‘Serial Killer Movies’ is an interesting term, because it’s not a cut and dry genre to define, like, say, ‘comedy’ or ‘horror.’ When you hear about a serial killer movie, your mind could go in a few different directions. It could go, first, to a masterful telling of a real-life serial killer, like David Fincher’s Zodiac. It could also go a different direction, to something veering closer to fiction, like John Carpenter’s original Halloween or the campy Friday the 13th. It’s not a real genre, but there are a lot of different interpretations of what a ‘serial killer movie’ can be.
Sometimes you’re looking for that intense mood, maybe based on a true, unsolved story. And sometimes you want to watch a horror villain do his thing. It doesn’t make one less chilling and disturbing, and it doesn’t make others any less fun. These can co-exist, and the nuance between them is part of why we love movies—different projects, and different moods, can look at similar topics and handle them so very differently.
And that’s why we did the heavy lifting for you, and rounded up the best serial killer movies of all time, with some funny, some scary, and some based right here in our own reality.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019)
When it comes to serial killers, Ted Bundy is in a sadistic league of his own, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile takes a harrowing look into how he weaponized his charm to ruin the lives of many women. Zac Efron gives arguably his best performance as Bundy, and his courtroom jousting matches with John Malkovich, who plays trial judge Edward Cowart, are more than enough reasons to watch a film that elucidates the human failings that allowed for Bundy’s lethal delusions of grandeur. –Keith Nelson Jr
This lengthy 2007 has everything you could want in a crime drama: a true story, incredible visuals, and amazing performances from the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. Zodiac features some of the grisliest murder scenes ever, and tells the striking true story of the Zodiac killer, who killed 37 people in the bay area, left hints in the newspaper, and was never brought to justice.
Zodiac is considered by many to be director David Fincher‘s masterpiece, and considering others on his resume—The Social Network, Fight Club, and the next movie on this list—that’s saying quite a lot. If you’re a fan of Mindhunter, which Fincher also plays a big part in making, this is a movie for you.
About a decade before he made Zodiac, David Fincher made Se7en, one of the most disturbing crime movies you’ll ever see. Here, detectives played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman investigate a horrific serial killer who murders using the seven deadly sins as a motive. It’s an absolute essential of the genre, and considering Fincher’s background in directing music videos, the opening sequence—scored by Nine Inch Nails—is fitting.
The Clovehitch Killer (2018)
The Clovehitch Killer disturbingly answers the question no child ever wants to face: What would you do if you discovered your father was a serial killer. Based on the real-life story of serial killer Dennis Rader, known as the BTK Killer, in this slow-burn thriller Tyler Burnside (Charlie Plummer) discovers clues that lead him to believe his father Don (Dylan McDermott) is the man responsible for the deaths of at least ten women in the small town of Clarksville, Kentucky. McDermott finds a frighteningly effective balance between a magnanimous everyman who would be a scout leader and a deranged man who gives in to his darkest impulses of murdering and strangling women. McDermott also physically transformed into the overweight, aged real-life killer, adding a visceral nature to his performance that’ll surely scare anyone who watches. –Keith Nelson Jr
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The three-season drama Hannibal has been quite popular since its June addition to Netflix, but it was 1991’s masterful The Silence of the Lambs that really canonized Dr. Hannibal Lecter as one of the most compelling—and disturbing—characters in the history of crime fiction. Instead of the NBC series’ Will Graham, the movie follows a young FBI trainee named Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who solicits Lecter’s (Anthony Hopkins) help to track down another serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). It’s an absolutely perfect crime thriller, and it’s deeply disturbing. Watch at your own risk, but know that it’s a very, very fun one.
And while they aren’t as good as The Silence of the Lambs—which basically swept the Oscars—it’s worth checking out the other movies in which Hopkins appears as Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal and Red Dragon. Both are disturbing and fun in their own unique ways.
You know that Mads Mikkelsen wasn’t the first one to play Hannibal Lecter, but did you know that Anthony Hopkins wasn’t either? 1986’s Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann, was actually the first movie to tackle the flesh-eating doctor, and he’s played terrifyingly hear by current Succession star Brian Cox, and he’s just as good at playing a killer/cannibal as he is at playing a tyrannic media mogul.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Daniel Craig as the unflappably stoic Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara as the intriguingly irreverent hacker Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s psychological thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo find the odd pairing searching for a possible serial killer behind the 40-year disappearance of Harriet Vagner. Based on the eponymous 2005 novel, it takes the twists and turns from the book and creates a maze of a film for the eyes and minds, presenting nearly every major character with a layer of mystery while addressing traumatic responses to sexual assault with cinematic care. Mara’s performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo created a world that fans have been dying to return to for a proper sequel since it was released in 2011. –Keith Nelson Jr
The Guest is definitively not based on a true story. But it tells a compelling one nonetheless: here, in a star-making performance, Dan Stevens is a mysterious soldier who emerges to tell a family that he knew their late son, who died in combat. Things start off smoothly, but escalate quickly. This movie has got a banging soundtrack, and lots of stylish action that ranges from fun to disturbing. Find this one on Netflix, and you won’t be bored for a minute.
