What, in the natural world, is more frightening than a serial killer? A terrestrial being born like anyone else, dedicated to predation like Mozart to the harpsichord. The fright and fascination they instill have made them a prime subject for study and dramatization. True crime as a genre of entertainment has exploded far beyond the bookstore, and movies about homicidal maniacs aren’t a new phenomenon. Perhaps the most quintessential serial killer film of all time, Psycho (1960) captured the capabilities and carnage of a deceitful psychopath better than most. The tension in the framing, the genius of the editing, the shocking twist ending, these are elements horror movies throughout the years have tirelessly attempted to perfect, and Alfred Hitchcock delivered the blueprint more than 60 years ago.
As the medium evolved, acting and cinematic presentation took on a more realistic quality, and standards on violence and nudity eroded. Classic serial killer flicks like William Lustig’s Maniac, or Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs demonstrate the versatility of the subject matter. These movies, like true crime stories, offer people a taste of the unimaginably twisted and unpredictable world of a human deliberately annexed from morality, ethics, honor, or compassion. Horror masters of the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and now, continue to push the boundaries of extremity and terror that can be depicted on screen. Visionary, violent movies—many of which were immediately slandered for their repugnant, but semi-accurate, depictions of serial killers—arrive to controversy every couple of years before the messaging and intent seep from the work into the world. But whether butts are in the seats for crime or commentary, the serial killer sub-genre persists through true crime, television, and film. Here are 25 of the best and bloodiest serial killer movies on the plus side of 1960.
Director: Mary Harron
Writers: Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner
Cast: Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Bill Sage, Chloe Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon
Based on the book by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho grew from being labeled as misogynistic, violent, pornographic trash to an all-time classic film over the 21 years since its release. It’s a comedic, bloody dissection of buttoned-up, toxic masculinity channeled through Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale). Bateman is a successful, sexy, corporate exec who, as the job requires, is a raving, homicidal lunatic. His dispassion for society and its occupants spills into diatribes concerning music, geopolitical unrest, and fellow human hunters. Dry, hilarious corporate politics and a prickly depiction of Wall Street’s wealthy workers and their friends morph the criticism into satire. The violence, and Patrick Bateman’s sadistic behavior, is still disturbing and repugnant, but having a laugh in between bloodbaths alleviates some of the shock of the brutality.
The Clovehitch Killer
Director: Duncan Skiles
Writer: Duncan Skiles
Cast: Dylan McDermott, Charlie Plummer, Samantha Mathis, Madisen Beaty, Brenna Sherman
Ignorance is bliss for Charlie Plummer (Looking for Alaska) in The Clovehitch Killer. He lives in a small town, participates in church and in his local Eagle-Scout-style Rangers group and has aspirations of enrolling in a good college and moving on to the next phase of his life. He gets a peek behind the curtain of his father’s parental facade when he discovers peculiar illustrations and pornography that could only be attributed to dear old dad (Dylan McDermott). Oddity begets curiosity, and Tyler (Plummer) begins passively encouraging investigating his father alongside a newfound friend. Where plenty of serial killer films delight in blood and mayhem, Clovehitch revels in the tension of suspicion. Dad’s behavior and secrets conflict, upending Tyler’s perception of the man he loves. Almost the entire movie is depicted from Tyler’s perspective, and his visual unease sells the unnerving discomfort his discoveries created.
Director: Patrick Brice
Writers: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Cast: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Creep is an indie delight. It dives into the setup quickly. Co-writer and director Patrick Brice plays a videographer who picked up an odd job helping an ailing man (Mark Duplass) record a video to leave behind for his soon-to-be-born son. His client’s strange behavior, and the forced intimacy required to document a dying man’s message to his son, give Aaron (Brice) pause but don’t deter him. Joseph (Duplass) is at once weird, tender, and kind. His optimism and outlook make him endearing, soothing the fear from his bizarro vibes. It’s creepy and uncomfortable, but it occupies a space in the thriller genre few other films do, and with far less to work with than almost any other picture. Despite the oddball behavior exhibited by Joseph, there’s a small throughline of who is hoodwinking who until someone gets a concerning phone call.
