In many serial killer movies, the focus of the plot is on the police trying to catch the psychotic perpetrator. The killers are usually depicted as shadowy creatures who generally turn out to be the last person you expect.
The films on this list are different, because the main character is the serial killer. Even more terrifying, they are based on real people. By making the killer the main character, the filmmakers can explore their backgrounds, motives, and crimes. These films are also a reminder that the individuals who committed these monstrous crimes are just real, everyday people. Albeit, they are all very disturbed human beings. That said, keep an eye on your neighbor two houses down. He looks pretty shifty, come to think of it…
10. The Hillside Strangler
On October 17, 1977, cousins Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi killed their first victim, who was a prostitute that they strangled to death. The pair would go on to kill nine more young women in Los Angeles and then the murders came to a sudden end in February of 1978. It was at this point that the pair of serial killers had drifted apart and Bianchi had moved to Washington to pursue a job on the Bellingham police force. He didn’t get the job, and instead worked as a security guard in the area. Without his cousin, Bianchi killed two more young women and was arrested after witnesses placed him with the victims. It wasn’t long before Bianchi and his cousin were charged in the Hillside Strangler murders. Both were convicted and given life sentences. Buono had a heart attack and died in 2002 while Bianchi is still serving his sentence.
A retelling of the crimes that focuses on the two men who performed the murders is the ugly and rather unpleasant 2004 film, The Hillside Strangler. The film, which stars C. Thomas Howell as Bianchi and Nicholas Turturro as Buono, starts when Bianchi moved from New York to California to live with his cousin. The film shows how quickly things spun out of control for the two men and how terrifying their crimes were.
9. The Tenderness of the Wolves
One of the most vicious serial killers of all time was active between 1918 and 1924 in Hanover, Germany, and his name was Fritz Haarmann. Out of all the killers on this list, his crimes are probably the most graphic. They are so graphic we can’t even write about them here. One thing we can say for sure is that Haarmann definitely earned his nickname, the Werewolf of Hanover. He was convicted of murdering 24 young boys, but the true number of his victims is believed to be 27. He was executed in April of 1925.
Haarmann’s story is the inspiration for the classic 1931 German film directed by Fritz Lang, M. One of the reasons the film is so memorable is because of Peter Lorre’s terrifying depiction of Hans Beckert, who is based on Haarmann. A film that focuses more on Haarmann and is based on his actual crimes is The Tenderness of the Wolves, which was released in 1973. The film takes a few liberties with the story, such as changing the time period to post-World War II, and it is a bit artsy, but nevertheless it is an unsettling film about a very disturbed man.
On October 17, 1987, 17-year-old Karla Homolka met 23-year-old Paul Bernardo at a hotel restaurant in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada. At the time of their meeting and while they dated, Bernardo committed a series of sexual assaults in the area. Then things escalated when the couple got engaged, and they killed two young girls. First, they accidentally killed Homolka’s younger sister two days before Christmas in 1990, and then they kidnapped and murdered a teenaged girl two weeks before they were set to be married; her body was found on the day of their wedding. Almost a year later, in April of 1992, they kidnap and killed their third victim. After they were arrested, the Crown Attorney made an extremely controversial plea deal with Homolka. She testified against Bernardo and only got a 12 year sentence for her roles in the vicious crimes. Bernardo was convicted and will most likely die in prison. After the deal was made, videotapes of the murders were handed over to the police; Bernardo’s lawyer retrieved them from the couple’s house and held on to them for 16 months.
“The Ken and Barbie Killers” made headlines around the world because the story is as enthralling as it is disturbing. There has been one attempt to turn the story into a movie, and that’s 2006’s Karla, which stars Laura Prepon as Homolka and Misha Collins as Bernardo. A lot of critics, especially those in the Canadian media, condemned the film for being exploitative, and there is definitely a lot of truth to that because the film is fairly shallow. What makes the film so disturbing is that it reminds us that two people came together to kidnap and brutally murder two innocent girls after Homolka caused the death of her own younger sister and saw how that tragedy affected her own family.
Homolka was released on July 4, 2005, after serving her 12-year sentence. It was revealed in 2014 that Homolka was living in Quebec, Canada, with her new husband. This was made public at the trial of another notorious Canadian killer, Luka Magnotta. Magnotta, who was arrested for the May of 2012 murder of his roommate, had mailed another of Homolka’s siblings a “special” package – containing parts from one of his victims, leading to the sister being called to testify in Magnotta’s trial.
