Here’s a true fact: whether fictional or biographical, movies about serial killers sell at the box office. People are interested in unique characters, and are attracted by unique situations. But make those characters as serial killers, and make those situations as the gruesome deaths of these killers, and you elevate this basic curiosity to a morbidly voyeuristic level.
Hence, this is what movies about serial killers try to hone in, and also manipulate. These movies also hope that the chilling factor surrounding the killers and the deaths would garner enough interest for their films to be picked up in popular culture.
There have been many films made about serial killers who are, sadly, true to life. One makes you wonder how a human could kill another, much more kill in a very structured and repeated fashion. And then there are films that, while they are fictional, could also question how individuals reach those kinds of turning point as humans. So whether fictional or biographical, here’s a list of interesting movies about serial killers.
1. Murder By Decree
No list of movies about serial killers would be complete if there’s no Jack The Ripper storyline there somewhere. Murder By Decree supplies this need.
This 1979 film is an interesting retelling of the Whitechapel murders of prostitutes in London. This is based on a string of unsolved murders by a singular entity that was later termed as Jack The Ripper.
Due to the precise slicing of the human body and the astute medical knowledge of how to remove internal organs, investigators believed that the primary suspect must be a medical doctor. This also lends credence to the name “Ripper.” This film blends fact with fiction upon the introduction of the characters investigating the case: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.
And that’s why this movie is here in our list. Go try to see this one, and also see and compare it with the various Jack The Ripper-inspired films that have been produced throughout the decades.
A purely biographical film, Monster stars Charlize Theron as the serial killer named Aileen Wuornos. Christina Ricci co-stars as Selby, Aileen’s love interest in the film.
The film starts with Aileen meeting Selby in Florida, where they hit it off and try to have a relationship. Prior to that, Aileen has been wandering around, and working as a prostitute to earn money. Pressured to take care of her new girlfriend, she goes back to prostitution because she’s unskilled in other kinds of labor, due to her unfortunate background.
The film’s serial killing spree focuses on how Aileen kills her customers, thinking that they are all out to rape her. While there have been some cases where this fear of hers is justified, it is questionable in the others. The film unfolds how the serial killings escalate, until the eventual capture and execution of Aileen. Watch this film to see how – and why – Charlize won a Best Actress Oscar Award for her portrayal here. Definitely impressive!
Thriller-suspense director David Fincher tries his hand at some sort of biographical film with Zodiac. This 2007 film focuses on the investigation of officers assigned to the Zodiac Killer cases.
The killings of the self-titled Zodiac Killer happened during the 1960s-70s. His area of concentration was in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. His victims were both men and women. He leaves a signature logo of a circle and crosshairs with his trademark Zodiac name. He even sends items and ciphers to police officers, even addressing them in letters discussing their inability to solve his murders, among other thoughts.
This film has an impressive cast tied to it. Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo worked together here before they became colleagues again in The Avengers movie franchise. Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, and Dermot Mulroney are also here. Go watch and figure out why this remains an open case ‘til today.
4. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
The 2006 film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is one of those very interesting movies about serial killers that also have such an interesting concept at the heart of it.
The story takes place in France during the 18th century. The focus is on a man named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who has developed a very heightened sense of smell since his childhood. Growing up, he also has the ability to identify smells and aromas that are generally taken for granted by the rest of us.
However, he gets obsessed upon smelling the airs of Paris, specifically the fragrances of women he encounters. This later develops into an obsession of trying to capture and preserve these smells of women. What happens is that he ends up killing many of them, in order to perfect this scent-capturing method of his. Interesting plot, right? Watch this Tom Tykwer-directed film and see how this interesting character develops eventually.
5. Natural Born Killers
When we’re talking of movies about serial killers, of course Quentin Tarantino’s name will come up. However, this time, it comes up as the story writer of director Oliver Stone’s 1994 film called Natural Born Killers.
The film stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as lovers Mickey and Mallory. They drive around and leave a trail of serial killing behind. However, in each of their massacre spots, they always leave one person alive. The purpose of this is for the person to “tell the story” of the strange lovers to others.