Director: Patrick Brice
Writers: Mark Duplass, Patrick Brice
Cast: Karan Soni, Mark Duplass, Desiree Akhavan, Kyle Field, Caveh Zahedi, Jeff Man
Creep 2 is as unnerving, intimate, and provocative as the first. It maintains the limited cast, mostly restricting the screen time between Sara (Karan Soni) and Mark Duplass. It’s an excellent sequel as it evolves the character viewers met in Creep while introducing new ideas and people. Like Creep, Creep 2 is a found footage-style film. Sara documents her interaction with a stranger she met through the internet for her web series, “Encounters.” With the veil pulled back on Duplass’ homicidal tendencies, the movie is more free to explore his character in-depth than through deceit. It poses interesting questions like, what would a serial killer experiencing a midlife crisis be like? How would they, more than likely he, cope or adjust? For introspective serial killer pictures, Creep 2 sits alongside American Psycho, The House That Jack Built, and Man Bites Dog in its ambition and expression.
Director: Dario Argento
Writer: Dario Argento
Cast: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Macha Meril, Eros Pagni
Horror maestro and Giallo genius, Dario Argento (Suspiria, 1977) delivered one of his best in 1975 titled Deep Red. It’s a murder mystery where bodies begin to stack up from beginning to end. Part slasher, part serial killer film, part whodunit, Deep Red sprawls effortlessly across subgenres. Strong framing and blocking cut up the screen between the killer slicing up bodies. There’s beauty in the depth and visual lines achieved through the cinematography and movement of each scene. Goblin joins Argento again to provide some original music to the picture. The soundtrack overall is quite funky, with rhythmic and horn sections evocative of David Holmes’ Ocean’s series soundtrack. And while there’s a hint of comedy woven through the film, the music is about all this blood-soaked Italian horror classic has in common with Steven Soderbergh’s heist trilogy. It’s bloody, violent, and diligent in its continuity while creating a thrilling, striking serial killer picture.
The Devil’s Rejects
Director: Rob Zombie
Writer: Rob Zombie
Cast: Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, William Forsythe, Ken Foree, Danny Trejo
Still perhaps his best picture, Rob Zombie created a grimy classic in The Devil’s Rejects. The callous antics of the Firefly gang, not to be confused with the western-tinged space pirates that graced television and film in the early 2000s, are difficult to watch even by the standard of films set on this list. Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon Zombie are sociopaths without remorse on their killing spree while evading the law. It’s a western meets ‘70s style grindhouse cinema. The grainy, fluorescent green frames squeeze as much blood and sweat out of each character as they can manage. The dirty, horrific mutilations the Firefly gang inflicted in House of 1000 Corpses are only dialed back a hair to ground the film with a more realistic tone. Otis and Baby feel like predators anyone could happen across on a string of bad luck. Their impulsive behavior pushes their hunter, Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), to his breaking point in his search for justice.
