Tom Jolliffe offers up 10 essential serial killer films…
Cinema has long had a fascination with the macabre. The serial killer film has been a staple since the silent period with films tending to cross between an array of genre, most notably drama, thriller and horror (and in more recent cinematic history, black comedy). There have been so many classic and iconic serial killer films that boiling it down to 10 is tough, but here is a hopefully eclectic selection of the essential serial killer films:
This wouldn’t be the last time David Fincher delivered a gripping serial killer film, with Zodiac coming more recently, but Se7en, his breakout film (coming a couple of years after the frustrating Alien 3) is still one of the best serial killer films of the last 30 years. A simple idea, sees a serial killer offing victims based on the seven deadly sins. The film was renowned for its dark and gruesome tone. There are grim moments which really get under your skin (one victim left to slowly starve and found ‘dead’ ends up still alive). The intricacy of the plot coming toward the final couple of sins is also brilliantly done and Se7en has become absolutely iconic, for as little as Brad Pitt’s immortal ‘what’s in the box’ line. The cast is exceptional, headed well by Brad Pitt and the inimitable Morgan Freeman. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey’s skin crawling cameo was great.
From Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira), a director who has become synonymous with horror (his most iconic work probably remains Pulse, though it’s not his best), comes this really atmospheric and unique serial killer film. It’s a slow burning, unsettling and increasingly philosophical film with our central cop looking into a string of killings with unconnected victims and the suspects having been found at the scene and confessed. The more he delves into it, the more he begins to suspect that there’s a darker and disturbing reason for these murders (where the victims have been cut with the same X mark post mortem). From the audiences point of view we start to see a mysterious man seemingly suffering amnesia, known only as Mr Mamiya, engaging with the killers shortly before they kill (spouses or random victims). With every further encounter with Mamiya we see more and it becomes evident some form of hypnotism is involved. Once Detectice Takabe suspects hypnotism as a possible reasoning and discovers his chief suspect, he begins investigating and increasingly allows Mamiya to get under his skin. It’s a great looking film with visuals very reminiscent of Se7en, but focused on a darker, grittier side of Tokyo.
So it really is a toss up with your choice of Hannibal Lector/Lektor film and Silence of the Lambs could easily be here (and it is indeed essential) but Manhunter makes the cut. There’s just elements of this film that are even more fascinating, particularly the intense psychology. It’s less theatrical that’s for sure, but that said Lambs certainly has that psychological element too. Brian Cox has a charismatic and less overtly intense portrayal of Lektor than Hopkins (who from his very intro is quite clearly and firmly aiming to get under the skin). With Cox’s portrayal, it’s a more restrained calculation, and very effective in a different way. However, the most interest lies in Will Graham’s struggle to keep a grip on his sanity (having previously suffered a breakdown in the wake of arresting Lektor) and in the villain of the piece, the ‘Tooth Fairy’ played by Tom Noonan. Noonan is really unsettling. It’s a skin crawling turn and a role which he threatens to bring a vulnerability to. It’s one of the great (and most underappreciated) villain performances, thoroughly complex and Noonan’s turn should be talked about as one of the greats. Michael Mann’s visual style also adds an amazing gloss to the film, as well as his fascinating attention to detail in the procedural side of the investigations and forensics work.
This complex and interesting film was stylistically audacious and so ahead of its time, that it essentially killed the career of director Michael Powell (the film was greeted with some controversy and negative reviews/box office). Peeping Tom pits the audience into the point of view of the killer. Our protagonist isn’t a trailing police officer, we’re following the killer on his spree, but he’s a complicated individual who has a level of sympathy and a clearly traumatic past. The first person sequences, as Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) stalks and kills his victims (whilst filming their dying moments) are creepy (and were contentious). There were a number of great Western European cinematographers who came over to Britain and the US in the 50’s-70’s and Otto Heller’s work here offers a unique view of London. It’s beautifully shot.
Terrence Malick’s iconic, poetic and enthralling coming of age film about a high school girl (Sissy Spacek) running away with a local ne’er-do-well (Martin Sheen) has inspired countless films since. It’s a drifting, listless but oddly beautiful tale as the two youngsters end up on a killing spree. The film drifts toward its inevitable outcome, and there’s a strange blasé attitude from Holly and Kit about taking the lives they do. It’s almost a Twain-esque jaunt across the south Dakota badlands. This is the kind of cinema that only someone like Malick could pull off and it’s as lithe and concise a film as he’s ever made. Alongside his follow up, Days of Heaven, this remains his most accessible work.
