There’s a long history in the movies of investigating killers from a close perspective. One of the first was Fritz Lang’s M, a film that followed a child murderer played by the great Peter Lorre as he tried evading discovery and punishment, and the sub-genre has continued strong ever since. While movies can’t depict the thoughts and feelings of these characters in quite as intimate a fashion as written fiction can, they can drag us into a more visceral relationship with their central killers.
The movies I’ve selected aren’t mysteries per se, as we know from more or less the beginning who is doing the killings, but they do often delve into more subtle puzzles of motivation and method. With the exception of Peeping Tom and Under the Skin, these movies are fairly gory and brutal, so please take care while choosing what to watch.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Despite being relatively gore-less by today’s standards, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was considered so vile when it came out that it more or less destroyed the director’s career. It has, though, aged quite well and is now increasingly considered not only a classic of the genre, but a fine film in itself, a study of voyeurism, alienation, and the eye of the film camera itself.
Mark Lewis is a photographer who works on movie shoots. A lonely, withdrawn, and socially awkward guy, Mark is also a serial killer who films his victims as he murders them. When he meets his sweet neighbor, Helen Stephens, he tries setting aside his violent pastime. Unlike many of the killers on this list, Mark is given a compelling and disturbing genesis for his bloodlust. As cruel as his actions are, many viewers will find themselves empathizing with this broken soul who never really had a chance. Peeping Tom ended up serving as a template for these sorts of movies and most of the other works on this list wouldn’t have existed without it.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Henry, very loosely based on the stories of serial killer (or remarkable liar) Henry Lee Lucas, is a grim, unforgiving peek into the life of a complete sociopath. Michael Rooker’s performance was not only career-making, it also brought a sense of realism into the portrayal of screen killers. Henry isn’t brilliant. He isn’t witty. He is, in fact, barely a human being at all, just a bundle of violent impulses and a half-baked philosophy about why it’s okay to carry them out. What makes this movie so powerful is not only its relentless depiction of violence: it’s also that the whole thing feels real, so grimy and episodic and nihilistic. This was an early and influential attempt to show what the lives of real serial killers are like and it ain’t pretty.
American Psycho (2000)
Mary Harron directed this movie based on Ellis’s novel and it retains much of the humor of the book as well as plenty of dialogue lifted directly from it. The violence in Harron’s film, however, is much tamer than that in the novel. Instead of focusing on protracted, sickening killings, Harron’s movie zeroes in on Ellis’s sly satire of the vapid, flashy world Patrick Bateman lives in. Bateman, played with nutty arrogance by Christian Bale, is a murderous bank executive who slashes his way through a world so self-obsessed and trivial that it hardly notices his madness. This movie is also a fine piece of 80’s nostalgia, with a soundtrack that perfectly captures that odd decade.
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
Based on Jim Thompson’s novel of the same name and the second adaptation of the source material, this movie follows Lou Ford, a young deputy sheriff who patrols a small town in Texas, here played by Casey Affleck. Lou comes off as harmless, what with his easy-going manner and penchant for hokey witticisms, but as we quickly learn, Lou is far from alright. He’s always enjoyed teasing people in a way just this side of sadistic, but recently, his cruelty has begun to blossom into something far worse. After he sets a fairly standard noirish blackmail plot into motion, the sheriff finds himself unable to control his bloodlust.
Trailers for this movie may mislead potential viewers into thinking it’s an old-fashioned noir mystery, but Affleck’s portrayal as Ford, as well as the hideous violence he carries out, firmly situates the movie in horror territory. The killings in this movie are especially brutal, often taking some time, and Lou is just as misogynistic a monster as he is in the novel, so be cautious if these elements sound off-putting.
Kill List (2011)
After finishing a traumatic tour in the military, Jay and Gal refashion themselves as hit men in this British thriller. The movie focuses on Jay, a man filled with barely repressed violence which finds what seems to be a perfect outlet in this profession. One night, Gal presents his friend with a new job: a mysterious client wants them to kill three people for reasons he won’t disclose. As Jay and Gal go about their business, their job gets curiouser and curiouser, with strange symbols showing up, signs that they may have been selected for reasons other than their killing abilities, and victims who bizarrely thank the hit men for killing them. This all leads somewhere I wouldn’t dream of spoiling, but I will say the movie does an excellent job in its portrayal of Jay, a man who would love to settle into a peaceful life with his family but who is also driven by the urge to deal out murderous punishment.
This remake of an inferior (just my opinion) movie of the same name from the 80’s stars Elijah Wood as the titular maniac. Frank Zito owns a mannequin store and is dealing with the psychological repercussions of the death of his abusive mother when he meets a kind and seemingly interested artist named Anna. The problem? Frank is a serial killer and mutilator who takes out his rage at his mother on other women. As he gets closer to Anna, Frank finds he may not be able to keep his murderous impulses in check.
I cannot emphasize how violent this movie is. Easily the most gruesome on this list. Frank’s victims don’t often die fast, and the movie doesn’t flinch from giving it to us close and personal. What makes this version of Maniac even more disturbing than its grimy original is that the entire movie (with the exception of a few surprise shots) is filmed in first-person from Frank’s POV, a rarity in cinematic history and a technique that makes us feel even more implicated in his viciousness than movies like this usually accomplish. The movie is punctuated by scenes of Frank’s hallucinations, which adds to an already delirious experience. The movie’s music is a real treat for anyone who digs creepy synth scores, so even if you decide not to chance watching it, give the soundtrack a listen.
Under the Skin (2013)
This movie, loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber, features a surprisingly chilling performance by Scarlett Johansson as a strange woman who lures men to their deaths in her lair. The woman (who is never given a name) is an almost entirely emotionless character and she carries out her seduction and destruction of random men coldly, almost as if she is on a mission. As such, she may seem closer in spirit to relentless slashers like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees than a complex human being. Over the course of this often-improvised and creepily authentic-looking film, though, cracks appear in her façade, and we get glimpses of another creature beneath, one is who is vulnerable, perhaps even lonely.
Tragedy Girls (2017)
This blood-soaked comedy is actually about three killers: a standard spree killer and the two teenage girls who’ve decided to use him as a means to get super Internet-famous. McKayla Hooper and Sadie Cunningham (their last names are references to directors important to the slasher genre) are media-obsessed hosts of a true crime blog. When their plan to work with the aforementioned serial killer to create a stir falls apart, the girls decide to take matters into their own hands.
This movie is pretty gory, but it avoids the grim and gritty in favor of a satirical look at just how far some people will go to get noticed. These killers aren’t only remorseless, they are positively giddy about their chance to shine. Weirdly, as evil as they are revealed to be, their friendship feels genuine and complex and is a highlight of the movie.
The House That Jack Built (2018)
Lars von Trier
As anyone who’s seen his Antichrist knows, Lars von Trier will happily explore sights and situations other directors wouldn’t dare to film. The House That Jack Built may represent the out limits of those dark territories. The movie follows Jack or, as he has dubbed himself, Mr. Sophistication, over the course of a varied and increasingly deranged career as a serial killer. The director cited Donald Trump as an inspiration for this movie and after watching several of Jack’s bungling attempts at killing and covering up his crimes, one can see why. This is an American Psycho for the Trump era, complete with a misogynistic, vainglorious, and ultimately idiotic getting away with crime after crime.
This is an odd movie in that, unlike most of the other extreme films on this list, it’s often punctuated by funny sequences. Even if you decide to skip this one altogether, I recommend looking up the “fake police officer” scene, in which Jack proves he’s no genius. The film opens up onto visionary and stunning scenes in its last ten minutes or so, but I imagine many people (if not most) will find the preceding savagery far too much to make their way through. So, yeah: extreme content warning on this one.
Directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg, this dark and stylish movie follows Tasya Vos, an assassin who possesses the bodies of hapless and ordinary people and then uses them to carry out murders. Tasya is a complex creature, a pitiless hired killer who nonetheless tries convincing herself she can live a double life with her husband and small son. The psychological damage she suffers from invading the minds of her victims, though, is beginning to take its toll on Tasya’s personality. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one day she finds herself unable to extricate herself from the mind of her latest possessee. What follows is a nightmarish chain of events. This is an excellent sci-fi/horror amalgam with an ending that’ll just hollow you out.