There's a strange fascination that comes with serial killers. Netflix has had immense success with their range of murder documentaries, which people seem to be binge-watching by the hour.
Hollywood clicked onto this phenomenon long ago, churning out a huge list of movies featuring murderers, psychos, and killers. But how can you tell which ones are worth watching?
Here are our picks for the best serial killer movies, whether they're based on real people OR involve totally fictional characters.
15. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
Directed by Joe Berlinger
Starring Lily Collins, Zac Efron, Angela Sarafyan
Biography, Crime, Drama (1h 50m)
Most critics weren't fans, but the general public flocked to the cinema upon the release of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile—and it's a pretty good film. Plus, who doesn't love almost two hours of Zac Efron's face? Even if he is playing a homicidal maniac.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile chronicles the life of infamous serial killer Ted Bundy from the perspective of his unsuspecting wife (played by Lily Collins).
A smooth-talker who charmed 30+ women to their deaths, Bundy was one for dramatics as he decapitated many of his victims and escaped prison twice before facing the death penalty.
14. The Pale Blue Eye (2022)
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Simon McBurney
Crime, Horror, Mystery (2h 8m)
The Pale Blue Eye is the newest movie on our list, the title of which references Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 poem "The Tell-Tale Heart."
A fictionalized take on Edgar Allan Poe also appears in the movie, played by Harry Melling (who's recently resurfaced in cinema following his role in the Harry Potter franchise as Dudley Dursley).
A change from burying his head in books, Poe decides to team up with the world-weary detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) to investigate a series of murders in 1830.
These killings are linked by the victims' gruesome mutilations where they've had their hearts ritualistically cut out.
The 19th century was a eerie time for religion, witchcraft, and medical experimentation. Scott Cooper thoroughly captures the atmosphere of the era in his interesting, history-infused script.
13. Monster (2003)
Directed by Patty Jenkins
Starring Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern
Biography, Crime, Drama (1h 49m)
Charlize Theron is unrecognizable in this true crime drama. Aileen Wuornos was a real-life prostitute-turned-murderer who killed several male clients during the late 80s.
Theron's Oscar-winning performance is painful and almost sympathetic, as she turns to killing her johns after being brutally raped and beaten. The victim chain just goes on and on.
Monster doesn't sensationalize Wuoron's situation, instead focusing on her teetering sanity and suffering—and the film does a good job at never excusing or forgiving her crimes, keenly balancing humanity and justice.
12. My Friend Dahmer (2017)
Directed by Marc Meyers
Starring Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche
Biography, Drama, Horror (1h 47m)
My Friend Dahmer concentrates on Jeffrey Dahmer's unusual coming-of-age tale, leading up to his first murder. Dahmer showed early signs of being mentally disturbed—like dissolving dead animals and drinking heavily—which this film explores.
The famous serial killer didn't just murder young men; he raped them, ate them, and preserved them. Basically, every kind of messed up thing you can think of. It's disconcerting to think this cannibalistic killer once had a "Dahmer Fan Club" in high school.
He was hailed for his pranks and graphic drawings... but who ever really knows what's lurking behind closed doors? Ross Lynch is the star of Marc Meyers's biopic.
11. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Horror (1h 31m)
The 70s and 80s were a booming time for slasher movies, and A Nightmare on Elm Street is widely regarded as the best of them.
The iconic villain Freddy Krueger and his burnt-up face terrorizes a group of teenagers in suburban America. But here's the catch: he's not really there.
In fact, Freddy Krueger is a demonic spirit that comes to get you in your dreams, so all you have to do is not sleep. Easy, right?
Horror master Wes Craven took all the slasher film conventions that were established in the 70s, polished them up, and even sprinkled some queer subtext that the creators swear was unintentional.
10. Natural Born Killers (1994)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore
Action, Crime, Romance (1h 59m)
Natural Born Killers is certainly the most chaotic movie on this list. After all, it's based on a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino.
Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis are the modern Bonnie and Clyde, embarking on a whirlwind killing spree that took the media by storm.
Director Oliver Stone doesn't glamorize the serial killer couple for the sake of it. In fact, the film acts as an allegory for dangerous media sensationalism.
Natural Born Killers has a frenzied visual style that not only reflects its psychedelic aspects, but also the overall energy of tabloid television. Animation, black-and-white scenes, and choppy editing make it a wild ride from start to finish.
9. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Directed by John McNaughton
Starring Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
Biography, Crime, Drama (1h 23m)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer isn't scary in the same campy, 80s horror way that A Nightmare on Elm Street is. Rather, this one's incredibly dark and unsettling, filmed in a dingy realist tone that borders on gauche.
This realistic feel is what makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer so creepy. Also, the fact that it's based on a real person: Henry Lee Lucas, the Confession Killer (so nicknamed after he confessed to over 600 murders, even if only nine were ever proven).
In a world of tired horror tropes, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the forgotten serial killer movies that's best appreciated by critics. Michael Rooker's performance is particularly arresting.
