Happy Halloween Filmophilia Fans! It’s that time of year when tricks and treats are on the mind and the leaves have begun to fall. For years this has been the month where we are typically treated to another delicious blast of torture porn, often through the masterful storytelling artistry of the Saw franchise, or the inimitable directorial hand of Eli Roth (one of the great filmmakers to emerge in the 2000′s). While not directly related to Halloween, the serial killer film, hell, genre at this point, is a topical subject to be discussed as Halloween approaches. These films focus on the macabre, the ghoulish, and individuals who really do go “bump in the night,” and despite the genre’s generally lurid subject matter there have been several serial killer-centric films over the last few decades that stand as some of the greatest pieces of cinema ever made. So, let us plunge into the heart of darkness! This is Top Ten: Serial Killer Films.
10. Monster – 2003
Anchored by what Roger Ebert hyperbolically referred to as “… one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.” Patty Jenkins‘ adaptation of the life of serial killer Aileen Wuornos is a powerful if somewhat redundant look at a rather unusual entry into the annals of American serial killer history. The film occasionally flirts with crossing over into overtly sympathetic territory, and is incapable of really making any thematic statements exterior to the basic plight of its central character. Still, these qualms aside, Theron‘s performance is indeed exceptional. It remains burned into your mind even if most of the film quickly fades away.
9. Badlands – 1973
Before Badlands Terrence Malick was a just another mild-mannered philosophy professor at MIT. The film (based loosely on Charles Starkweather’s rampages in the 50′s) starred Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and introduced the world to Malick’s unique cinematic vision. Beautifully capturing the landscapes of midwest America, Badlands showcased the rambling style of voice-over that would become the director’s trademark, in addition to the theme of human beings being completely incapable of understanding their own actions or their place in the much larger universe.
8. Zodiac – 2007
Before he made a film which explained how: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” David Fincher made Zodiac, a film which is one of the best of its genre, and one that was unfortunately over-looked by the general public. Fincher’s Zodiac features first rate acting, including: Jake Gyllenhaal as part-time cartoonist and full-time pip-squeak Robert Greysmith, Mark Ruffalo as a demoralized David Toschi, and especially Robert Downey Jr. as the eccentric and brilliant reporter, Paul Avery. Even more impressive however is Fincher’s ability to chronicle a very specific yet defining moment in American history. His pitch-perfect evocation of the period’s tone, and the violence which helped end the Hippie idealism of the 1960′s, allows for Zodiac to transcend far past the vapid splatter-fests which dominated most of the 2000′s.
7. Halloween – 1978
Everyone knows its basic elements, from the iconic mask to the jarring and creepy score. John Carpenter’s Halloween is one of those genre-defining films, and helped establish some of the archetypes (such as the last girl standing trope) which are now staples of American horror. Halloween is so effective because of its ability to zero in on some of the most primal of human anxieties. It’s depiction of the character of Michael Myers, as a powerful, regenerative force of destruction, set the mold for many lesser cinematic killers and left an indelible mark on pop-culture history.
6. The Vanishing – 1988
The Dutch film, The Vanishing, stands as the antithesis to many of the films on this list through its depiction of evil as strikingly banal. George Sluizer’s film presents a fascinating portrait of the serial killer as being a respectable family man whose flaw (if you want to call it that) is a simple acceptance of his status as a being capable of sociopathic action. The Vanishing is an extraordinary film because of its ability to continually build and build tension out of quiet interaction and long, drawn-out flashbacks. The subtlety of the storytelling is critically important because when the disturbing final scene comes the horror can be attributed to how the outcome is, in a way, totally expected.
5. Seven – 1995
Responsible for inspiring a wave of inferior imitators and partially accountable for the propagation of an endless stream of “twist ending” films (which saturated the marketplace at the end of the century) Seven’s legacy can’t be denied. The film is a testament to the power of the director, and it firmly established David Fincher as a creative force to be reckoned with (something that Alien 3 might not have accomplished). The film has a creative script by Andrew Kevin Walker, an amazing sound design, and an opening sequence which perfectly encapsulated the evil of the film’s antagonist: John Doe.
4. American Psycho – 2001
More of a condemnation of the era which cemented trickle-down economics in the American psyche than a film about serious blood-letting, American Psycho still earns its spot because of its legendary central performance and the pristine, almost flawless direction of Mary Harron. Patrick Bateman is still Bale’s greatest work. His depiction of Bateman contains the raging mania that exists behind “…the mask of sanity,” the parrot-like mimicry of a consumerist culture (his monologues about popular 80′s music are truly hilarious) the bouts of aggressive cruelty, and the moments of surprising compassion, both feigned and genuine. Harron, working off of a shrewd screenplay (written by herself and Guinevere Turner) that omits huge, gory sections from Ellis’s original text, still manages to capture the hallucinogenic ambiguity of Bateman’s actions and maintains Ellis’s idea that simply turning off Bateman’s story is not an exit.
3. The Silence of the Lambs – 1991
Matching the achievement of a little gem from the 1970′s (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) The Silence of the Lambs took home the top five major Oscars in its respective year. One of the major reasons why Lambs was so popular at the time and remains memorable today is of course due to the acting, with Hopkins and Foster both contributing performances that are really special. However, major credit also has to be given to Jonathan Demme, whose directorial hand pulled together the emotional score by Howard Shore, the production and art design by Kristi Zea and Tim Galvin (whose work on Bill’s subterranean lair is particularly disturbing), and the photography of Tak Fujimoto, who helped make the conversation pieces between Lecter and Starling one of the film’s highlights.
2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – 1974
There aren’t many movies which function as a summation of their entire epoch. However, with its brilliant synthesis of Vietnam era trauma and the economic anxieties of the period, Massacre inverted the American tradition of horror away from its previously dominant form of America as victim. The film presented a new type of horror where the origin of evil, of terrible madness was deep inside the heartland of the country.
1. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – 1986
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a film that one must experience. Brilliantly written, with powerfully complex performances from the three central leads (especially Rooker) Henry takes place in a Chicago of the 1980′s – presenting the city as a faded, dingy metropolis teeming with strained, mean-spirited, and generally hopeless characters. Henry is notable also for being probably the most apathetic, observational and amoral take on the serial killer subject ever produced. It isn’t interested in really trying to humanize or demonize its characters. Thus, the film’s devastating message seems to be that these characters, and their incredibly violent proclivities, aren’t bad or good, just that they exist, that they’re real.
Whether you agree or disagree with this list we would love to hear from you! What do you think is the best of the best in serial killer cinema, and why?