Michael Mann’s movie titled Manhunter perfectly describes why we find serial killers and serial killer movies so fascinating. It’s fascinating because it is so scary to think that among us people live who consider us to be prey. As we are on top of the food-chain we have almost nothing to fear except other humans. And then there are a few people out there, real killers, who get the most satisfaction out of killing others.
Serial killers are usually defined as people who have killed more than three people, and according to the FBI there are currently 50 serial killers active in the US alone. The following top 30 serial killer movies, which we consider to be the best movies about serial killers, vary from brutal movies about massacres to more psychological movies that give insight into the serial killer’s mind.
Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock wows audiences with a thrilling psychological thriller that is Psycho. From the script of Joseph Stefano, Hitchcock produces and directs this 1960 film. It was produced by Shamley Productions and distributed by Paramount Pictures (from 1960 to 1968) and Universal Pictures (from 1968 to present). It took USD 806,947 to produce but gained USD 50 million in returns. It spawned the Psycho franchise. This is Hitchcock at his finest, the world lauding this production as one of the greatest films ever made and opened a new category of horror thrillers – the slasher genre. Psycho was also critically acclaimed, Hitchcock being nominated for an Academy for Best Director. It won actress Janet Leigh a Golden Globe for Best Actress and an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Picture for Stefano and Robert Bloch.
David Fincher helms Zodiac, a mystery thriller, from the screenplay of James Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt referred to Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name. The cast is led by Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Phoenix Pictures produces the film for USD 65 million. It was distributed by Paramount Pictures in the US and Warner Bros. Pictures internationally. It grossed USD 84.8 million in returns. To ensure the authenticity and accuracy of their story, Fincher and Vanderbilt, along with producer Bradley J. Fischer, researched about Zodiac murders. It took them 18 months to complete their research. Critics lauded the production for its on point storyline and overall production quality. The thriller also got several nominations from different award-giving bodies. Fincher nabbed the Best Director award from the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle.
In his directorial debut, actor Bill Paxton helms and stars in Frailty, a psychological thriller written by Brent Hanley. Matthew McConaughey also stars. The thriller is produced by David Kirschner Productions, American Entertainment Co., Cinerenta, Medienbeteiligungs KG, and Cinedelta for USD 11 million. It was distributed by Lionsgate. It earned USD 17.4 million at the box office. It was praised by film critics and was given a Certified Fresh rating by Rotten Tomatoes.
The Bad Seed (1956)
Mervyn LeRoy helms the 1956 psychological thriller classic The Bad Seed. John Lee Mahin writes the screenplay based on a play by Maxwell Anderson of the same name. William March’s novel of the same name was the basis of the play. Warner Bros. produced and distributed the thriller. It took USD 1 million to produce and it earned USD 4.1 million in gross profit. The film was critically acclaimed and was nominated for several acting and production awards. Eileen Heckart won Best Supporting Actress from the Golden Globes.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Michael Powell directs Peeping Tom, a psychological thriller, from the screenplay of Leo Marks. The film was released in 1960. Ahead of its time, critics did not embrace Powell’s movie and, in turn, lambasted Powell for the theme of the movie. It impacted Powell’s career as a film director in the UK. The viewing public went for the movie and it had a cult following. Only in the 70s was the movie hailed for the masterpiece it was. The British Film Institute included it in the top 100 greatest British films of all time, ranking 78th. The film’s budget was USD 164,000.
John Carpenter scores and directs the iconic movie Halloween, a slasher movie that was released in 1978. Carpenter co-writes the screenplay with producer Debra Hill. It features Jamie Lee Curtis in her first starring role and launched her to fame. The slasher film was produced by Falcon International Productions for USD 300,000 and grossed USD 70 million at the box office worldwide. It was distributed by Compass International Pictures. Not only was it a commercial hit, it was also critically acclaimed. The production was one of the many films inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was included in the US’ National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for preservation.
The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
Leonard Kastle writes and directs a horror crime story called The Honeymoon Killers. The story made references to the actual stories of the infamous lonely hearts killers of the 40s, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Roxanne was the production company behind it and had it produced for USD 150,000. Distribution was handled by AIP and Cinerama Releasing Corporation. It was moderately successful at the box office and it was critically acclaimed.
Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Scott Glosserman produces, co-writes, and directs Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a mockumentary black comedy horror movie. David J. Stieve co-writes. It was produced by GlenEcho Entertainment and Code Entertainment. It was then distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment. It was first screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival before it was shown in other film festivals and before its limited theater run. It earned a total of USD 69,136. Despite its low budget and low profit, the production was critically acclaimed and won all the awards it was nominated in, most particularly in the Best Film category from different film festivals.