The House That Jack Built (2018)
I’m 99% certain Matt Dillon isn’t capable of being a serial killer. Still, after his uncomfortably convincing performance in The House That Jack Built as serial killer Jack, there’s no way to be 100% sure. The House That Jack Built is part-Dante’s Inferno, part-American Psycho. Dillon’s deplorable character recounts his history of murders in gruesome detail to Verge (Bruno Ganz), Jack’s demonic guide through the nine circles of hell. Fair warning, a lot of The House That Jack Built feels like a museum of gore for director Lars von Trier to explore the strangest ways people can die. Picnics with deceased children and making a wallet out of the severed breast of a victim is the sort of inventive horror that’ll likely never leave your nightmares if you watch The House That Jack Built. –Keith Nelson Jr
Almost by accident, filmmaker Patrick Brice and inescapable star Mark Duplass (Emmy-nominated this year for The Morning Show) have made one of the best horror franchises in recent memory, and with a minimal budget at that. It’s best going into Creep knowing as little as possible, but know this: Duplass is the star, and the movie is basically made in the found-footage/mockumentary style. But Spinal Tap this is not—things get creepy, and filled with tension, and none of these characters are anything of what you think.
An unsolved murder can eat at the souls of detectives, the ones who dedicated their lives to searching for the truth. Director John Lee Hancock’s crime thriller The Little Things turns us into spectators of this decay as former L.A. Sherrif detective Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) tries to atone for his past mistakes by solving a murder he couldn’t years earlier that now is beginning to plague new lead detective Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) with the same consuming regret. Jared Leto plays suspect Albert Sparma with diabolical cunningness that is both unnerving to a detective and irresistibly intriguing to a viewer. He ended up with the film’s only Golden Globe nomination for his supporting role, and the film ended up becoming one of the best serial killer movies in recent memory.-Keith Nelson Jr
Mark Duplass’ character from the first Creep is back, with a new haircut, new beard, and same absolute fucking insanity. Both Creep movies are tight, succinct thrill rides, so just trust us and watch this one when you get a little bit of free time. You might have some nightmares, but you won’t regret watching the movie.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
No matter how many years go by or how many CGI advancements in fear-mongering, Freddy Krueger killing people from their dreams in A Nightmare on Elm Street will always be a benchmark of serial killer movies. Robert Englund’s frighteningly sublime portrayal of Freddy, the ghost of a serial child murderer, may be aided by his famously disfigured face and hand made of blades, but Englund imbues the character with the sinister calm of a killer who knows you’re about to die before you do. There’s a reason this film started an iconic horror film franchise and helped launch the career of a true master of horror in Wes Craven. –Keith Nelson Jr
It’s Quentin Tarantino’s take on a serial killer, so if you’re expecting anything close to traditional….you are expecting wrong. Death Proof, which was released in theaters as the second movie of a double-feature called Grindhouse (with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror) focuses on a serial killer named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who preys on women, aiming to kill them with his indestructible Dodge Challenger. Great music, great visuals, and a great ending make this for one of the best movies on this list overall.
This movie is often overlooked due to its release in the early 2000s, when it seemed like Johnny Depp and Tim Burton were coming out with a project together every couple of weeks. From Hell, based on a graphic novel of the same name from Watchmen writer Alan Moore, is not by Burton, but does star Depp in one of his most interesting roles. This one features him as a master investigator, addicted to opium, mapping out the path of one of the earliest known serial killers: Jack the Ripper.
Octavia Spencer as a middle-aged woman Sue Ann “Ma” Ellington in the psychological thriller Ma proves in devastating detail that appearance is only one layer of a person’s true self. Offer teenagers alcohol and a place to party, and they’ll pretty much follow you to the ends of the earth, and Ma lures a group of high schoolers exactly that before terrorizing their lives in order to deal with her own trauma from high school. One kid’s lips are sewn shut, another kid’s penis is on the verge of being cut from his body, and a dog’s blood is transfused into one of the kid’s parents in a serial killer film for the ages. –Keith Nelson Jr
Summer of Sam is another movie focused on a real-life serial killer you’ve certainly heard of: David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam. Only Summer of Sam isn’t a biopic of Berkowitz—instead it focuses on a New York City summer, with residents of an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx living in fear as Berkowitz continues killing. John Leguizamo and Adrien Brody are among the lead cast members.
This is one of Spike Lee‘s most underrated films, and once again shows his talent for being able to step in and handle just about any genre.
To be honest, there’s a chance that essentially none of the movies on this list would even exist if it weren’t for Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller is the definitive model for what would eventually become a serial killer movie or a slasher movie. Not only is it artful and legitimately full of tension, but it just plain old holds up. Even at 60 years old, Psycho will have you on the very edge of your seat. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is a legendary performance.
