Whether you want to admit it or not, we have a morbid fascination with serial killers. It doesn't matter if they're female serial killers or deadly killing couples—the bloodier their story, the better. The success of serial killer movies proves this dark intrigue. So whether you're in it for the spine-tingling fear or the edge-of-your-seat suspense, these films will keep you biting your nails long after the end of the credits. Here are the most timeless and applauded of them all.
Though rarely shocking or gory, as serial killer movies so often are, David Fincher’s true-crime drama Zodiac is sure to leave your nails bitten to the quick.
Based on the true story of one of the world’s most famous serial murder cases, Zodiac follows the efforts of two men to track down a killer in San Francisco. This gritty film is both subtle and engaging, focusing not only on the gruesome murders and tense investigation, but also on the lives of the investigators and the personal cost of their obsession. Though the killer was never caught, the Zodiac Killer left behind famous serial killer calling cards that offered police and investigators a trail they couldn't follow.
The Silence of the Lambs
No list relating to serial killers could be complete without the infamous Hannibal Lecter. But Silence of the Lambs is not about Lecter's own murders (or dinners). Instead, this award-winning thriller puts Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins) on the other side of the law: helping a young FBI agent, played by Jodie Foster, hunt down an emerging murderer and end his killing spree. His help, of course, is not without its cost.
This psychological thriller does not need violent murder scenes or jump scares to leave its mark on the audience. It succeeds as a film of suspense and terror by blurring the lines of morality and trust, breaking away from the standard of horror or mystery plot. Instead, it provides an unsettling glimpse of the darkest parts of humanity—and just how close those parts are.
Arguably horror, arguably suspense, arguably comedy, American Psycho is frightening not just for its violence and depravity, but for its gaiety and cheer in the face of such things.
The satirical film, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, provides a pessimistic reflection on humanity through the character of Patrick Bateman, a young Wall Street executive who one day decides to begin brutally murdering and dismembering people. What's more shocking than the murders, however, is the ease with which Bateman fits into the upper-class world of 1980s Wall Street—he is a ruthless, egotistical sociopath, and thus goes unnoticed in a world filled with such people.
Startlingly insightful, Fritz Lang's 1931 crime thriller throws a subtle, new light on the concepts of justice, morality, and humanity. The story centers around a serial murderer of children, hunted by two diverging parties: the police, pressured by a frightened society and a statement from the killer himself, and a faction of Underground criminals, who are determined to put an end to the killings, viewing the murder of children as far outside the lines of their otherwise grey morals.
Although it is the oldest movie on this list, M is in no way outdated. The two-party hunt provides urgency and suspense to the dark thriller, but the reflections on humanity and society are what really leave you haunted.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
If the goal is pure, gruesome horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre far exceeds expectations. The cult classic received mixed reviews from critics upon its 1974 release, but has since developed a large and loyal fanbase. The belated success prompted a number of sequels, but there is little argument that the original holds the place of honor.
In classic horror movie fashion, this grisly tale relies on the terror of facing a gruesome death. Though the blood and gore alone is enough to make you want to cover your eyes, the tension and suspense of the characters' imminent death will keep your heart pounding from beginning to end. This is the gold standard of creepy serial killer movies.
In true Coen Brother fashion, Barton Fink will take you for a wild ride and dump you off at the end, windswept and confused. But that’s not a condemnation by any means.
Part quirky comedy, part bloodthirsty horror flick, the only thing Barton Fink is not is boring.
The eponymous character, Barton Fink, is a vaguely unlikeable, lonely playwright who moves to Hollywood to try his hand at screenplays. The adjustment is difficult, but a friendly neighbor and beautiful (though married) woman eases the transition. Things are looking up for Barton— until a strange series of events sends everything up in flames. Literally.
Perhaps best known for giving multiple generations an unshakeable fear of showers, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is today still revered as one of the best slasher films ever created. Starring Janet Leigh as Marion and Anthony Perkins as the legendary Norman Bates (now with his own prequel-esque Netflix series!), the story begins as a tale of mere financial crime, but quickly progresses through the realms of both murder mystery and horror flick.
The psychological thriller pushes the boundaries of its time, shocking its audience with violence, murder, and a thrilling twist ending that has inspired generations of horror movies since.
Though fans loved it from the outset, the film’s portrayal of violence, sexuality, and other ‘unsavory’ elements led to a number of negative reviews upon its 1960 release. Today however, critics and fans alike agree that this chilling classic ranks not only among the best serial killer films, but also among the best films of all time.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
This 'portrait,' based on the serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas, is not one you'll want hanging on your wall. However, it definitely belongs in your dvd collection.
Henry is perhaps one of the most bloody serial killer movies I have seen. But blood is just blood, and it takes a lot more to leave you haunted—on this, Henry delivers just as well. The eponymous character is terrifying, not just for his shocking murders, but for his absolute detachment from them. The result of a murderer thrown into a fit of rage or a menacing psychopath on the hunt can be gory, but this lack of emotion and engagement is much more frightening.
Another haunting creation of director David Fincher, Se7en takes the deranged serial killer to a whole new level. While personal vendetta or tragic history motivate the murderous characters of many serial killer movies, the overarching motivation of the antagonist in Se7en is the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, Pride, Anger, Lust and Greed. His victims are selected in virtue of these vices, and murdered in manners consistent with them. And boy does that get gruesome.
These religious motifs bring an element of nearly poetic grandeur to this gory tale. With award-winning performances from Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, Se7en is a cinematic masterpiece sure to both terrify and delight.
Released in 2004, Saw quickly made its name in pop culture for its unique antagonist: a serial killer, known as "The Jigsaw Killer," who never actually kills anyone.
Some serial killer, right? But this murderer—or death enabler, at the least—ingeniously sets his victims up to die—either by another victim's hand, or their own. By offering hope to each victim in form of a task they must complete to survive, he creates killers of everyday people, making the murders all the more frightening.