In Order of Disappearance
Let’s throw something Nordic into the mix. A cinematic region which consistently delivers brilliantly stark, cold and atmospheric thrillers. This Norwegian entry pits legendary Swedish actor, Stellan Skarsgard as a town hero (and quintessential immigrant-done-good example) against local gangsters. Nils, a snow plough driver, who keeps the roads moving during unseasonal winters is citizen of the year, universally respected in his town. When his son turns up dead, of an apparent heroin overdose, Nils is adamant something is amiss. He begins looking deeper into what happened, discovering that his son was murdered. He works his way up a chain of cronies to a local gangster head, killing them one by one. The film has a darkly, bittersweet comic pinch alongside the beautiful wintry visuals and all anchored by expert direction from Hans Petter Moland (who also directed the Hollywood remake, Cold Pursuit, with Liam Neeson) and a typically brilliant performance from Skarsgard who is an exceptional and vastly underappreciated character actor.
A gem of 80’s B movie horror that’s also far better than it might get given credit for. With a dash of an almost Coen-esque irreverence, mixed with an odd feeling of an existential fairy tale, The Hitcher beautifully blends horror, thrills and action. It’s a film that belies its genre and budget with it’s perfectionist visuals (thanks to director Robert Harmon and DP, John Seale). Again, like a combo of Coens and Roger Deakins, this has a similarly evocative visual scope, wonderfully capturing the stark, remote locations of never-ending dust, dirt and highway. Throw in storm clouds, beautifully lit night scenes and interiors, precise tracking and dolly shots, and it’s really a stunningly shot film that you rarely see from a film often described as a video nasty. C Thomas Howell who finds himself on a quest to survive being hunted across the highways by a mysterious killer is excellent. His arc through the film is brilliantly portrayed. Jennifer Jason Leigh also appears and is never not brilliant. However, it’s the late and majestic Rutger Hauer who steals the film as the titular hitcher. He’s unpredictable, playful, charismatic, but intense and unnerving. Only an actor this great could make a villain like this move from conventional, to exceptional.
With Korean cinema riding a wave of popularity thanks to Bong Joon-Ho, I’ll throw in an entry from the nation. I’ve yet to see Joon-Ho’s acclaimed Memories of Murder which undoubtedly I’ll love enough to have included, but for now, here’s an enjoyable blending of elements that Korean film is so good at. An expert cocktail of drama, comedy and thrills, The Chase is an enjoyable serial killer film where a cantankerous landlord begins looking into the death of one of his residents, and a subsequent disappearance of another. He’s aided along the way by an ex police officer, until it becomes apparent the ex lawman is suffering from dementia. The haphazard personal investigation also coincides with Sim-Deok Soo (Yun-Shik Baek) beginning to soften and recapture his long lost humility. As you’d expect from Korean film, there’s some nice unexpected turns along the way in this enjoyable thriller.
“I have to return some video tapes.” A film that has become a huge cult favourite in the 20 years since its release, American Psycho is a brilliant melding of black humour and psychological horror. Mary Harron’s film, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel is endlessly quotable and made completely memorable by an electrifying central performance from Christian Bale. He’s brilliantly unhinged and withdrawn of any semblance of empathy and humanity as we see him begin to lose his concept of reality. Everything in the film is left with a question mark as far as its reality. The beauty of American Psycho is we can read it in a number of ways, and under all the murder and killer soundtrack is a wry and cutting dissection of 80’s corporate greed and wall street ego.
We need some Giallo I think to round off the 10 selections, and Deep Red is most certainly an essential serial killer film. Master of the genre, Dario Argento crafts a typically dazzling cut of visual eye candy, melded with prog rock music (courtesy of Goblin) and an engrossing detective story as immigrant musician Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) witnesses a woman getting murdered whilst working in Italy. He joins forces with a journalist (Daria Nicolodi) in trying to find out the identity of the killer. This is a classic giallo with tension, horror and colourful visuals with some really memorable moments embellished with the kind of flair only Dario Argento could have produced in his pomp.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/