The Essentials: The 20 Best Movies About Serial Killers

From movies, documentaries, novels and non-fiction books to plays and podcasts, serial killers have fascinated in pretty much every medium possible. The mind of a killer, their disturbing motivations, their often perverse behavior and their unknownable, sociopathic thinking is not unlike our obsession with the great white shark: culture is always fixated on apex killers and the more mysterious and impossible to peg, the more fanatical we are about their own preoccupations and psychotic neuroses.

READ MORE: David Fincher Digs Deep Into Serial Killers With Netflix Series ‘Mindhunter’ [Review]

Thanks to David Fincher, the troubled minds of serial killers are once again the focus of our attention thanks to his new Netflix series, “Mindhunter,” a kind of spiritual cousin and continuation of the director’s own preoccupation with killers and what makes them tick. A type of second-run at “Zodiac,” Fincher’s serial-killer and obsession film that ran nearly three hours long and taxed audiences at the time, “Mindhunter,” examines serial killers through a similar lens, but from a new angle. Like the title suggests, this is an exploration of pathology and behavior prediction.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 1970s

“Stranger Things” might be sucking the Netflix oxygen out of the room, but “Mindhunter” might be the best thing we’ve seen on television all year. With Halloween about to hit and gruesome, twisted moods in the air, we thought the confluence of all the sociopathy and aberrant comportment felt like the perfect time to take a deep look at some of the best serial killer movies ever made.

READ MORE: Martin Scorsese Names His 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time 

Psycho” (1960)
The influence and notoriety of Alfred Hitchcock’s chilling, unnerving “Psycho” is so widespread in our modern culture that it’s easy to forget the film’s effective creepiness. Quite possibly the most well-known and instantly recognizable movie from the master of suspense and his extensive filmography, “Psycho” is a spellbinding, unsettling departure for the established filmmaker, once a risky, unproven indie effort that proved itself to be one of Hitchcock’s most vigorously accomplished creations. A character study into the twisted, misunderstood mind of Norman Bates, “Psycho” not only became one of the first mainstream installment in the slasher genre but also one of the director’s most compelling, calculated character studies. Taut and graceful in its execution, it’s a beautiful blend of precision and chaos, the craftsmanship of an expert filmmaker at the top of his game. Many films have tried to obtain the same theatrical expertise as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, including Gus Van Sant in a widely-considered ill-advised shot-for-shot remake in 1998, but only a few have reached the same rigorously heart-pounding heights. We all go a little mad sometimes. When it comes from Hitchcock, such madness is exhilarating. – Will Ashton

Peeping Tom - serial killers“Peeping Tom” (1960)
This may have been the film that killed Michael Powell‘s career, but what a career send off (he lamented in his book that nobody wanted the film when it was released, but everyone watched the film in the years after). This is the anti “A Matter of Life and Death,” the pervasive perverse, the sanguine sickly and severely put-on celluloid. Voyeurism has never been so evil, a tactile Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) so grossly engrossed in the acts of killing, to the ever-growing discomfort of the viewers. Martin Scorsese has pointed to this film as a guide to directing, and it is a director’s tour de force (Powell playing Lewis’s father is a nice touch — directing Lewis’s life et al), behind a flow of killings and acts of sordid re-enactments, re-cut after re-cut of continuous blood spilling and murder. This really is top-tier British cinema, on par with sixties classics “Alfie,” “Blow Up” and “If…”, few British films would captivate like this for scares until the double bill of “Don’t Look Now” and “The Wicker Man” (1973) were released. If “The Wicker Man” is the “Citizen Kane” of Horror Films, then Peeping Tom must be Welles’s “War of The Worlds” — perversion and subversion beyond the limits of a contemporary audience. –– Eoghan Lyng.

“Natural Born Killers” (1994)
More so than most films that also place themselves in the minds of serial killers, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers” unnerves you from the opening moments until the credits roll, viewers suitably unsettled. Starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, the film centers on two young, attractive serial killers who become TV darling personalities, playing on the idea of sensationalism in the press when covering heinous crimes. The entire cast is pitch perfect. Almost embodying their characters too well, Harrelson and Lewis make their sadistic lovelorn couple suitably charming considering their roles as media darlings, while Robert Downey Jr. provides commentary as the gore and tragedy obsessed journalist. What makes the film decidedly much nastier than other films is how gleefully the two killers enact their crimes and the gluttony of the viewers, creating a nihilistic sense of danger in a universe that not one of us would want to ever take part in. Naturally divisive and (to this viewer at least), immediately off-putting, there is something admirable about a film that is so visceral it causes a grim sense of anxiety to sit in the pit of your stomach for the entirety of the film. – Ally Johnson

Kalifornia - serial killers“Kalifornia” (1993)
Perhaps in an alternate dimension, director Dominic Sena would have gone on to have a David Fincher-esque career instead of the unremarkable, schlocky action trajectory that commenced. A music video director making his first feature film, Sena’s “Kalifornia” is a dark, chilling road-trip serial killer movie and while it does not possess the dark moral depth Fincher would bring to “Seven” or later movies, it could still disturb and frighten. Much of that was arguably due to its terrific on-the-rise cast featuring none-of-them-yet-bona-fide stars Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes (“A River Runs Through It” would have been Pitt’s biggest film to that date). The premise hasn’t helped it age well — fresh off a magazine assignment about serial killers, a magazine writer (Duchovny) and his photographer girlfriend (Forbes) decide to expand the subject into a book and embark on a road trip from the East Coast to California to document infamous serial killer murder sites. They then come across… a white trash duo who happen to be serial killers. If you can get past the silly, improbable conceit, however, the characters and actors are terrific, in particular, the tobacco-chewin’ trailer park janitor Early Grace (Pitt) and his Lolita-like nymphet girlfriend Adele (Lewis). With a great mix of dark comedy and truly terrifying sensibilities, Pitt’s scene-chewing and tic-heavy mannerisms are arguably a bit much, but it’s so fun to watch. And in a runup to a similar role in “Natural Born Killers,”  Juliette Lewis is also superb as the innocent babydoll who would rather turn a blind eye than acknowledge the fucked-up moral compass of her companion (she’s better in this role). Aesthetic sensibilities are top notch, the movie is moody, brooding and soaked in sweaty dread. While the psychological texture might be lacking to a degree, given that a new generation has celebrated the style-over-substance “vulgar auteurists,” this thriller seems due for reassessment. – RP

“Se7en” (1995)
In hindsight, a movie like “Se7en” could have gone completely wrong. A police procedural about a serial killer who chooses his victims according to the seven deadly sins is prime fodder for a hacky B-movie. But, as we’ve seen through David Fincher’s career, specifically through films like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl,” he has a knack for elevating dime-store trash to the level of pop art. A lesser film would relish in the grisly murders. In Se7en, we only see the aftermath, planting us firmly into the perspective of Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) and making us imagine the unfathomable. It’s remarkable how Fincher creates a lived-in, stylized cinematic world but also strips the characters of their respective cliches. Somerset is the days-away-from-retiring, “I’m too old for this shit” detective, Mills is the hot-headed young detective, and it easily could have been “Lethal Weapon: Rain.” However, there isn’t some chaotic killer on the loose. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is precise. He kills with purpose. That makes him more dangerous than most, and without a false note played, he finds himself in an unlosable situation. No redemption, no resolution, and no successful capture, Se7en is one of the bleakest and most nihilistic serial killer films, because in the end, no matter how hard you try and build your case, someone’s head is going to end up in a box. – Ryan Oliver