American Psycho

Weekend Roundtable: Best/Favorite Serial Killer Movies

The new thriller ‘The Snowman’ opens in theaters this week while ‘Mindhunter’ has been making a splash on Netflix. One of these things may be worth watching. (By all accounts, it’s not likely the frosty one.) Between those and Halloween being right around the corner, our Roundtable this week will focus on the evilest of fictional serial killers.

M. Enois Duarte

With so many possibilities to choose from, I have to go with ‘American Psycho‘. Who could better represent the inhumanely cold, apathetic indifference of the 1980s economic divide than Patrick Bateman? The investment banker, played to perfection by Christian Bale in arguably his most memorable and iconic role to date, is the epitome of almost everything wrong in a decade that encouraged the pursuit of wealth and a lifestyle of excess. Mary Harron’s now-classic black comedy beautifully captures this through Bateman’s murderous exploits and luxuriant living, which are ironically complemented by his exuberant thrill of killing and his cynical, thought-provoking moments of self-reflection. As he continues embracing his perversions and delving further into his competitive aspirations, he loses a bit of himself and his sense of individuality, slowly collapsing into a downward spiral away from reality. Although seen more as a cult horror film, ‘American Psycho’ is brilliant and deserves to be better appreciated by a wider audience.

Shannon Nutt

I could go with a lot of popular choices this week, from ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ to ‘Se7en’ to ‘Zodiac’. But it’s always fun to go down the unbeaten path in the chance of getting a lesser-known movie in front of new eyes.

I’m going with ‘Jennifer 8‘, a 1992 movie from writer/director Bruce Robinson (perhaps best known as the screenwriter of ‘The Killing Fields’) starring Andy Garcia, Uma Thurman, John Malkovich and Lance Henriksen.

Garcia plays a detective who finds a severed hand in a garbage dump and traces it back to the victim: a blind woman. He soon learns that a killer is targeting women without sight and this was his seventh victim. Uma Thurman stars as the “Jennifer” of the title, and you can probably already guess what the “8” stands for.

This is a taut, dark thriller, very much in the vein of the more popular serial killer movies I mentioned above. If you’ve never seen it (pun intended), it’s worth checking out.

Luke Hickman

Tim Burton’s decision to adapt the Stephen Sondheim musical ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street‘ was a brilliant move. Most serial killer movies are so dark and twisted that many general audiences can’t stomach them. While ‘Sweeney’ isn’t exactly mainstream, it’s certainly a lot easier to digest. Johnny Depp breaks out of his rut of eccentric caricatures to play a character with some true depth. His brooding attitude matches his (so-so) singing capabilities. With loads of black comedy, the over-the-top gore doesn’t seem so graphic or disturbing.

Brian Hoss

As a movie character, Anton Chigurh looms as large as life. He’s not exactly stoic. He can easily be drawn into a lengthy diatribe, and yet he’s unlikely to ever speak without prompting. Likewise, his cold, deliberate manner could be viewed as dispassionate and even mechanical, but a concentrated fury nevertheless peeks out. His prey are obvious targets, but almost anyone he comes across may be smashed like a bug. Chigurh is zealous and full of contempt, with an intensity and ability that make him both scary and fascinating. Of course, ‘No Country for Old Men‘ is a nearly perfect frame for Chigurh to inhabit.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

As far as serial killer movies go, one stands out in my mind as being the most disturbing. I saw ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘ at the Angelika theater in Manhattan in the early 1990s. In it, Henry (a then unknown Michael Rooker) plays an ex-con who goes on a killing spree with his cross-dressing buddy from prison, Otis. What makes the film so powerful is the banality of the story. Henry and Otis kill, not driven by some inner demons, but just to pass the time. There’s no pattern or predictability to their actions, no underlying motives we can ascertain. If you’ve heard the saying, “He’d just as soon kill you as look at you,” that seems like a good description of Henry.

Even more disturbing? The story was based on the confessions of a convicted serial killer (named Henry, of course) who, along with his buddy Ottis (with two Ts), claims to have killed over 600 people. Evidence suggests that number is probably lower, but who really knows? As a story, ‘Henry’ is chilling. As a movie, it’s a low-budget masterpiece. It was made by first-time director John McNaughton (‘Mad Dog and Glory’, ‘Wild Things’) for around $125,000 over the winter of 1985. The previously unknown cast, particularly Rooker, are so good at what they do that the movie feels more like a documentary than a drama. It’s as if you’re getting a glimpse inside the mind of a real serial killer, but there’s nothing there to see. Rooker would go on to play some memorable roles (notably, Merle Dixon in ‘The Walking Dead’ and Yondu in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), but every time I see him, I just see Henry’s empty face staring back at me.

Josh Zyber

With a bunch of Oscars to its credit, ‘The Silence of the Lambs‘ is often held up as the gold standard of serial killer movies. While I’ve always appreciated that film well enough, I still prefer Michael Mann’s ‘Manhunter‘ (which introduced movie audiences to the Hannibal Lecter character, first played by Brian Cox) over it. Honestly, the ‘Hannibal‘ TV series may be better than either of them.

The success of ‘Lambs’ spawned a long string of knockoff thrillers about dogged cops or FBI agents chasing serial killers. The best of them was David Fincher’s ‘Se7en‘, which somehow piled on a bunch of genre clichés (the aging detective a few days from retirement mentoring a cocky rookie partner, a deranged killer who taunts the police with complicated clues to his identity, etc.) and elevates them through the intelligence of Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay and Fincher’s mastery of style and form.

Honorable mentions go to Fincher’s true-crime ‘Zodiac‘, Anthony Minghella’s ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley‘, and of course Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho‘.

Do you like to watch any favorite serial killer movies before Halloween? Tell us which ones.

10 comments

  1. Ryan

    I remember watching Henry in the early 2000s. I had hear so many good things about it, but good lord, if the movie wasn’t a giant piece of crap. The acting was horrible. Everything about screamed direct to video.

  2. Csm101

    All my go to’s have been mentioned. I actually enjoy Mr. Brooks with Kevin Costner. The parts with Demi Moore feel like they’re from a different movie, but I like what Costner did and it seemed to be out of his comfort zone. Frenzy is one of my favorite Hitchcock films and I love how it puts you in the driver seat with the killer.

  3. photogdave

    I’ll go with From Hell. A fantastically-realized setting with great performances from a pre-douchebag Johnny Depp, Ian Holm and the always-solid Robbie Coltrane. Heather Graham’s efforts have been criticized but I don’t mind her at all in this — at least she doesn’t take me out of the movie.
    If we can call Dracula a serial killer than my next choice is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A great example of classic movie making with Coppola at the height of his cinematic skills. When it played in the theatre I watched it several times and really cringed at Keanu’s performance but now, watching it on the recent 4K Blu, I’m not really bothered at all. Not his best work but the rest of the film is so amazing and pleasurable to watch.

  4. Plissken99

    The Hitcher, Rutger Hauer as Jack Ryder. This movie has always given me the creeps, as it seems plausible. Anyone who’s taken solo road trips and filled their gas tanks along the way can relate. The idea of some random psycho targeting you for no reason is a basic horror concept that Hauer really elevates.

    The Hitcher is the role Rutger Hauer was born to play. NOW WHERE THE F**K IS THE BLU RAY?!

  5. Bolo

    ‘Dirty Harry’ – I’m not sure if Scorpio demanding money makes him more of a terrorist than a serial killer, but since he’s modelled after the Zodiac Killer, it’s close enough for me.

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