Director: John Carpenter
Writer: John Carpenter
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony Moran, Nancy Kyes, P.J. Stoles
Before the Cult of Thorn, and before the multiple reboots, Halloween was about a killer in a mask. Michael Myers, or “The Shape,” was a homicidal man who slaughtered his own sister as a child on Halloween. Years later, he escapes confinement for a night of debauchery. What was intended to be a self-contained story, Halloween spawned a franchise that would outgrow the premise. Halloween is an iconic slasher alongside Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, the villain is instantly recognizable with his pale white mask and black dead eyes, but that’s not the only memorable character. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), Lynda (P.J. Soles), and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) are three-dimensional characters that captured the interest of audiences everywhere—Laurie and Loomis would go on to star in several sequels before being recast for Rob Zombie’s reboots. John Carpenter’s third film, which he wrote, directed, produced, and developed the music for, is an early indicator of the power of his auteurship. It’s cinematic and scary, the atmosphere thickened by the foreboding soundtrack.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Director: John McNaughton
Writer: Richard Fire, John McNaughton
Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles, Mary Demas
A white man with mommy issues, the classic serial killer set-up. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is uncompromisingly consistent in its intensity. Adapted around the real slayings by convicted killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis O’Toole, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel to this picture. The world is cruel, and Henry (Michael Rooker) makes it even worse. Along with his own murderous appetites, Henry takes to tutoring a friend and frustrated white male named Otis (Tom Towles), whom he stays with. He teaches Otis methods that might obscure his guilt when he commits crimes, and Henry encourages his sadism—to a point. The morbid documentation they keep makes the duo as disturbing as any murderer, fictional or real. The performances and the raw presentation make the movie difficult to watch at times, but viewers seeking an authentic representation of a psycho-killer will find plenty to unpack in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
House of 1000 Corpses
Director: Rob Zombie
Writer: Rob Zombie’
Cast: Sid Haig, Karen Black, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, Rainn Wilson, Tom Towles
House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie’s feature debut, is as colorful and chaotic as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its sequel put together. The frivolity of the torture the Firefly gang inflicts at will is outright disturbing. Bill Moseley channeled Charles Manson for his absurd lectures lost in their own metaphors to any sober mind. Sid Haig’s crass and crazy clown, Captain Spaulding, seems like the ceiling for the insanity, until the final act flings the film from serial killer to slasher. The unpredictable editing assaults the viewer with monologues and depictions of the dead. Bodies, and their parts, litter the film like leftover takeout. It’s so over-the-top, it’s inconceivable. But the grainy screen, nasty characters, and girdle of atmosphere synch this mess of madness into an unforgettable horror film.
The House That Jack Built
Director: Lars Von Trier
Writer: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Riley Keough
The House That Jack Built is one of the best serial killer movies ever released. It’s introspective and violent, dark and comedic—it shares a lot in common with the strengths of American Psycho. The audience follows Jack (Matt Dillon) as he opens up about his life as a serial killer and as an engineer. He expands upon his motivations, curiosities, concerns, and desires to a mysterious and mostly offscreen character named Verge (Bruno Ganz). Their conversations about art, love, death, murder, architecture, and more are accompanied by documentary footage, blueprints, classical artworks, and plenty of corpses. Jack pontificates on the meaning of his actions, and how he views himself, while Verge attempts to contain his narcissism and keep the conversation on track along their inexplicable walk. The graphic violence is often offset by black comedy, but the movie is messed up. Men, women, children, no one is safe from Jack’s lethal appetites. The self-reflection milled into the film by the writer/director Lars Von Trier (Melancholia) and the surreal, stunning final act make this movie more than the sum of its body count; they make it truly special.
I Saw The Devil
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Writers: Park Hoon-jung, Jee-woon Kim
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Jeon Gook-hwan, Ho-jin Chun, San-ha Oh, Yoon-seo Kim
Even for the movies on this list, I Saw the Devil is dark. The unrelenting intensity is only matched by the oppressive sadness in this Korean revenge film. Lee Byung–hun plays a secret service agent on the hunt for the killer who decapitated his wife. The killer, Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min–sik), is straight-up evil. His antics and attitude make him among the most contemptible human beings conceivable. There’s a thrill to the unpredictability of his actions, and there’s sadistic enjoyment to the terrible game of catch-and-release he finds himself in with an unknown enemy. Stylish and intense, I Saw the Devil piles on the pain of trauma and loss bathed in warm light. The lighting and action are dynamic and memorable—hell, everything about this movie is memorable, down to the haunting final frame.
Ichi The Killer
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Sakichi Sato
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Paulyn Sun, Shun Sugata, SABU
One of the best live-action adaptations of any manga, Ichi The Killer is as great as it is repugnant. Opening with one of the nastiest title cards in cinema history, Ichi is fearless in its depictions of sadism, masochism, and madness. Few films so casually brutalize their cast. Blood and violence decorate nearly every scene, especially if Ichi himself (Nao Omori) or Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) is present. The narrative is complicated by the character arcs of the aforementioned men, one who is compelled to commit violence, and one who delights in it. There’s comedy hidden in the corners of this film, but audiences will have to wade through more than two hours of blood and ejaculate to enjoy it. If you can stomach the editing and bodily fluids, Ichi The Killer is an awesome, unique picture about a killer with an over-the-top method of execution.