Noted Italian director Dario Argento offers Opera, an Italian giallo, from the story he co-wrote with Franco Ferrini. Argento also sat as a producer and wrote the screenplay for this hybrid horror flick. The production cost USD 8 million but it was considered one of Argento’s blockbuster hits, selling 1.3 million tickets in Italy alone. It was supposed to be released in the US by Orion Pictures, with the condition of cutting certain scenes to meet the R rating. Because of Orion’s financial situation and Argento’s refusal to allow the cuts, the film was not screened in the US but was able to make it to American shores through its VHS release.
The Vanishing (1988)
Noted film director George Sluizer helms The Vanishing (Dutch: Spoorloos; Literal translation: Traceless or Without a Trace). It is based on a novel entitled The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbe, who also co-writes the screenplay for The Vanishing with Sluizer. The production cost USD 329,000 to make. The production companies behind this thriller are Golden Egg Films, Ingrid Productions, and MGS Films. Argos Films distributed the movie. When Sluizer got to see the initial drafts of The Golden Egg, he immediately bought the film rights to it. Krabbe presented Sluizer an initial script for the movie version. They worked on a second and third draft. By the third draft, the two had a difference of opinion on the flow of the story. Sluizer ended up working alone to finish the draft. The film was celebrated by critics. It also won a Golden Calf for Best Full-length Feature Film at the Netherlands Film Festival for producers Sluizer and Anne Lordon. Lead actress Johanna ter Steege won Best Supporting Actress from the European Film Award.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Michael Rooker, of Walking Dead fame, stars as nomadic killer Henry, in John McNaughton’s 1986 psychological horror crime movie, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The main antagonists are referred to real life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. McNaughton also co-writes the story with Richard Fire and sits as one of the producers of the movie. Because of its X rating, the team found it difficult to find a distributor. It joined various film festivals in the late 80s. It first premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival. Greycat Films finally got the distribution rights and had it released in 1990 for a limited release in theaters. For a budget of USD 110,000, earning USD 609,939 in the US was good enough. Critics extolled the film’s honest portrayal of violence involved in such serial killings. They described the movie as chilling and disturbing.
David Fischer helms Se7en, a dark crime thriller movie starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey. Andrew Kevin Walker writes the screenplay. Cecchi Gori Pictures and Juno Pix are the production companies behind Se7en, producing it for USD 33 million. It was distributed by New Line Cinema. After its release, it earned USD 327.3 million at the box office, one of the top 10 highest grossing films in 1995. Critics sang its praises for its no-holds-barred portrayal of brutality. It was nominated for an Academy for Best Film Editing. It was shocking, unnerving, and haunting.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme helms the critically-acclaimed horror thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Ted Tally writes the screenplay based on the Thomas Harris’ novel of the same name. Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster top bill the thriller. Strong Heart / Demme Productions is the production company behind this. The film was produced for USD 19 million. It earned USD 272.7 million worldwide. Not only was it a commercial success but it was also critically acclaimed. In the history of the Oscars, it was the only film accorded the Best Picture award of the horror genre. It went on to win Best Actor for Hopkins, Best Actress for Foster, Best Director for Demme, and adapted screenplay for Tally from the Academy Awards. It was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2011.
American Psycho (2000)
Director Mary Harron co-writes and helms American Psycho, a dark horror comedy film, which stars the likes of Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, and Reese Witherspoon. Guinevere Turner co-writes the screenplay for this iconic horror movie. Turner and Harron used Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name as basis for the screenplay. Muse Productions and Edward R. Pressman Productions are the production companies behind this film. USD 7 million was used to finance the film. It grossed USD 34.3 million at the box office. It was distributed by Lionsgate. Aside from being a blockbuster, it was lauded for Bale’s performance and the production’s quality. Some critics just found the content too “disturbing and violent.”
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Oliver Stone directs Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Downey Jr., and Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers, a dark comedy crime flick. The movie used Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay as the basis of the story. The original screenplay was reworked by Stone, David Veloz, and Richard Rutowski. With a budget of USD 34 million, it earned USD 50.3 million at the box office. Critics extolled the cast’s performance, the storyline, everything but just found the content “too violent and graphic.” It was named as one of the most controversial films in Hollywood history.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
Kim Jee-won wows the world with I Saw the Devil, a Korean horror thriller starring Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik. It was a blockbuster in Korea and it made waves internationally as well. Produced for USD 6 million, it raked in USD 12.8 million worldwide. It took several edits and cuts before the film saw the light of day because of its graphic violent content. It was originally given a Restricted rating by the Korea Media Rating Board. The production screened in various international film festivals and caught the eye of Magnet Releasing, which took care of its limited theatrical run in the US. Rolling Stone magazine called it one of “the scariest movies you’ve never seen.”
