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 psychopaths and homicide investigations. But how can you tell which ones are worth watching?
We’ve done the work and picked out the best serial killer movies—ones that are based on historical figures AND ones that involve totally fictional characters.
12. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
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.
11. Monster (2003)
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Charlize Theron is unrecognizable in this true crime drama. Aileen Wuornos was a real 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.
10. My Friend Dahmer (2017)
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My Friend Dahmer concentrates on Jeffrey Dahmer’s perverse 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 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.
9. Natural Born Killers (1994)
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 frenzied visual style not only reflects its psychedelic aspects—getting lost in the desert on shrooms—but the energy of tabloid TV. Animation, black-and-white scenes, and choppy editing make it a wild ride from start to finish.
8. Peeping Tom (1960)
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Michael Powell’s voyeuristic horror-thriller comes from 1960s Britain—a true gem of British cinematic history. Carl Boehm is 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 disturbing… but, for some reason, we love it.
7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
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 the visionary of German Expressionism 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 it 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)
As the first-ever slasher movie, Psycho features one of the most famous movie murderers of all time: Norman Bates. This is somewhat surprising, 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 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. Seven (1995)
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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, his fingerprints cut off. And there are many plot twists in store, each more brutal and bloody than the last.
3. American Psycho (2000)
“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 yeah, and committing mass murder.
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 colouring of his co-worker’s business card.
Christian Bale delivers a knock-out performance, despite not being American himself (though you’d never guess it from his filmography).
2. Zodiac (2007)
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Director David Fincher comes again with 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)
Hannibal Lecter is one of the scariest seral killers of all time, yet on the surface he seems like a normal old man who’s polite, well-educated, and reasonable. Unfortunately, he’s also 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 myriad video essays analyzing this scene—Lecter hissing at Starling from behind bars.
The police decide to use Lecter’s brains and experience to help with another murder case. Probably a bad decision.
Following The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins reclaimed his role in several sequels—and while they’re pretty good, none of them live up to or match this cinematic classic.