Directors: Timo Tjahjanto, Kimo Stamboel
Writer: Takuji Ushiyama, Tim Tjahjanto
Cast: Kazuki Kitamura, Oka Antara, Rin Takanashi, Luna Maya, Ray Sahetapy, Tensui Sakai
Two men commit murder for different reasons in Killers. One killer is a Japanese finance worker who moonlights as a torturous murderer named Nomura. Nomura (Kazuki Kitamura) is an unassuming, suave dude, he just happens to be maniacally insane—the Japanese Patrick Bateman. A video recording of a man’s final seconds links Nomura with journalist-turned-murderer, Bayu (Oka Antara), and Nomura attempts to guide Bayu on his path of vengeance against the dirty politicians who ruined his career. Neither man seems capable of comprehending the other’s motivations, but they’re united in their shucking of society’s ethics. Oka Antara is unhinged as Bayu. His screams and spasms accentuate the intensity of his struggles on his rampage. His performance is commendable, and pairs well alongside the madness of this movie. The lighting, darkness, and duality make Killers a great pairing to double feature with Ichi The Killer.
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Writer: Park Chan-Wook
Cast: Lee Yeong-ae, Kim Byeong-Ok, Bu-seon Kim, Choi Min-sik, Mi-ran Ra, Dal-su Oh
Murder and revenge are all that is on the menu for Lady Vengeance. As the final act in Park Chan–Wook’s vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance exists as an amalgamation and subversion of the themes and characters of the previous two movies. Geum-ja Lee (Lee Yeong–ae) spends more than a decade in prison planning the perfect revenge against someone she believes sent her there. Flashbacks unveil character motivations while the plot unfolds in the present. The editing creates stylish transitions between past and present. In the past, Geum-ja does good deeds to accumulate goodwill and favor from inmates she will call upon when their time is served. Her plan revolves around implicating another suspect in the crimes of which she was found guilty—enter Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik). Mr. Baek is a teacher, and the sole object of Lady Vengeance’s ire. As always, Choi Min-sik is unforgettable in his role. Even with few speaking lines, his presence is commanding, and eerie.
Man Bites Dog
Director: Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde
Writers: Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Benoit Poelvoorde
Cast: Benoit Poelvoorde, Jenny Drye, Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Jean-marc Chenut
Predating American Psycho and The House That Jack Built, Man Bites Dog is perhaps the prelude to those films. The mockumentary depicts a film crew following and observing, with his consent, a serial killer in France called Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde). Ben is a highly intelligent, curious observer of the world. He also happens to be a stone-cold killer and narcissist. He strolls about, murdering at will, and expanding upon the details of choosing victims, disposing of bodies, and anything that catches his eye. The film crew is introduced partway into the film, and their presence, much less their job, feels like a commentary in its own right. Who would agree to document these events, to share time with a homicidal narcissist? Are artists passive observers? The voice of criticism extends beyond artists and members of the media. The older generation, at the time, is repeatedly brought up during Ben’s discussions around money, status, and vulnerability. Despite his intelligence, Ben of course succumbs to the pitfalls of racism and misogyny that seem endemic to a callous attitude. For a movie made by and starring the same few fellas, Man Bites Dog has a lot of bark and even more bite.
