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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.