The FBI estimates that serial murder comprises less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year yet it acknowledges that the topic tends to consume the media and public, and has fueled many books and movies about serial killers. Serial killers are not a modern phenomena but the term was not coined until the 1970s by FBI investigator Robert Ressler (playing off the British term series or serial murder). Fittingly, the case that probably launched our broad-based obsession is the infamous Whitechapel murders that took place in London in the late 1880s, and that were attributed to a person who named himself Jack the Ripper. He claimed responsibility for multiple murders in letters sent to the police. The murders (at least five and possibly eleven) provided a perfect storm for public fascination. The killer was never caught, the crimes were horrific, there was a sexual component (since the victims were prostitutes and it was in the era of Freud), and there was a media outlet in newspapers (that had only recently implemented the printing press allowing them to more quickly and widely reach a large audience) to fan the flames of interest and even a little hysteria. Jack the Ripper has provided many elements that have become tropes defining the serial killer: smart and elusive, engages and taunts the police, female victims with sexual overtones to his crimes, and kills in a particular style.
A serial killer differs from a mass murderer (one who kills more than four people at a single time in a single location as in the 2007 Virginia Tech murders) or a spree killer (one who kills more than three people in a short period of time at more than two locations as the teenaged Charles Starkweather did in the 1950s, inspiring the film Badlands). In contrast a serial killer will murder more than three people over extended periods of time with distinct breaks or “cooling off” periods between the murders. But the term serial killer is not usually used to describe mobsters or hit men, who could be said to commit murder in the course of doing (illegal) business.
Here’s a list of the ten best movies about real life serial killers, and the films serve up a kind of subgenre of horror biopics. You will not find Psycho (which could be seen as the first portrait of a serial killer, inspired by Ed Gein, and the precursor to the slasher film), Silence of the Lambs or Texas Chainsaw Massacre here. Just Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, and other real life serial killers.
1. The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
Serial killers: Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez
Crimes: Suspected of killing 20 women between 1947 and 1949
Tagline: One of the most bizarre episodes in the annals of American Crime.
Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez were dubbed The Lonely Hearts Killers for a series of murders they committed in the late 1940s. The couple’s relationship began inauspiciously through a Lonelyhearts column. After meeting for a date, Beck discovers that Fernandez is a gigolo who had intended on winning her over and then taking her money. This inspires the obese Beck to quit her job as a nurse, dump her mom in a rest home, and take off with Fernandez. They come up with a scam: they pretend to be brother and sister as Fernandez meets women through the Lonelyhearts column, marries them, and Beck steals their valuables. Jealousy drives Beck to start killing the women as well.
Shirley Stoler and Tony LoBianco play the loving and lethal couple in this gritty crime thriller and perverse black comedy. It is the only film directed by Leonard Kastle and a number of people have commented that this would have been perfect material for John Waters and Divine. But as it stands, this low-budget, claustrophobic, black and white film remains one of the very best films about serial killers. It’s pretty much a tie between this and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for the top slot. Both films redefine horror by showing us that the most terrifying things are all too real. This is a too oft overlooked gem.
2. Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Serial killer: Henry Lee Lucas
Crimes: Convicted of 11 murders but at one point had been linked to hundreds of unsolved murders in Texas
Tagline: He’s not Freddy. He’s not Jason. He’s real. [Best tagline of all the serial killer films.]
First time filmmaker John McNaughton was given $100,000 to make a low budget horror film but what he delivered took MPI by surprise. It wasn’t a slasher film with a lot of gore and teen sex; and instead of looking to Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street as models, McNaughton turned to a 60 Minutes segment on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas for inspiration. MPI didn’t know how to market the film so it sat on the shelf and when it was finally released it received an MPAA X rating.
Michael Rooker delivers a low key but terrifying performance as Henry Lee Lucas, an emotionally flatlined sociopath who kills randomly and without motive. The extreme low budget makes it seem all the more realistic and disturbing. This is a brilliant, twisted take on the horror genre, serving up a monster scarier than any movie boogeyman.
3. Zodiac (2007)
Serial killer: Zodiac (identity still unknown)
Crimes: Claimed 37 murders in letters to the newspapers, but investigators have only agreed on seven confirmed victims, two of whom survived
Tagline: There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer.
The film Dirty Harry was inspired by the Zodiac Killer, and this film even references that with Mark Ruffalo playing the cop on which Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is based. The Zodiac Killer – whose identity has never been proven – was a serial killer operating in northern California between 1968 and 1969. The killer took on the name “Zodiac” in an August letter to the local Bay Area press. The film follows three men who become obsessed with the case. Although the film fictionalizes events, it is based on Robert Graysmith’s autobiographical book. The film benefits from David Fincher’s atmospheric direction that ratchets up the tension.
4. 10 Rillington Place (1971)
Serial killer: John Christie
Crimes: Murdered at least eight women during the 1940s and early 1950s, including his wife Ethel, by strangling them in his apartment at 10 Rillington Place
Tagline: What happened to the women at 10 Rillington Place?
A grim and gritty drama highlighted by stellar performances from John Hurt and Richard Attenborough. Attenborough plays the mousy John Christie who would lure women back to his flat at 10 Rillington Place to kill them. He eluded police by throwing suspicion on his neighbor Timothy Evans (Hurt), who was not only convicted for murder but also hung for murder, of which he was innocent. The case was pivotal in eliminating the death penalty in the United Kingdom and the film serves as a keen reminder of why. And just a bit of trivia, some of the scenes were filmed at the actual locations.