Director: Franck Khalfoun
Writers: Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur
Cast: Elijah Wood, Nora Arnezeder, America Olivo, Megan Duffy, Genevieve Alexandra
A reimagining of Joe Spinell’s passion project, Maniac is a first-person POV serial killer flick. Starring Elijah Wood as Frank, a lonely, mentally ill maniac loose in LA, Maniac keeps a few elements of the original while going in a completely different direction with others. Frank himself is the best indication of this film’s intent—same name, similar behaviors, totally different presentation. Elijah Wood makes for a far less immediately intimidating figure than Joe Spinell’s large frame and bulging eyes. But what he lacks in outward intimidation, he makes up for with pure insanity. Staring at strangers, screaming at mannequins, scrubbing his hands with steel wool, the audience gets to sit along quietly with Frank as he loses himself in delusions and mania. The stalkings and scalpings between fits leave little room for levity in the picture. Still, for movie-goers unafraid of the shaky-cam experiences offered by the V/H/S franchise, Maniac is an update on a classic worth exercising the ol’ iron gut to experience.
Memories of Murder
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Writers: Bong Joon Ho, Sung-bo Shim
Cast: Kang-ho Song, Kim Sang-kyung, Roe-ha Kim, Jae-ho Song, Byun Hee-Bong, Seo-hie Ko
Still one of Bong Joon Ho’s greatest 18 years later, Memories of Murder is phenomenal. It’s based on a real sting of killings that occurred in South Korea before the story was adapted into a play by Kwang–rim Kim. Serial killer theme aside, the movie is immaculate from one of the most stunning title cards ever, to the final look from Kang–ho Song (Parasite). Song plays detective Park, a small-town cop investigating a body that was dumped in an irrigation ditch. As the bodies multiply, Detective Park gets partnered with Seoul detective Seo (Kim Sang–kyung). Their differing theories on police brutality, as well as what information is deemed credible, illustrate the simple complications that can interrupt a murder investigation. The aesthetic and tone make Memories of Murder feel at home alongside David Fincher’s investigative films, Seven and Zodiac. Memories of Murder is as powerful as any movie on this list, it just does it with more restraint.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Writers: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
Cast: Stacy Chbosky, Ben Messmer, Samantha Robson, Ivar Brogger, Lou George, Ron Harper
Part serial killer mockumentary, part found footage film, The Poughkeepsie Tapes occupies a disturbing niche. John Erick Dowdle’s (As Above So Below) first feature foray into the subgenre imitates a true crime television documentary. The picture splices testimonials from investigators, experts, victims, and more with footage from a serial killer’s personal collection of documented crimes in the form of more than 800 VHS tapes. This creepy collection of evidence features several people that were annihilated by the actions of this vile killer, but many of the tapes concern the captive Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky). The story surrounding her disappearance and the gut-wrenching depiction of her torment serves as the main focus of the narrative. It’s focused and freaky and features an unforgettable ending.
Director: Brett Ratner
Writer: Ted Tally
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson
A year after Anthony Hopkins sliced and served Ray Liotta his own brains in Hannibal (2001), he returned to the role of the incarcerated cannibal readers and audiences adore and fear. In his final turn as the character Hannibal Lecter, he plays the youngest representation of Hannibal seen on screen, at that time, in the film Red Dragon. Based on the book by Thomas Harris, Red Dragon sees Hannibal take an advisory role as he aides, for the first time as an inmate, the FBI in their profiling of a killer. Edward Norton is Will Graham, an imaginative, impressionable, recently retired FBI agent brought back into the occupation to catch a killer. The cast is completed by top-shelf talent, including Ralph Fiennes as Francis Dolarhyde—a traumatized, cunning killer. It’s a strong send-off for Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal, and a good prequel to one of the best horror movies ever made.
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cast: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard
It seemed like every decade or so Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street) would return to redefine the slasher genre. His partnership with Kevin Williamson created one of the all-time great slasher films and serial killers in Scream and Ghostface, respectively. The ensemble cast was impressive for the time, and it’s aged remarkably well. The small town under assault by a masked killer is riddled with larger-than-life characters and self-awareness. Clever writing and committed, but hammy, performances strengthen the genre material. The humor, wit, and multiple mysteries surrounding the slayings in Woodsboro add to the drama and fun. The teen drama wrapped in a whodunit is bathed in blood and cameos. If the twist hasn’t been spoiled yet, kudos! But with a new entry due soon, it’s time to initiate a watch of an iconic horror movie that spawned a franchise.