When pitted against such stiff competition as aliens, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and a stockpile of bloodthirsty and vengeful demons and spirits, it’s easy to overlook and undervalue the murderous mayhem and outright terror that serial killers can mete out in the plasma-splattered halls of horror cinema history. This list will rectify that right away with this impressive selection of unforgettable films. Proceed with caution!
15. American Psycho (2000)
Mary Harron’s 1987-set satirical psychological horror film, adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’s disturbing 1991 novel is a shockingly good genre classic. Christian Bale is perfectly cast as the vain wealthy New York investment banker Patrick Bateman, who has an active interest in murdering men and (mostly) women, when not working out, donning an expensive designer wardrobe, or bopping along to “Hip to Be Square”.
The 1980s period details are sublimely nostalgia-addled, the comedy of manners subtext is sharp, and all the slick and sick violence that Bateman metes out is, while upsettingly explicit, is oddly comical, too. Bale’s killer is all narcissism, vanity, and shallow consumerist showmanship. As social critique, American Psycho kills the competition.
14. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Vincent Price in his campy prime is pitch perfect as the eponymous figure in Robert Fuest’s darkly comedic horror film The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Shit out of luck, and with the cards cruelly stacked against him, Anton Phibes (Price) is terribly disfigured in a car crash while rushing to be at the side of his ailing wife, who soon after perishes. Now presumed dead, Phibes figures it’s the fault of the surgeons that botched a procedure on his bride and so, inspired by certain passages from the Old Testament––specifically the Ten Plagues of Egypt––Phibes commences one doozy of killing spree.
There’s a strong Ken Russell vibe to Fuest’s aesthetic, and the art deco designs, musical asides (Phibes is an organist with one heck of a house band), it’s a film that is, as Variety puts it “[an] anachronistic period horror musical camp fantasy… loaded with comedic gore of the type that packs theatres and drives child psychologists up the walls.”
It’s a blood-soaked celebration and the 1972 sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, is frightful fun, too.
13. American Mary (2012)
Energetic genre directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (aka “The Twisted Twins”) are fast establishing themselves as the recent reigning queens of horror and their forthcoming reimagining of David Cronenberg’s sci-fi body horror classic Rabid, set for a 2017 release date should secure their distinguished and demented crowns.
American Mary is the Soska Sisters’ creepy chef d’oeuvre, a full-throttle feminist rape revenge picture that will never covet mass appeal but has certainly been the transgressive genre fan’s gory delight. Katharine Isabelle stars as the titular Mary Mason, a medical student low on funds who’s lured into a lucrative underground world where she performs surgeries for money. What kind of surgeries? Let’s just say there’s some unsettling extreme body modification going on here, but it isn’t all gore and guts.
The Soska’s direct American Mary with impressive and unhurried ingenuity. Yes, it’s nasty, but it’s also nuanced and artful––red-hued tableaus recall Argento––and a forcefully restrained dread permeates the picture. There’s dash and delectation throughout and while the story dervishes in directions that non-splatter fans will run from, horror enthusiasts are going to have a great time.
12. Man Bites Dog (1992)
This brutal black comedy from Belgium, Man Bites Dog, is a teeth-gnashing mockumentary written, produced and directed by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde. The film follows a complicit documentary team who follow the frequently funny but more often than not very distressing rampage of a charismatic serial killer named Ben (Poelvoorde), eventually becoming not just witnesses, but accomplices, enablers, and partakers in his brutal murdering spree.
A pitch-black and audacious film from its first few frames through to its chamber of horrors denouement, Man Bites Dog makes for a nightmare that’s upsetting and savage one minute and then funny and familiar the next.
What works best about this film, which many viewers are guaranteed to be alienated and alarmed by, is that it makes some startlingly profound observations on the nature of cinematic violence in ways that are thematically and stylistically very elaborate and risky. This was never intended for mass appeal, but the niche crowd who champion this film will be very taken by this original and impeding work.
11. Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Don’t be dissuaded by the decidedly downbeat Midwestern setting, John McNaughton’s unflinching and unforgettable study of human evil, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a terrifying touchstone of infamous Americana.
Based loosely on the real life monster Henry Lee Lucas, portrayed memorably by veteran character actor Michael Rooker, McNaughton’s movie melds pseudo-documentary motifs and hand-held vérité embellishments like stylistically realistic sequences with grit and a gloomy visual palette. Nothing about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer feels forced or flashy, and it is by no means easy to sit through. It feels authentic and inhumane and predicted future films like Silence of the Lambs (further on down this very list) and Se7en (1995) in its portrayal of evil, inhumanity, and cynicism.
10. Scream (1996)
One of the earliest and certainly the most popular meta-slasher movie, horror maestro Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson hit a gushing vein with Scream and the franchise it spurred.
“What’s your favorite scary movie?” frequently asks the killer donning an Edvard Munch-like mask in the frequently pop culture referencing film. The cast of Scream, a host of familiar young faces including Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, and Skeet Ulrich (okay, whatever happened to him?) have an edge their slasher victim forebears never had; they’re horror movie fans who know what’s going on.
They know the horror movie “rules” to staying alive if you’re a teenager (no booze, no drugs, no sex, never say “I’ll be right back”, etc.), and when they break or bend the rules they know the consequences.
While the Scream sequels follow the rule of diminishing returns, the original holds up rather well, not just as 1990s artifact, but as pulse-pounding thriller, savvy self-aware comedy (the in-jokes are great for genre fans in particular), and scary fun whodunit. Fresh, dangerous, witty, and fittingly gruesome, Scream makes good on its title, even over 20 years later.
9. The House That Jack Built (2018)
In recent years it seems like Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s brand has become one of polarization. Seeing The House That Jack Built at a film festival, well ahead of the film’s wide release, I wasn’t surprised that the majority of attendees seated around me got up and left in outrage around the time Jack (Matt Dillon, excellent) performed his macabre mastectomy on a fraught young woman named Simple (Riley Keough)––a sordid leaf torn from Jack the Ripper’s libretto.
Occupying a 12 year span during the 70s and 80s in the Pacific Northwestern United States––an area traditionally thought to be a hotbed for serial killer activities––the film follows the career of our titular murderer, sometimes referred to as “Mr. Sophistication”.
As Jack leads the viewer down an ever-swirling quagmire of obscenity and slaughter, he shares a back and forth with an almost unworldly figure named Verge (Bruno Ganz)––a perhaps too obvious sobriquet that bluntly suggests he’s Virgil to Jack’s Dante on a tour through Hell and Purgatory.
The film is a self-consciously reflexive, self-defeating, convention-crushing, neo-slasher that will reward the right kind of viewer with its masterful mesh of allusions, pitch-dark designs and dismayed poetry. A perfect fit for this kind of ghoulish list.