5. Monster (2003)
Serial killer: Aileen Wuornos
Crimes: Accused of murdering seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990, she claimed they had either raped or attempted to rape her while she was working as a prostitute, and that all of the homicides were committed in self-defense. She was convicted and sentenced to death for six of the murders, and was executed by lethal injection in 2002.
Tagline: The first female serial killer of America.
Men tend to dominate the serial killer film as murderers and detectives, while women tend to be relegated to the role of victim. So here’s a film that turns the tables. Charlize Theron got ugly for her role as Aileen Wuornos, one of those rare creatures, a female serial killer. Wuornos had a troubled childhood, and turned to prostitution as a teen. The film focuses on the nine-month period in Florida when she struck up a lesbian relationship and began murdering her Johns for their money.
6. The Boston Strangler (1968)
Serial killer: Albert DeSalvo
Crimes: Convicted of the rape and murder of 13 women from 1962 through 1964
Tagline: Why did 13 women willingly open their doors to the Boston Strangler?
Tony Curtis is Albert DeSalvo, the man convicted of the murders of 13 women in Boston. He had confessed to the crimes although later there were some doubts about his credibility. The casting of the likable Curtis as the killer was an interesting choice because he created a certain level of sympathy for the character. According to IMDb, attractive movie stars Robert Redford and Warren Beatty we also considered for the role, which implies that director Richard Fleischer and writer Edward Anhalt wanted someone attractive and likable to play against type for the role, perhaps suggesting that serial killers don’t have to look scary. The female victims supposedly and willingly let their killer in before being raped and then strangled with a piece of their own clothing. The film came only four years after the last murder took place, and served up an early example of a police procedural.
7. Citizen X (1995 TV movie)
Serial killer: Andrei Chikatilo
Crimes: Convicted of murdering 53 women and children between 1978 and 1990
Tagline: You don’t want to know what he does… You just want to know when he’s caught.
Just to prove that serial killing goes on around the globe, here’s a tale of a Soviet serial killer, and the eight-year investigation and battle against governmental bureaucracy by forensic specialist Viktor Burakov to catch the murderer. A highlight is Stephen Rea’s dogged persistence as Burakov. Television has a knack for tapping into the public interest of these sensational cases by coming out with movies relatively soon after the cases closed.
8. The Deliberate Stranger (1986, two-part TV movie)
Serial killer: Ted Bundy
Crimes: Serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, and necrophile who confessed to 30 homicides in seven states between 1974 and 1978, but the real number may be higher
Tagline: He was easy to like. Deadly to know. Tough to catch.
As with the casting of The Boston Strangler, The Deliberate Stranger goes for a likable leading man – in this case Mark Harmon – to play a horrific serial killer. Bundy is one of America’s most notorious serial killers and he maintained his innocence until shortly before being executed. Harmon played against type to deliver a creepy performance, but his nice guy exterior helps to explain how a serial killer like Bundy could go undetected for years and commit so many crimes.
9. Helter Skelter (1976 TV movie)
Serial killer: Charles Manson
Crimes: Convicted of conspiracy to commit the murders of seven people including actress Sharon Tate in 1969, and later convicted of two additional murders
If you want to be technical, Charles Manson is not a serial killer. First, he appears to never have actually committed a murder himself but he was such a charismatic cult leader that his followers simply carried out his bidding and were legally seen as an extension of himself. And second, the Tate-LaBianca murders were only a day apart classifying it more as a spree killing since there was no “cooling off” period between murders. Yet Manson is somewhat fixed in the public psyche as a serial killer and his crimes created such a media frenzy and hysteria that this film needs inclusion or else it might seem an omission.
The TV movie is based on District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter. The book’s title refers to what Manson believed to be an impending apocalyptic race war, which he termed Helter Skelter after the Beatles’ song. Manson then orchestrated a series of shocking murders to create panic and to help precipitate the race war he said was coming. Steven Railsback nails the crazy eyes that Manson became known for and the film chronicles the D.A.’s grueling task of prosecuting Manson and finding a way to convict him of crimes that he had convinced others to do. A bit of trivia, according to Wikipedia and IMDb, Martin Scorsese was offered the role of Manson. He kind of does look the part!
10. Jack the Ripper (1976)
Serial killer: Jack the Ripper
Crimes: Suspected of the murder of five and possibly eleven
Tagline: Close your eyes and whisper his name…
Since Jack the Ripper represents the birth of the modern serial killer as we know him (and occasionally her), I need to include at least one film focusing on him. A number of films, however, are only inspired by his true crimes and even the ones that claim to be depicting his life, tend to stray significantly from the facts of this case. But at least this film boasts an amazing, Jekyll-and-Hyde-style performance by Klaus Kinski as the Ripper.
Honorable mentions: The Secret Killer (1965, German serial killer known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf), The Stoneman Murders (2009, Indian serial killer), Young Poisoner’s Handbook (1995, may not qualify as a serial killer because sometimes only credited with three deaths but suspected of many others), See No Evil: The Moors Murders (2006, serial child murderers), Out of the Darkness (1985 TV movie about tracking Son of Sam, David Berkowitz), Summer of Sam (1999, also about Berkowitz), To Catch A Killer (1992, TV movie about John Wayne Gacy), and Dahmer (2002, noteworthy for Jeremy “Hawkeye” Renner playing serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer).