Next up on my celebration of horror movies via top 10 lists is another real-life threat, but one more sinister than snakes or spiders – serial killers. It’s not the happiest of subject matters, but it does make for some great stories to tell. Whether they’re based on real life instances or completely fictional, there’s a great overarching threat of a character intend on killing not just one, but multiple – and occasionally vast numbers – of people.
It could be for good – maybe the people they’re killing are even more evil – for bad, or for the sake of random craziness, but however you slice it, the serial killer will remain a great villain in cinema. And the fact that it’s usually just another person – as all the entries on this list are – without any kind of supernatural powers or abilities makes them potentially all the more scary, because you could just walk down the street and never even know it’s them. You walk past Freddy Kreuger and you know something’s up. But Mark from Peeping Tom? Why, he’s just another guy with a camera, who’s he gonna hurt?
Oh, and bounty hunters like Anton Chigurh don’t count. He’s on a mission to kill one person, and anyone that gets in his way is just collateral damage. And this isn’t a list of my favourite movie serial killers – I’m not sure how I’d rank how much I like them – this is based purely on the movies they’re in. There’s also quite a few that didn’t make the list, purely because I haven’t seen them yet. Films like Night of the Hunter (which I should be getting to soon, hopefully), The Killer Inside Me (I want to read the book first) and Hitchcock’s Frenzy. Also, no documentaries, just because. And the few that I can’t actually remember very much about but do intend to catch up on include Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Natural Born Killers and the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which I’ll be getting to shortly too).
Honourable mention: Funny Games
Even with the exceptions mentioned above, there’s still so many possibilities for the honourable mention slot. Had it been based on my original viewing, then Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd would definitely be included as I loved that in the cinema, but am subsequently lukewarm on it from later viewings, and now I prefer the small segment from Jersey Girl instead. Identity was a close contender, but that’s a film with a lot of flaws, whereas Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is just downright brilliant. I’ll hold my hands up to only having seen the remake, but I do own the original and just haven’t gotten to it yet, so watch this space for an update there. The killers here – Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet – are chillingly charming, and whilst we don’t witness very many deaths by their hands, they have presumably murdered many more, and will continue to do so for as long as they can.
Director Ben Wheatley is rapidly carving out a niche for himself by making very dark, low budget yet well crafted films who not only come in with insanely short filming schedules, but that seem to revel in how low-tech they are Sightseers is such a film, chronicling the caravan holiday of Chris and Tina (Steve Oram and Alice Lowe) as they journey around the lesser known tourist attractions of the Lake District, whilst slowly leaving a pile of unsuspecting bodies in their wake. It’s kind of like a UK version of God Bless America, as the corpses left behind belong to the kinds of people you mutter under your breath at when they litter or self-righteously interrupt your day.
9. Man Bites Dog
Man Bites Dog was I think the first film from the 1001 list that I watched knowing nothing about, and came away loving. It’s a Belgian black and white found-footage mock-documentary following an enigmatic serial killer (Benoît Poelvoorde) as he goes about his daily life, killing people. The genius of the film comes when the camera crew following not only refrain from stopping the killings, but eventually assist in them. I very much look forward to revisiting this pitch black comedy.
By all rights M should be higher, but it’s been a while since I’ve watched it that I can’t justify putting it above here. What I can remember though is wonderful, as a child-snatching killer (Peter Lorre) is sought after not just by the police, but by the criminal underworld too, as the hunt for him has caused their own actions to be scrutinised more thoroughly. The scene cutting between the town and the criminals having their various meetings is inspired. This is in dire need of a re-watch, and it shall be receiving that soon.
7. American Psycho
Another film that it’s been far too long since I last saw, American Psycho is another blackly comedic satire (noticing a theme here?) following Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) as he murders his way through various people in his life, all the while trying to book a table at the Dorsia, returning videotapes and admiring the business cards of his peers. Bale’s performance is brilliant, and apparently it’s his realisation that the whole thing was a comedy was what initially drew director Mary Harron to casting him.
An underrated David Fincher film if ever there was one, Zodiac may have an unsatisfying ending, but then so does life sometimes. Resplendent with an epic cast including Robert Downey Jr, Jake Gyllenhall, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Chloe Sevigny, Philip Baker Hall, Adam Goldberg and Clea Duvall, the film is beautifully shot, creates a great sense of the era and has some incredibly tense sequences – Gyllenhall in the basement is downright terrifying.
There had to be at least one honest-to-goodness slasher film on here, and seeing as most of them involve immortal or otherwise fantastical killers, I’m left with pretty much just the various Ghostfaces from the Scream franchise. However, even if the likes of Halloween, Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street were eligible, I’d still pick Scream, because I’m not a huge fan of the others (although admittedly I can barely remember Halloween, and I’ve not actually seen Friday the 13th yet). I quite like all of the films in the Scream series, but the first two are particularly great, mainly for the fresh self-referential spin they put on slasher films.
4. The Silence of the Lambs
You get two serial killers for the price of one in Jonathan Demme’s thriller, with Ted Levine’s lotion-rubbing Buffalo Bill and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. There is so much to appreciate about this film, not least of which are the wonderful performances – as much praise as Hopkins and Jodie Foster get, Levine is so damn unsettling – and the editing in the climax is phenomenal.
3. Hot Fuzz
Spoiler alert, Timothy Dalton’s the killer. Well, one of them anyway. Directed by Edgar Wright, of course this is going to be wonderful, and it’s so funny that you can forget the central plot involves various people within the small village of Sandford being killed in a myriad of horrific ways, from garden shears to the neck to a church roof to the temple. I’m not certain just how many deaths Dalton’s Simon Skinner is responsible for, but judging by the number of bodies Angel (Simon Pegg) finds, I’m guessing it’s at least enough to call him a serial killer.
I think Psycho‘s Norman Bates may have the smallest body count of those on the list, but then we don’t really know how many people he (and his mother) killed before the film begins, and unless I start hearing some really good things about it I don’t think I’ll be checking out Bates Motel any time soon. The few deaths we do see are all superbly choreographed. There’s of course the infamous shower murder, but the staircase sequence is innovative for its time too, especially in terms of camerawork.
Damn do I love Seven. I’m pretty sure it’s in my top 10 films of all time. It’s got so much going for it – the A-list buddy cop partnership of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, horrific deaths (of which we only ever see the aftermath), a terrifically gruesome opening credit sequence, R. Lee Ermey as the most belligerent police chief ever, and of course the introduction of the killer, John Doe, as shown above. His strolling into the police station, splattered with the blood of his latest victim, bellowing “Detective!” at the top of his voice. Damn it’s good. And that ending. Still gives me chills.