Wolf Creek (2005)
Greg McClean writes, co-produces, and directs Wolf Creek, an Australian horror flick. It took USD 1.1 million to produce the film and earned USD 26 million in the box office. As early as 1997, McClean had the screenplay ready for Wolf Creek, but after reviewing it, it turned out like a regular slasher film, which he didn’t like. When he came across the story of serial killer Ivan Milat, McClean reworked the screenplay and the characters. He combined the characteristics of a stereotypical Australian with the most heinous character he could think of. Dimension Films bought the distribution rights for USD 3.5 million. Then it was first screened at the Sundance Film Festival. After which, it was released in Australian theaters.
Michael Manns writes and helms Manhunter, a crime horror movie. Mann used the Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon as basis for the screenplay. It was produced for USD 15 million but only made USD 8.6 million. The production companies behind this movie are the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group and Red Dragon Productions. The former also took care of the film’s distribution. The film’s title was supposed to be Red Dragon, after the novel. But Producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted it changed because a previous film he produced bombed at the box office. Also, Bruce Lee was making a killing with movies with the word Dragon so they wanted to avoid being confused as a martial arts film. Reception to the production is mixed. But review of the film in later years helped critics appreciate the production more.
From the producer of The Hills have Eyes and Piranha 3D, Alejandro Aja, in collaboration with Amityville director Franck Khalfoun, comes Maniac, a psychological slasher remake of the 1980 original. Aja co-writes the screenplay with Gregory Levasseur, and C.A. Rosenberg. Unlike the original, the remake presents the point of view of the murderer. It was featured at the Cannes Film Festival prior its theatrical release worldwide. Many critics lauded the film’s shock value and “nauseating fear” but also panned it for being too shocking. Some moviegoers reportedly vomited or fainted while watching because of the violent content. Lead actor Elijah Wood won Best Actor awards for his role from Fangoria and Fright Meter Awards. It earned USD 2.6 million at the box office.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
The Dowdle brothers, John Erick and Drew, present The Poughkeepsie Tapes, horror film presented like a documentary, based on the fictional serial killings in Poughkeepsie, New York. The Dowdle brothers took on many roles in the production. They wrote the screenplay together, and Drew served as a producer, while John Erick directed and edited the film. The 2008 Tribeca Film Festival was its first stop. However, there were many issues that plagued its theatrical release. It finally saw the light of day in 2014 when it was distributed via video on demand. It was short-lived as MGM promised a wider release. It never happened. In 2017, Scream Factory stepped in and got the movie released via DVD and Blu-ray.
Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis star in Dominic Sena’s road thriller flick, Kalifornia. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films, and Viacom Pictures were all behind the production and forked out USD 8.5 million to make the film. Gramercy Pictures distributed the film in the US and internationally. The production grossed USD 2.4 million. Tim Metcalfe and Steven Levy worked on the story for Kalifornia in 1987. After some re-writes in the early 90s, the producers and Sena did not agree with Metcalfe’s revisions so he was fired. It took Sena and some producers 1 year and around 10 revisions to finalize the screenplay. Critics had mixed reactions about the production but they all lauded Pitt and Lewis’ performances. The film also got nominations and awards from different film festivals, including Best Screenplay, which was credited to Metcalfe.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Rob Zombie returns to the big screen with The Devil’s Rejects, a horror sequel to Zombie’s 2003 film House of 1000 Corpses. Zombie writes, directs, and co-produces the production. Cinelamda and Lionsgate are the production company and the distribution company respectively. With a budget of USD 7 million, it raked in USD 19.4 million. Lionsgate approached Zombie for a sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, after they were able to recoup their investment in that film. Zombie was already toying with a storyline connected to Corpses characters. With the sequel, Zombie wanted to top what he did with Corpses. Prior to release, the team had to cut and re-cut the film to get a rating lower than NC-17 from the MPAA. They went through the process 8 times. The board had issues with the violent and sexual content of the movie. They finally got the R rating on the 8th try. Critics praised the cast’s performance and the soundness of the story and characters, if you look beyond the violence. Some critics say otherwise. Notable writer Stephen King applauds The Devil’s Rejects, naming it “the 9th best film of 2005.”
