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Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Photograph: Greycat FilmsHenry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

The 31 best serial killer movies

Hack, slash and chop your way through the very best films about the very worst of humanity

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Matthew Singer
Contributor
Phil de Semlyen
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Serial killer movies are the dark heart of the crime genre. Unlike true-crime podcasts or the written word, the crimes themselves – often executed with a degree of preparation usually reserved for much more joyous occasions, and invariably gory – need to be visualised. This can (and does) make for a troubling viewing experience, but also gives filmmakers the chance to pose tough questions of society's failings and our own voyeuristic urges.

Since Fritz Lang ended M with a kangaroo court passing sentence on Peter Lorre's killer, serial killer films have come in all shapes and sizes: from the procedural mysteries of David Fincher's Zodiac to the co-opted horror tropes of Silence of the Lambs, via the giallo nastiness of Tenebrae. Some are straight-up exploitative (we've avoided those), others are provocative and shocking (they're here). Hopefully, some on this list will be new to you – others may have left bloodstains on your subconscious. Here’s 31 of the very best films about the very worst of humanity. 

Recommended:

🔪 The best true-crime documentaries on Netflix in the US
💣 The 100 best thrillers of all time
😱 The 100 best horror movies of all time
🕵️ The 40 best murder-mystery movies

Best Serial Killer Movies

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What’s left to say about Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece that hasn’t already been said a dozen times over? It’s the movie that cut the ribbon – via a downward slashing motion – on 1960s filmmaking, breaking damn near every established taboo of the previous decades, from violence to sex, to plotting, to showing a toilet in use. It helped invent the slasher flick, anticipated the splatter film and elevated horror to high art. It’s spawned innumerable imitators and parodies, some subpar sequels, a TV spinoff, a biopic, a documentary and a shot-for-shot remake. If there’s anything ‘new’ to say about Psycho, perhaps it’s that the movie’s far-reaching impact has come to obscure the Anthony Perkins performance at the centre – it’s impossible to imagine anyone else as Norman Bates, and the film casting such a long shadow without him.     

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Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winner isn’t the first screen appearance of the erudite cannibal Hannibal Lecter, but it’s the one that haunts the popular consciousness most, thanks to Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant turn as a psychiatrist-cum-psychopath who knows a nice Chianti pairs best with human liver. He’s not the only sicko in Silence of the Lambs – the other is Buffalo Bill, who prefers to skin his victims and wear them as a mask. But it’s a bit of a T-rex versus velociraptor situation. In this case, Lecter is the apex predator, even while (mostly) incarcerated. 

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The Night of the Hunter (1955)
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Another reminder never to trust a guy who writes on his knuckles, Charles Laughton’s spiritually-charged exercise in unease has Robert Mitchum’s travelling preacher taking a very loose interpretation of the whole ‘thou shalt not kill’ thing. He preys on vulnerable widows – and their young offspring – in pursuit of an ill-gotten windfall, a modus operandi borrowed from real-life serial killer Harry Powers. The name is tweaked slightly (to ‘Harry Powell’) but the motivation and method remain to infuse this masterpiece with a dreadful undercoat of reality. It’s shot majestically in black and white by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, but you still sense the red of spilt blood in the frame. 

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)
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Even the most dour and gruesome slasher flicks end up, if not glorifying violent crime, then playing it for transgressive thrills. Not here. Inspired by the confessed killer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry indeed paints a portrait of psychopathy so brutal, unflinching and detached from the typical Hollywood portrayal that for years, no distributor would touch it. (It was initially saddled with an X rating from the MPAA.) Shot in an up-close and way-too-personal style, there’s nary a shred of cinematic artifice anywhere, least of all in the performances: Michael Rooker is meat-locker-cold in the title role, but he’s the moral compass compared to his buddy Otis (Tom Towles), who has to be physically restrained from defiling corpses and raping his sister. Why recommend it? Because it’ll make you feel something few films do – even if that feeling is nausea.

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  • Film
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German auteur Fritz Lang’s first talkie invented the police procedural, the psychological thriller and the film noir, but its most enduring element might be its sense of moral ambiguity. Against the backdrop of an Expressionist nightmare vision of Berlin, a young girl is killed, a deed suggested only via shadows and a single untethered balloon. It sends shockwaves through the city and its criminal underworld, which would rather not have the heat a child murderer on the loose brings to their ranks. The audience already knows who did it – sad-eyed Peter Lorre – but as both the criminals and the police close in on him, Lang dares to ask: in a sick society, is a child killer really any worse than the lynch mob that convicts him?