Badlands isn’t just one of the great serial killer movies, but one of the greatest films of all time. The debut from director Terrence Malick, this story of a 25-year-old (Martin Sheen) and a 15-year-old (Sissy Spacek) who go on to become serial killers is based on the real-life 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Carli Ann Fugate. Sheen and Spacek’s performances as the self-absorbed yount are legendary, and Malick’s debut set the tone for his eccentric, one-of-a-kind career that continues to this day.
It’s not exaggerating to say that Christian Bale is, fairly objectively, one of the greatest actors of his (our) generation. The man delivers classic after classic, and for a stretch was willing to put his body through anything for a role. And while we’re forever impressed by what he did in The Machinist and The Dark Knight and Vice, it’s his role as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho that’s truly unforgettable. As the poster boy for privilege and toxic masculinity, this movie holds up even better now than the first time you saw it. And if you haven’t seen it, get ready for a lot of blood, some laughs, and…some really great Huey Lewis.
The beginning of a looong road kicked off with 2004’s low-budget Saw, which really existed in a bubble. The basic premise here is that a couple guys are locked up, booby trapped, and don’t know how to get out. There were many Saw movies—and there was going to be a Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson-starring reboot called Spiral this year, but then COVID happened—but this one has the best twist, and hits the very hardest.
My Friend Dahmer is one of the most unique films on this list. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the movie tells the story of writer Derf Backderf’s real youth, where one of his classmates was the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer—of course, before he was a killer.
My Friend Dahmer, thus, looks at the road that brought him to eventually commit his infamous crimes; Dahmer killed 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, and many of those crimes involved cannibalism and necrophelia. This movie tries to explain how he got there.
Director Michael Haneke liked his movie Funny Games so much that he made it twice—literally. The 2007 version, starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt, is a shot-for-shot remake of the 1997 Austrian film; Haneke directed them both. In a way, Funny Games is a bit of a precursor to The Purge movies, minus the gimmick: the hook is that two psychopaths arrive at a family’s house and terrorize them with sadistic “games.” One of the more deranged entries on this list.
These days, between The Old Guard, Atomic Blonde, and Mad Max: Fury Road, everyone loves Charlize Theron in action hero mode. But it can’t be overlooked how damn good she is in drama mode, and while her most recent Oscar nomination came for Bombshell, she’s never been better than when playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
Theron looks identical here to the real Wuornos, who was charged with killing seven men (and convicted of killing six of them). Director Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Theron make the choice to make Wuornos a full-fleshed out character, rather than what she could be in less talented hands.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a cult favorite and extremely intense film loosely based on the real life serial killer Henry Ray Lucas, who allegedly killed hundreds of people. With Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Walking Dead) in the lead role, this movie is well-known for its ‘X’ rating upon release, due to its intense and graphic content surrounding the main character’s murders.
The Snowtown Murders (2011)
This movie is also based on a true story, that of three Australian murderers who were caught for infamous crimes that were uncovered when missing bodies were found deceased and stuffed in barrels. Another disturbing film, this also touches on themes of class, addiction, and domestic violence and brutality.
Memories of Murder (2003)
You know director Bong Joon-Ho for what he did in 2019, making a little movie called Parasite and basically cleaning up at the Oscars, winning Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Feature, and Best Picture. But before Parasite, and before his other films like Snowpiercer, Okja, Mother! and The Host, Bong made Memories of Murder, which is about the first serial killer in Korea. Quentin Tarantino once said Memories of Murder (and The Host) were “masterpieces.”This also co-stars Kang-Ho Song, who played Kim Ki-taek, or the dad, in Parasite.
Well, we had to include this one. Jamie Lee Curtis is the greatest scream queen of all time, and if we were listing villains, her foe Michael Myers would have to be up there as well. This lumbering psychopath wreaks havoc throughout every Halloween movie in his William Shatner mask, but there’s something about the first movie that leaves a pit in your stomach, whether it’s your first time watching or your 18th.
Scream has one of the greatest scream queens of all time in Neve Campbell, and is itself a very funny horror movie, but we can’t beat around the bush, either: Ghostface is very much a serial killer, albeit one quite self-aware of horror movie tropes. As funny as Scream is (and all of its sequels and spinoffs), what holds it together is the fact that despite the presence of all the humor and self-referential metatext, these movies are still damn scary. And pulling all of that off at once, with a chilling villain, is very impressive.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has seen sequels, spinoffs, reboots—the works. But now and forever, the best movie to deal with the legend of Leatherface is the O.G. from 1974. You know the story: a group of over-eager teens go on a weekend trip, and run into a gang of cannibals and eventually have to escape from a homicidal maniac called Leatherface. The movie is very loosely based on the real life murders of Ed Gein, though the majority of the film’s plot is fictionalized.
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