    Where is Lang’s “M”, the first serial killer picture in cinema???

  • Tahsin Ünal

    Chugyeogja (Chaser)

  • musics

    Peeping Tom is a 1960 British thriller/horror film directed by Michael Powell and written by the World War II cryptographer and polymath Leo Marks. The title derives from the slang expression ‘peeping Tom’ describing a voyeur. The film revolves around a serial killer who murders women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions of terror.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peeping_Tom_(film)

  • Klaus Dannick

    Spoorloos (English language title: The Vanishing) is better than all of these as an intelligent examination of the serial killer’s character. Heck, John Waters’ Serial Mom is better than most of these. And why is it necessary to compartmentalize serial killer movies into an exclusive genre anyway?

  • Ivan

    I agree with the list except for the fact that the author did not mention Kevin Spacey’s performance at all! I mean it gave me chills when I first saw it

  • Natasha Tazzi Plissken

    Kalifornia and Suspect Zero are both massively underrated and sadly under watched films. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen them I highly recommend them.

  • acgogo

    Happy to see “Frailty” made the list. You can tell how carefully and lovingly this movie was made from the script to choice of actors and terrific direction by Paxton. It’s not easy finding child actors that can actually act and be believable.

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    Tenderness of Wolves deserves a mention, also Confessions of a Serial Killer, little seen counterpart of Henry with a terrific central turn from Robert A Burns. I also remember thinking highly of Citizen X, though I’ve not seen it for years and so can’t really comment on its quality.

  • Johandry Tenias

    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 🙂

  • sol

    M, Peeping Tom and The honeymoon killers

  • jamesmerendino

    Man Bites Dog

  • Frailty is not a serial killer movie. Has this person even watched it?

  • Chrisychipz

    M? I Saw the Devil? Angst? Man Bites Dog?