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Populist horror movies were considered dead and buried in the late ’90s before who else but Wes Craven brought them screeching back to the multiplex – and he did largely by making fun of the ‘dead teenager’ flicks he took part in promulgating the decade before. Scream is, of course, a meta-commentary on slasher film cliches, but it's a tremendous slasher film on its own – the opening scene alone is one of the best in the genre’s entire history – and two decades of bad sequels haven’t diluted its place in pop culture. Every year, somebody will show up at a Halloween party wearing that iconic hooded ghost mask, and you’ll never not feel a little uncomfortable about it.

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The Vanishing (1988)
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Dutch director George Sluizer’s psychological thriller is maybe the most bloodless modern entry on this list, but it might be the most purely terrifying. It’s certainly the most crazy-making. While on a road trip through the French countryside, a young man’s girlfriend disappears from a rest stop without a trace. The mystery is still gnawing at him years later. He’s consumed less by the hope of finding her alive than simply getting confirmation of what happened to her. Spoiling the answer is one of cinema’s unforgivable sins. (Yeah, it’s on a Best Serial Killer Movies list, but that doesn’t reveal much of anything.) Let’s just say the claustrophobic might want to have a paper bag ready.

Halloween (1978)
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  • Horror

He couldn’t enter your dreams like Freddy Krueger and he never went into space like Jason Voorhees, but against all odds, Michael Meyers has turned out to be the most enduring screen monster of the past 40 years. That probably has to do with the fact that, even through endless sequels and reboots, we still don’t know much about him. All we know is that he’s as big as an NBA power forward, his favourite accessory is a William Shatner mask, and goddamnit, he’s gonna kill Jamie Lee Curtis if it’s the last thing he does. That somewhat blank void has allowed a lot of directors, from Rob Zombie to David Gordon Green, to take their shots at colouring in the margins. But John Carpenter’s lean, mean, largely bloodless original will always be the best. 

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Seven (1995)
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A man who knows his way around a crime scene, David Fincher’s neo-noir invented a new visual shorthand for the crime flick. The darkness playing out on screen is reinforced by the rain-drenched, moody metropolis that detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) scour for clues in a byzantine, gory case that begins to eat away at them both. Everything here is anonymous, from the biblically-inspired killer, who goes by ‘John Doe’, to the unnamed city itself, allowing us to project all manner of horrors onto a movie that really isn’t short of them. 

Black Christmas (1974)
Warner Brothers

10. Black Christmas (1974)

Before A Christmas Story started airing on an endless loop on cable television every December, Bob Clark directed a different holiday story entirely. In this one, a group of sorority sisters on winter break are picked off one by one by an unseen killer. It sounds generic, but only because a million other low-budget slasher flicks – including Halloween, which didn’t arrive for four more years – borrowed its template. Even diluted by decades of imitation, Clark brings a tight efficiency to a simple story, and manages to include some shocks that still sneak up on you.

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  • Film
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Some would argue that this knotty crime thriller is Bong Joon-ho’s best film to date – despite the exceptionally stiff competition. Many serial-killer films zero in on the gory murders themselves, bathing in the bloodshed and satisfying our less-than-noble instinct to rubberneck. Not Bong’s. Instead, he shows how ill-equipped Korea’s divided society is to deal with the chaos caused by the crimes. The flailing attempts to solve them by a doofus cop and his slicker big-city partner lay bare a deeper, and sadder, malaise to go with the expertly-handled shocks.

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Is Ed Gein the most impactful murderous sociopath on modern cinema? His brutal crimes formed the basis of both Psycho and, a decade-plus later, an altogether different movie about a very disturbed mama’s boy. Tobe Hooper’s foundational cult classic codified the tropes for the tsunami of cheap, straight-to-video horror flicks that would arrive in the coming decade. But watching it now, the most striking thing about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is its restraint. It’s an odd thing to say about a movie centred around a chainsaw-wielding monster who wears a mask made out of a woman’s skin, but it’s really a triumph of the ‘less is more’ filmmaking philosophy.