Kiss the Girls (1997)
Gary Fleder helms Kiss the Girls, a psychological thriller from the screenplay of David Klass. Klass used James Patterson’s novel of the same title as basis. Fleder works with Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, and Carey Elwes for the film. From a budget of USD 27 million, it was able to gross USD 60.5 million. The film was first seen at the Deauville Film Festival then it was screened in over 2,500 theaters in the US. Though it was a commercial success, it was panned by critics for its lack of depth and creativity.
Man Bites Dog (1992)
From the power team of Remy Belvaux, Andre Bovel, and Benoit Poelvoorde come the crime mockumentary, Man Bites Dog. The trio are heavily involved in the production as the directors, writers, and producers. Belvaux also co-edited the film, Bonzel served as a cinematographer, and Poelvoorde starred in the movie. The movie was made by the trio as students, thus explaining the low budget for the film. They came up with the storyline based on their situation at that time, shooting a movie with no money. The film received an NC-17 rating in the US by the MPAA due to its graphic violent content. Even the original poster did not pass muster because of its violent content. They also had to remove several minutes from the film to meet the R rating.
From director Patty Jenkins, of Wonder Woman fame, from the screenplay she wrote, is a biographical crime drama that stars Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci. Monster is based on serial killer Aileen Wuornos’ crime, played by Theron. Theron incidentally sits as a producer for the film. Denver and Delilah Films and K/W Productions produce the film for USD 8 million. It raked in USD 60.4 million at the box office. Critics lapped up Theron’s convincing and brilliant performance, saying she embodied the character she played. She bagged the Best Actress award from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globe, and the Screen Actors Guild. The production itself was given the Certified Fresh rating by Rotten Tomatoes.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
From the story written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper, Hooper helms the iconic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a horror slasher film. Hooper and Henkel also sit as the film’s producers. It was produced by Vortex for USD 140,000. The story was loosely based on the crimes of real-life murderer Ed Gein. Hooper had difficulty finding a distributor because of the film’s blood and gore content. Bryanston Pictures eventually stepped in and distributed the film in the the US. Hooper already edited the film to meet the MPAA’s PG rating but it still got the R rating. It also faced the same rating issue internationally. When it was released in 1974, many US theaters stopping running the film because of public pressure. Many complained about the violent content of the film. It may have been the case but it still went on to earn USD 30.9 million in the US.
For his first full-length feature film, James Wan co-writes and directs Saw, a slasher thriller movie. It is based on his and co-writer Leigh Whannell’s story of the same name. Whannell writes the screenplay for the film. Wan and Whannell made a short film of Saw in their native Australia in a bid to get producers interested in making the full feature. Since there were no bites, they cast their net in a bigger pond, i.e. the US. Evolution Entertainment took a chance and created Twisted Pictures, a label that would handle the horror genre. They gave USD 1.2 million to produce the movie. It grossed USD 103.09 million at the box office. With its success, it spawned several sequels and a cult following.
John Pieplow helms Strangeland, a horror film written by Dee Snider. Robert Englund, more popularly known as Freddie from Nightmare on Elm Street, makes a cameo. It was given a budget of USD 1.1 million. It was given an R rating by the MPAA for its strong graphic violence and torture content, language, nudity, and sexuality. It was distributed by Raucous Releasing, Artisan Entertainment, and Behaviour Communications. It was screened in the US in October 1998. Its VHS release followed in March 1999. It grossed USD 713,239.
Christian Alvart writes and directs Antibodies (German title: Antikorper) a German crime drama thriller. It stars Wotan Wilke Mohring and Andre Hennicke. Norman Reedus, of Walking Dead fame, also appears in a small role. It was produced for USD 2.22 million. It premiered in Germany in July 2005 via Kinowelt Filmverleih. It reached American shores in February 2007 through StudioCanal. Many critics say it is Germany’s answer to Hannibal Lecter, only more sinister, more evil, and less charming.
Taking Lives (2004)
Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke top bill DJ Caruso’s psychological thriller Taking Lives. Jon Bokenkamp writes the story and screenplay using Michael Pye’s novel of the same title as basis. It also stars Kiefer Sutherland. From a budget of USD 45 million, it grossed USD 65.4 million. Though Bokenkamp was credited as the film’s writer, many stepped in to revise the screenplay. The film may have performed moderately well at the box office but critics panned the film for lack of any production quality, including the cast’s performance. Jolie got a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress for this film.
So this is our round-up of the best serial killer movies. Would love to year your thoughts!