Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #1 – Films about Serial Killers

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[Congratulations!  You’ve stumbled upon my new series, “Top 5 of the Past 25”, in which I expound on the great genre darlings of the past 25 years in everyone’s favorite format:  the tried-and-true, oh-so-digestible Top Five List.]


Full disclosure:  I love serial killers.  If you know me, you know this.  Okay, I don’t love them love them, in a send-my-panties-to-prison sort of way; I just think they’re pretty much the most curious creatures on the planet.  They’re my addiction; I’m obsessed with their stories.  My bookcases at home will attest to this.  I crave their specifics:  the time lines, the motivations, the modi operandi; the body count and the aftermath, the prison interviews and the last meals.  It’s all just endlessly interesting to me, and fortunately for my habit, the media feels the same.  Millions of hours and words have been devoted to intricate detail, speculation and extrapolation.  Countless books and articles have been born from both fact and theory.  As a society, we grab hold of our anomalies when they surface, dissecting – and often exploiting — them into oblivion.

Cinema, more often than not, explores and reflects life, both in the realm of the real and the fantastical.  It’s only natural that the advent of the serial killer, and especially the “boom” that occurred in its industry in the 1970s and 80s, would open a door in cinema that could not be left untouched.  The past 25 years have kept us busy with a glorious assortment of films in this vein, ranging from the documentary style to the full-on, blade-wielding, arterial-spraying slasher.  With that in mind, and without further ado, I present to you my own, personal Top Five Serial Killer Films of the Past 25 Years, for your perverse and twisted reading pleasure.  You sick bastards.

#5.  Scream (1996, d. Wes Craven, w. Kevin Williamson)

See It For:  Drew Barrymore’s entrails.

Once I set my own list in stone, I checked out a few others to see how mine compared.  I was honestly surprised to find that Scream didn’t make the cut for any of them.  Sure, it’s 16 years old now, a franchise four-deep; maybe the shine has worn off and the meta-slasher, as a species, is played out.  Maybe as a fan-base, we’re outgrowing it, we’re too cool.  Luckily, I have not yet found myself to be too cool for anything (which frees up a lot of time for critical thought), and my list wouldn’t feel complete without a shout-out to the film that kicked modern horror square in its nasty, sharp, pointy teeth.

Scream was the right film, in the right place, at the right time; it really was a perfect storm.  With a bit of a drought in the franchise arena and few really exciting additions to the genre (I know, you’re all saying “Screw you, dude! What about Leprechaun 3?”), horror desperately needed something to wake it the fuck up.  Enter Scream, in all its hip, self-aware, convention-busting glory.  Yeah, its “teens” were all in their twenties, and yeah, it spawned a lot of questionable-at-best teenager flicks (I’m looking at you here, I Know What You Did Last Summer), but for better or worse, Scream was the movie we were all waiting for.  It somehow managed to satirize every tired slasher trope in the book; it was sharp, witty, and full of black comedy, but most of all – it was actually scary.  A masked and shrouded killer expands the list of suspects to include virtually anyone, ramping up the element of mystery, and the execution of the disembodied-voice-over-the-phone takes its terror from the past, recalling earlier thrillers such as When a Stranger Calls and John Carpenter’s absolutely chilling made-for-TV shocker, Someone’s Watching Me (go and seek this film out NOW if you haven’t seen it. It’s terrifying).  Scream re-animated the genre in its ultimate time of need, and for that, this particular horror chick is bloody, bloody grateful.


#4.  Behind the Mask:  The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006, d. Scott Glosserman, w. Scott Glosserman, David J. Stieve)

See It For:  An affectionate look inside the mechanics of being a serial killer (a.k.a. “You have no idea how much cardio I have to do”).

It’s always beautiful to watch a film that delights in its format, and Behind the Mask just seems to relish the fact that it has been allowed to exist.  While there is a definite wink-and-a-nod to documentary-horror of the past (à la Man Bites Dog), it never once feels like it’s trying to bite that style; in fact, it does a pretty good job of turning it on its face.  Leslie Vernon, as a character, accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do – he slashes out a special, unique place for himself in the serial killer pantheon.

Behind the Mask is an adoring deconstruction of the genre that goes a little “meta” but doesn’t make fun; it plays on all the familiar tropes without ever lapsing into parody.  Leslie Vernon just wants to be like his supernatural heroes, and he sees his way clear to this with the help of a documentary film crew, having prepared his entire life for his upcoming introduction to infamy.  He is witty, affable, and knows all the tricks; he’s infinitely prepared and is living the life.  In the documentary portion of the film, we watch him go through his motions, and he has clearly done his homework:  his traps work as he knows they will, and every detail is accounted for, including future events that he knows will unfold to his will.  The thing about Leslie Vernon is that he’s more than an anti-hero:  through much of the film, he feels like a protagonist, and actively wants to be your friend.  This, obviously, is why he’s so completely dangerous.

Nathan Baesel’s performance as Leslie Vernon makes this film what it is, and honestly, his likeability is such an amazing bait-and-switch that I was completely shocked to see the film twist, then twist again.  This film knows exactly what it’s doing, it’s tailored completely for horror fans, and it takes itself just seriously enough to come through as a genuinely scary and engaging piece.  Plus, it’s got the Talking Heads.  What’s not to like?