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Zodiac (2007)
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  • Drama

Unlike Seven’s kills, which were spawned by nothing more concrete than screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s imagination, Zodiac takes inspiration from real events: specifically, San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer, now a notorious cold case, who kills his way around the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’60s. That element of reconstruction, albeit stylishly rendered via David Fincher’s lens, makes the slayings all the more chilling (the Lake Berryessa Murders scene remains scream-emoji harrowing to sit through). You can still feel Zodiac’s fingerprints all over The Batman – among many other lesser films. 

Peeping Tom (1959)
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Psycho gets more credit for creating the slasher genre, but director Michael Powell beat Hitchcock to many of the same themes, and nearly ruined his career in the process. His tale of a disturbed photographer who kills his victims – all women – with a knife attached to his tripod in order to capture their dying moments caused an uproar amongst critics and audiences. Decades on, Peeping Tom is now considered a trailblazing masterpiece of psychological horror. And while it’s not nearly as clever and artful as Psycho, Hitchcock probably has Powell to thank for acclimating audiences to new levels of onscreen transgressions, if only by a few months. 

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Badlands (1973)
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The Charles Starkweather murders loom large in the American mythos – Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about them, and Oliver Stone used them as the basis for his hyper-violent spectacle Natural Born Killers. Terrence Malick’s first movie is also loosely based on the killing spree the teenage Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, embarked upon in 1958, splattering blood across the American heartland. But, in true Malick fashion, he takes a far more hypnotic approach than Stone’s loud and aggressively stylised vision two decades later – but it’s no less unsettling.  

10 Rillington Place (1971)
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Richard Fleischer’s account of real-life serial killer John Christie, who terrorised London in the ’40s and ’50s, is often overlooked on list of great true crime movies, but it’s a truly gripping forgotten gem, anchored by a tremendously unnerving performance from Richard Attenborough as the quintessential ‘quiet neighbour with a dark secret’.

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  • Film
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Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical novel is thought of as a quintessential ‘film-bro’ flick, but it’s really a feminist sendup of male vanity. No matter how you choose to read it, though, Christian Bale is pretty much perfect as Patrick Bateman, a narcissistic, emotionless, Huey Lewis-loving yuppie who blows off steam from his vapid Wall Street job by killing and mutilating strangers and colleagues alike.

I Saw The Devil (2010)
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  • Horror

An unusual genre mash – part-police procedural, part-horror film, all mindfuck – Kim Jee-woon’s Korean psychofest takes that traditionally blurry line between cop and criminal, erases it altogether and just sets the two on a rampage of revenge, fury and the odd surprise guillotining. Bloodlust is the order of the day as Lee Byung-hun’s detective locates and tortures the serial killer who killed his pregnant fiancée, but lets him live to prolong the payback. That killer is played with suitable iciness by Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik, who, of course, has previous experience in this kind murky terrain. He’s not swallowing any live octopuses this time, but he does cop a fire extinguisher in the face. 

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  • Film

Arriving long before the proliferation of reality television and the true crime renaissance, this unique Belgian production interrogated audience voyeurism and desensitisation via a mockumentary about a charming serial killer named Ben. He allows a film crew to follow him as he commits unspeakable acts of violence against women, children and immigrants. As he draws the crew out from behind the cameras, they become increasingly complicit in his crimes – and so does everyone watching.  

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)
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Alfred Hitchcock officially arrived with his fourth silent film, based on the search for Jack the Ripper. Matinee idol Ivor Novello plays the titular London boarding house resident, who, through bad timing and worse luck, is fingered as the perpetrator in a series of recent murders. Many Hitchcock staples originated here. A wrongly accused man? Check. A bunch of dead blonde women? Check. A cameo from the man himself? Check. But The Lodger isn’t just a prologue to a career that would grow more storied in the decades to come, but a truly thrilling entry within it.

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Snowtown (2011)
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  • Drama

A dramatised account of a murder spree that originated in a poor Australian suburb in the 1990s, Snowtown exists alongside Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a movie that successfully tear downs the fourth wall of audience passivity toward unspeakable violence. Given palpable realism by first-time director Justin Kurzel, it spares no details in recounting the real story of an abused teenager ‘mentored’ by a maniac after helping scare his mother’s paedophile boyfriend out of the neighbourhood. It’s not ‘entertaining’ per se – some critics referred to it as a glorified snuff film - but it is undeniably compelling… if you can stomach it. 

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A deviation from Frank Capra’s wholesome heartwarmers, this classic adaptation of the Joseph Kesselring jet-black comedy about two kindly old sisters who enjoy poisoning bachelors is nonetheless among his best. Shot quick and cheap before Capra deployed to serve in World War II, it’s charged by manic performances from Raymond Massey as the sisters’ nephew with a homicidal streak of his own, John Alexander as another family member who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, and especially Cary Grant as a drama critic gradually realising that his family might be nuts.