One of America’s most notorious and vicious serial killers is Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer got his start at 18-years-old when he killed a hitchhiker at his parents’ home. After that initial murder, Dahmer didn’t kill again until September of 1987, and sadly, this time, he wouldn’t stop on his own. Before Dahmer was captured in July of 1991, he murdered 16 men. While there are serial killers who were more prolific than Dahmer, he became notorious because of what he did to his victims, and how he treated their remains. This included dissection and cannibalism, among other terrible acts. When the police searched his apartment, they found body parts littered throughout it that Dahmer kept as souvenirs. Dahmer was sentenced to 15 life sentences and then killed by a fellow inmate two years into his sentence in 1994.
There are a few films featuring Dahmer, but the best one is the aptly titled Dahmer and was one of the first starring roles for Jeremy Renner. One thing you will probably notice is that Renner looks nothing like Jeffrey Dahmer. The good news is that you’ll soon forget that because of how good Renner’s acting is. Renner portrays Dahmer as a normal, everyday person on the surface, but you can tell there is something off about him. It’s an excellent example of showing the humanity of a very disturbed human being who committed some truly monstrous acts.
In fact, Renner was so good as Dahmer that it caught the eye of director Kathryn Bigelow. Because of his work in Dahmer, Bigelow cast Renner as the lead in her 2006 film The Hurt Locker, which propelled him to stardom.
6. The Boston Strangler
Between June of 1962 and January of 1964, 13 women, mostly elderly, were strangled to death in their homes in Boston. It is believed that all the murders were committed by one person, who was dubbed the Boston Strangler. The person suspected to be the Boston Strangler, but who was never convicted, was Albert DeSalvo, a strange man with an odd criminal history.
There are a lot of questions regarding whether DeSalvo was the murderer of all 13 women. He never stood trial for the crimes; he was murdered by an unknown assailant in prison while awaiting trial. Before he died, he confessed to all 13 murders and then later recanted. He was only linked with DNA to the last victim in 2013, 50 years after the crime took place, meaning he is most likely responsible for at least one murder.
Whether DeSalvo killed all the women or not is still debatable. What is known is that DeSalvo was an interesting character. Like many other serial killers, he had a tough upbringing, and as an adult had strong, bizarre urges. In the film The Boston Strangler, which was released four years after DeSalvo’s death, he was played by Tony Curtis. Curtis garnered a Golden Globe nomination for the role. The film is also notable because it uses an interesting film technique called split-screen, which rose to popularity in the 1960s. A lot of the story is told on as many as six different screens at a time.
5. Killer: A Journal of Murder
Born in June of 1891 in Minnesota, Carl Panzam never had a good life and grew up hating everyone, including himself. Panzam’s father left at a young age, and when he was older, he was beaten and tortured at a boys’ home and ran away when he was 14. As an adult, while serving a sentence for burglary, Panzam was tortured by prison officials multiple times and left in solitary confinement for 61 days. He tried to escape twice and succeeded on his second attempt. He moved to New York, and in 1920, he began his killing spree. In total, he murdered at least 20 men and supposedly sexually assaulted 1,000 other men and teenagers before he was arrested. He was convicted and given 25 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. In June of 1929, he killed the foreman of the prison laundry and was sentenced to death.
One thing that people could say for sure about Panzam was that he was an angry man, and he would maintain that anger to his very last minutes on Earth. On September 5, 1930, as he stood on the platform waiting to be hanged, he said, “I wish all mankind had one neck so I could choke it!” His final words were directed to the executioner. The hangman asked Panzam if he had any words and Panzam replied, “Yes, hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard! I could kill ten men while you’re fooling around!”
While on death row, one of the guards, Henry Lesser, befriended Panzam and Lesser realized that no one had ever been kind or nice to Panzam in his entire life. As they got to know each other more, Lesser got Panzam some writing materials, and Panzam spent his time on death row writing his autobiography. Due to the violent nature of Panzam’s life, the memoir was too lurid to be published at the time. It wouldn’t be published until 1970, and then a movie that was based on his writings, Killer: a Journal of Murder was released with James Woods staring as Panzam in 1995.
