5. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.