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Monster (2003)
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When most preternaturally luminous actors are described as having ‘glammed down’ for roles, it usually just means they wear a little less makeup. But Charlize Theron in Monster is one of the very few instances where you can describe a movie star as unrecognisable and it’s really true. Theron transformed herself to play Aileen Wuornos, a real-life sex worker who took to killing and robbing her johns, but she didn’t just physically disappear into the role – she makes Wuornos both incredibly frightening and deeply sympathetic. Her sweep of the Best Actress awards that year was well earned.

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Less a psychological thriller than an example of philosophical horror, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s slow-burner follows a detective puzzled by a string of odd, seemingly disconnected murders. In each instance, the culprit is apprehended at the scene of crime, but has no memory of committing the act, nor any obvious motive. Admittedly, it’s a movie that might try some viewers’ patience: Kurosawa is more concerned with atmosphere and big questions than linear storytelling and easy answers. But stick with it, and it’s a film you’ll find yourself pondering long after it’s over.

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Controversial upon arrival, William Friedkin’s thriller starring Al Pacino as a cop hunting a killer preying on New York’s S&M underground was met with protest from gay rights groups and critics alike. But, hey, that’s Friedkin for you. He’s a provocateur par excellence, and while it’s hard to argue that time has softened its presentation of the queer community at all, its hallucinatory tone, along with Pacino’s coming-undone performance, make it undeniably captivating. 

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A serial killer movie in the Zodiac vein, this Spike Lee joint uses the Son of Sam murders as a backdrop to show how a shared trauma impacts a city and its citizens. An ensemble cast, including Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito, portray neighbours in an Italian-American section of Brooklyn in the late 1970s during the summer David Berkowitz paralyzed New York with a string of gruesome murders. As fear spreads and heat rises, tensions flare among the residents, making this something of an odd, unofficial sequel to Do the Right Thing.  

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  • Film
  • Horror

An American novelist promoting his new book in Rome is taunted by an obsessed killer who seems to be using his work as a guide. That fairly standard murder mystery setup is a springboard for giallo godhead Dario Argento to stage some shockingly brutal deaths that are nonetheless stunning in their execution, most notably one in which a woman’s arm is hacked off with an axe, painting the walls of her stark-white kitchen red with an almost comical amount of arterial spray.

Freaky (2020)
Universal

28. Freaky (2020)

In this brilliantly twisted take on the ‘swapped bodies’ comedy, Vince Vaughn plays a mass murderer whose deranged consciousness magically gets transferred to a teenage girl (Kathryn Newton) – and vice versa. It’s hard to believe it took so long for someone to come up with this idea, and director Christopher Landon makes good on the premise, delivering a movie as hilarious as it is bloody.

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  • Film
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What’s scarier than Brian Cox playing an amoral media magnate on Succession? How about Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter? Although overshadowed by Anthony Hopkins’ later turn, Cox brings his own kind of slithering menace to the role of cinema’s most famous ultra-intelligent cannibal. Michael Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel bombed at the box office, but after the success of Silence of the Lambs, it’s been reappraised as a taut and stylish thriller, as well as a fine introduction to one of the movies’ best villains. Fifteen years later, Manhunter was remade with Hopkins, using the original title of Harris’s book, Red Dragon.

Frenzy (1971)
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Late-period Hitchcock is a mixed bag, but the director’s second-to-last film finds the master of suspense firmly back in his wheelhouse. (And also back in Britain for the first time in a decade.) After his wife falls victim to a serial killer known as the Necktie Murderer, a former Royal Air Force officer is implicated in the crime and forced to go on the run while trying to clear his name, and avoid the real killer, who might be closer to him than he expects. 

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
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  • Drama

A sort of olfactory twist on Soylent Green, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) fashioned this beautifully weird costume thriller about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a genius perfumer in 18th century France, from Patrick Süskind’s bestselling novel. Consumed by the notion of bottling the female scent, he resorts to murdering young women in order to distill their essence. However shaky the story, Tykwer makes up for with astoundingly sumptuous cinematography and some truly eye-popping moments, including a climatic scene in which Grenouille is overwhelmed by a crowd that believes him to be an angel. Told you it’s weird.   

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