In the midst of all these killings, media plays a huge part in enhancing the couple’s story to the public. In the tradition of sensationalist journalism, media personalities soon try to follow the couple’s tracks to get to know the couple deeper. Media plays the unwitting role of glorifying the couple as cool characters of popular culture.
The film is obviously a satire about this kind of sensationalist culture we have with crime and media depictions of it. Go see how director Oliver Stone handles this one, gore and all. Robert Downey Jr.’s appearance as the sleaze ball-like sensationalist TV journalist is such a bonus here.
Before Jeremy Renner became a mainstream box-office success with films like The Avengers, he starred as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in a 2002 biographical film.
Simply entitled Dahmer, the story focused on the background of convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Based in Wisconsin, Dahmer’s socially awkward background and troubled childhood was given spotlight on this film. The story tried to humanize him before showing how he developed into the serial killer that he became.
Most, if not all, of his killings is somewhat connected to his homosexuality and his experimentations and fantasies of extreme displays of his sexual desire. His style is to lure men to his home, drug them and rape them, then kill them. Sometimes, these processes get jumbled up.
To mention movies about serial killers without mentioning Dahmer would be strange, given how his case became highlighted in mainstream pop culture during the 1990s upon his discovery and arrest. Go watch it to see how a serial killer indeed gets raised.
7. The Boston Strangler
The 1968 film The Boston Strangler is another serial killer movie somewhat based on a real-life serial killer. He is Albert DeSalvo, whose modus is going inside the homes or apartments of women, ties them in the bed, rapes them, then strangles them. Since this all happened in Boston during the early ‘60s, the killer was dubbed as The Boston Strangle.
The titular role is played here in the film by Hollywood leading man Tony Curtis. But the story also focuses on the two detectives trying to uncover this mystery, and their desperation to catch the killer.
Watch this film and see how Hollywood treats different biographical films about the subject matter. It’s an interesting addition to our recommendation of movies about serial killers.
8. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
If you want a double dose of serial killing, then we point you to this 1968 film called Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
This one is another story that’s loosely based on not just one, but two convicted serial killers. The main focus is on Henry Lee Lucas, who has the titular role. The other serial killer here is Henry’s friend Otis, based on the real-life convict Ottis Toole.
Both Henry and Otis already served time in jail for various reasons. But Henry himself continued to just kill and kill people. In the context of the film, it is shown how he and Otis also kill together as a tandem.
This low-budget independently-produced film garnered controversy at the time of its release. But it was able to play at an international film festival nonetheless. Watch it and see why it needs to be here in our list of movies about serial killers.
9. The Bone Collector
Perhaps the most Hollywood example that we can recommend here in our list of movies about serial killers is The Bone Collector.
Starring a pre-Lara Croft Angelina Jolie, the film finds her playing a young patrol cop named Amelia who discovers forensic evidence in a crime scene. Because of this discovery, she eventually encounters Lincoln Rhyme, played by Denzel Washington, who is a longtime forensics expert. However, Lincoln was already paralyzed and cannot move anymore, unlike before.
Thus, the unlike team pair up to follow the trail of a serial killer that leaves small bone souvenirs of his victims. And while the story is as Hollywood as it could get, it’s still an okay film to watch if you’re into this kind of subgenre. So go watch it! The Hollywood suspense is all there, and it’s a good fun watch, too.
10. Ted Bundy
Another biographical crime film that tried to characterize an infamous serial killer is Ted Bundy. The 2002 film focused on when the serial killer started his killing spree, up until the time of his execution.
However, the film took a lot of fictionalization in the portrayal of the infamous Ted Bundy. This charming man who turned out to be such a psychopath murdered young college-age women during the 1970s. He evaded arrest because he was a law student with knowledge about the legal systems in place.
With his wit, charm and intelligence, the film showed how Ted could get away with the murders he committed. His name is also in the top lists of serial killers, that’s why his story should also be included here in our list of movies about serial killers. So go and watch it.