8. Peeping Tom (1960)
Directed by Michael Powell
Starring Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer
Drama, Horror, Thriller (1h 41m)
Michael Powell's voyeuristic horror-thriller Peeping Tom comes from 1960s Britain, and it's a true gem of British cinematic history.
Karlheinz Böhm (also known as Carl Boehm) plays Mark Lewis, a wannabe filmmaker in the softcore porn industry. His shy nature makes him seem at once sweet and creepy. And later on, just creepy.
Traumatized by his father's experiments from childhood, Lewis turns into a closeted serial killer. He kills women purely so he can record them die, capturing their final expressions of terror on film.
Everything about Peeping Tom is perverse, but for some reason we can't look away. Fitting for a classic serial killer film.
7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer
Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h 38m)
What starts out as a missing-persons investigation quickly turns into a murder mystery. But it's not the police doing the searching this time.
A disgraced journalist (played by Daniel Craig) and anti-social, piercings-covered hacker (played by Rooney Mara) form an unlikely duo who track down the disappearance of 16-year-old Harriet.
David Fincher directs this vivid, punkish psychological thriller with such skill that it won him the Academy Award for Best Editing.
Based on the novel by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo takes every direction you weren't expecting.
6. M (1931)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
Crime, Mystery, Thriller (1h 39m)
Directed by the visionary of German Expressionism himself Fritz Lang, M is definitely one for cinephiles.
Made in the early 1930s, this shadowy masterpiece stars Peter Lorre as the subject of a Berlin-wide manhunt. His murder victims? Children, as if the film wasn't creepy enough.
If you like anything by Alfred Hitchcock, you'll be sure to like M. It's sharp, twisted, and riddled with suspense. It's flawlessly constructed and even more flawlessly performed. You'll never be able to look at a balloon the same way again.
5. Psycho (1960)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 49m)
As the first-ever slasher movie, Psycho features one of the most famous movie murderers of all time: Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins). This is interesting, given that we don't even know he's a murderer for most of the film.
Director Alfred Hitchcock gives us an age-old plot twist by turning this nervous, obliging hotel manager into a raving psychopath.
And Hitchcock loves to kill off characters halfway through. In Psycho, it's the impulsive Marion (played by Janet Leigh) who's stabbed to death in the infamous shower scene.
Pit-stopping at the Bates Motel after running off with her boss' cash, Marion meets Bates in his gloomily-lit hotel, unaware that he suffers with a fatal Dissociative Identity Disorder.
4. Se7en (1995)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey
Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h 7m)
Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman team up for this rain-soaked detective thriller, where the two opposites must track down a serial killer simply known as John Doe.
Obsessed with the seven deadly sins, Doe performs gruesomely ritualistic murders that represent each one: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
What we don't expect is for the murderer to turn himself in midway through, covered in blood, with his fingerprints cut off. And there are many plot twists in store, each more brutal and bloody than the last.
3. American Psycho (2000)
Directed by Mary Harron
Starring Christian Bale, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas
Crime, Drama, Horror (1h 42m)
"I like to dissect girls" is a perfectly normal thing to say in Patrick Bateman's world. As a metaphor for fragile masculinity and New York yuppie materialism, Bateman has a strict morning routine of crunches and face masks before popping off to work at the office.
Oh, and committing mass murder.
Patrick Bateman is such a psycho because of the nonchalant way he expresses his desire to savagely mutilate everyone around him. He loves nothing, cares for nothing—except maybe the off-white coloring of his co-worker's business card.
Christian Bale delivers a knockout performance, despite not being American himself (though you'd never guess it from his filmography).
2. Zodiac (2007)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo
Crime, Drama, Mystery (2h 37m)
Director David Fincher gives us another murder mystery based on a true story. Cited as one of the most accurate true crime movies ever made, Fincher avoids the glitz and glamour of Hollywood spectacle.
Instead, Zodiac boasts a sort of haunting realism where cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) obsessively tries to crack the Zodiac Killer's enigmatic code.
Fincher manages to make a steadily thrilling, totally immersive movie without us ever finding out who the murderer is.
Since the identity of the Zodiac Killer is still unknown, Zodiac focuses on the tauntingly encrypted letters he sent to the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1970s.
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Lawrence A. Bonney
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 58m)
Hannibal Lecter is one of the scariest seral killers of all time, yet on the surface he seems like a normal old man—polite, well-educated, and reasonable. And a cannibal.
Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) is training for the FBI when she's tasked with conducting an interview with the notorious Lecter. Scroll through YouTube and you'll find a myriad video essays analyzing this scene, with Lecter hissing at Starling from behind bars.
Following The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins reclaimed his role in several sequels. While they're pretty good, none of them live up to or match this cinematic classic.
If these movies weren't enough, we've got plenty more serial killer films for you to check out when you're in a crime movie mood:
- Dirty Harry (1971)
- Frenzy (1972)
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
- Halloween (1978)
- Cruising (1980)
- Scream (1996)
- Memories of Murder (2003)
- Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
- The Killer Inside Me (2010)
- Prevenge (2016)
- Titane (2021)
- The Good Nurse (2022)