#3.  American Psycho (2000, d. Mary Harron, w. Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner)

See It For:  The ironic use of Huey Lewis and the News.

Honestly, there’s nothing I can say here that hasn’t already been said.  American Psycho is on a plane of existence all its own, and rightfully so.  Seldom has there been such a solid encapsulation of an era, an attitude, a meltdown; it’s specific and bloody and brilliant.  It’s all narcissism, and it found its perfect poster child in Christian Bale.  Again, here we are with the dissection of the culture, though in this case, it’s humanity rather than film.  Patrick Bateman never presents himself as a likeable human being; in fact, his self-loathing is clear from the beginning, and he all but invites you to loathe him too.

The source material is clearly apparent throughout, and the film stays consistently true to the book, tempering the action just enough to ease the transition to film.  While the film is definitely quite bloody and violent (as is the book), none of this ever seems to cross the threshold into the realm of “too much”.  Within the confines of the story, it all seems absolutely fitting.

Bateman, through the film, learns what we already know:  that his status quo will not hold out, and he’s not the only one.  He’s insane because everyone around him is insane, his life is insane, and he’s become privy to the actual, crushing madness of it all.  Who among us hasn’t contemplated the ease with which we could go completely batshit?  Are we all one botched dinner reservation away from serial murder?

In the end, the great thing about American Psycho is that it is whatever you think it is.  Maybe he killed all those people, maybe he really did feed that ATM a stray cat; maybe he hallucinated every single moment.  There are strong arguments for either outcome.  Whichever version is the absolute truth, each one gives you a naked Christian Bale, giving chase with a chainsaw; that, my friends, is quite enough.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to return some videotapes.


#2.  Man Bites Dog (1992, d/w. Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde)

See It For:  The “mockumentary” format done right.

Man, I just love this movie, which you may already know from my recent review (and if you don’t, well, maybe you’ll forgive my shameless self-promotion and go read it here); either way, I won’t belabor the point.

As serial killers go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one so true to the notion as Benoît Patard.  He’s prolific, practical, and remorseless to the point that he often murders in broad daylight, as if it was a completely normal bit of daily business.  He’s also a total narcissist, perhaps even more so than the Ted Bundys (or even the Patrick Batemans) of the world; for shit’s sake, he has a camera crew following him.

The film is just so effective, in story, style, and execution.  It does everything right, and in a film like this, its utter right-ness can make for an uncomfortable viewing.  The film, like its subject, shies away from nothing, and constantly reminds you that what you’re watching is exactly what you asked for.  As the documentary crew within the film descends into complicity, it falls just shy of telling its audience, “Hey, you sick fuckers – you’re guilty here too.”


#1.    Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990, d. John McNaughton, w. Richard Fire, John McNaughton)

See It For:  What’s in the suitcase?

What a happy coincidence!  I’ve reviewed this one too!  Stroke my ego here.

Again, I won’t belabor the point.  This is quite easily my all-time favorite serial killer movie.  It just feels right.  It’s gritty, it’s gross, it’s the dregs of humanity; everything here is pitch-perfect.

Henry Lee Lucas, in reality, got off on the wrong foot, concluding a brutal childhood with the murder of his prostitute mother.  This led to the proverbial Life of Crime, and in the end, it was hard to separate his truth from fiction, as he confessed to many crimes for which his culpability is questionable.  The Lucas of the film is fitting, then:  his story is constructed around the violent fantasies and dubious confessions of his real-life analogue.

Michael Rooker, to his somewhat backward credit, makes for an incredibly convincing serial killer.  He’s amazing in this role and really latches on to the essence of what Henry Lee Lucas was all about.  In his quiet demeanor are the makings of a monster whose deeds are carried out in a grim, unforgiving 83 minutes.  Though the film stays away from a straight documentary feel, it doesn’t hesitate to focus on the reality of the situation or the viciousness of Lucas’ crimes.  The clincher here, though, is that there’s no moral resolution; Rooker’s Lucas doesn’t get what’s coming to him.  He doesn’t get caught or killed, and the scales of justice are left unbalanced.

Throughout history, serial killers have operated for years, sometimes decades, without capture.  Gary Ridgway evaded the police for over twenty years.  The Zodiac killer was never caught.  Though the real-life Henry Lee Lucas did indeed die in prison, in the film, we are left to deal with the idea that he could continue killing indefinitely, living under the radar; that possibility, when translated to real life, is easily the most horrifying of all.

[Come back next week, when I’ll wax poetic on the empowered woman in Top Five of the Past 25, #2 — Female Killers!]


About Kara_E

Kara is a Senior Office Assistant for the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University. A past English major and lifetime writer, she has also served both as an actress and behind-the-scenes assistant for several projects with our friends at Clockwerk Pictures. Kara lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor/proofreader for international students at Indiana University, and serves as an organizer of the Dark Carnival Film Festival (

Other posts in this series:

  1. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #4 -- Zombie Movies (May 7, 2012)
  2. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #3 – Gorefests (March 27, 2012)
  3. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #2 - Female Killers (March 8, 2012)
  4. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #1 - Films about Serial Killers (March 1, 2012)
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