4. The Deliberate Stranger
Arguably the most famous American serial killer is Ted Bundy. Between 1974 and 1978, Bundy brutally murdered at least 30 women in seven different states. Besides the brutality of the crimes, another shocking part about Bundy was that he was the exact opposite of what people thought a monster would look like. He was smart, handsome, and charming to most people who knew him, but just below the surface, he was a vicious killer who committed heinous crimes against a lot of innocent women. What makes Bundy’s story even worse is that he escaped custody twice and killed more women while he was on the lam. This included the brutal attack on a sorority house in Florida that left two young women dead and a third seriously injured. Bundy was convicted of 33 murders, and was executed on January 24, 1989.
In the excellent 1984 made-for-TV movie about Bundy, The Deliberate Stranger, Mark Harmon, of N.C.I.S fame, plays Bundy. In the two part movie, Harmon is charming and very convincing as Bundy. He showed how easy it was for Bundy to use his looks and charisma as a weapon to lure many of his victims to their deaths.
3. The Snowtown Murders
John Bunting of Snowtown, Australia, was a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who took things too far. With the help of his young neighbors he used as a gang, Bunting and his accomplices brutally tortured, murdered, and even cannibalized 11 people. After the murders, the remains of eight of the victims were sealed in barrels with acid and left in a vacant building.
The case, which became known as the “Bodies in Barrels Murders” shocked Australia when they were exposed in 1999. That shock of the crimes is translated well into one of the most critically acclaimed horror movies to come out of Australia in the past decade, The Snowtown Murders. The bleak and ugly film follows 16-year-old Jamie Vlassakis, a troubled young man who finds a father figure in Bunting. The film is so haunting because it shows how devastationg it can be when a psychopath has a chance to influence a mind that is young, vulnerable, and malleable.
Bunting was sentenced to 11 consecutive life sentences without the chance of parole. Vlassakis was given a life sentence without the chance of parole for 26 years.
To say that Aileen Wuornos had a miserable childhood would be a vast understatement. At a young age, her father killed himself in prison and her mother abandoned her. She was sexually abused by her grandfather, who had taken her in, and then worked most of her life as a sex worker. Between 1989 and 1991 she lured at least seven men to remote areas off the highways in Florida, where she shot them to death and robbed them. At her trial, she said that all the murders were in self-defense, but she was found guilty and sentenced to death. While in prison, Wuornos seemed to become more mentally ill as time went on. Despite the many questions surrounding her state of mind, Wuornos was executed on October 9, 2002.
Monster, which was released in 2003, stars Charlize Theron as Wuornos, who won an Academy Award for her transformative performance. When Roger Ebert saw the movie he didn’t know who it starred and was surprised to see in the credits that it was Theron. The film was hailed for not glamorizing or sensationalizing the crimes, like some media outlets did at the time of her trial. The film shows that the murders were violent and ugly acts committed by a very damaged and lost soul.
1. Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the most controversial movies of all time. It was originally shot in 1985, but since it was so graphic and disturbing, the filmmakers couldn’t find a distributor. When it was finally released in 1986, it was rated X, and by 1990, it was being shown unrated at midnight showings, where it gathered a cult following. Film critics like Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Peter Travers argued that the rating system of movies should be changed to accommodate films like Henry. Yes, it is a very graphic and disturbing film, but the film is based on real people who committed real crimes. They pointed out that young people who find an adult to accompany them to the theater are able to see slasher films with much higher body counts than Henry, and the murders seem inconsequential, but adults don’t have a venue to see a movie where murders are treated seriously and examine a real societal problem like serial killers in a stark and truthful manner.
The film is based on the life and fantasies of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who befriended a drifter named Ottis Toole. Henry isn’t exactly non-fiction, as it’s more about Lucas’ unconfirmed murders, but the characters share a number of similar biographical information. For example, Lucas and Toole did team up for awhile in 1975. Lucas also dated Toole’s sister for a short time. However, the body count in the film is much higher than Lucas and Toole’s confirmed victims. After being arrested, Lucas and Toole claimed they killed hundreds, if not thousands of people. Police were only able to confirm that Lucas claimed 11 victims and Toole was convicted of six murders. Police believe that one of Toole’s murders, which he was never convicted of, was of Adam Walsh, the son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh. Both men died of natural causes in prison: Toole in September of 1996, and Lucas in March of 2001.