Top 10 Films Featuring Historic Serial Killers

Although there is a slew of films about real-life serial killers, very few of them are strictly biographical. Mark Fraser looks at a number of ways these murdering swine have been portrayed in the movies.

10. From Hell – Jack the Ripper (Albert and Allen Hughes, 2001)

From-Hell-film-johnny-depp_top10filmsThe focus here isn’t on the murderer per se. Rather, From Hell is a somewhat eccentric (and not-too-historically accurate) character study of Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp), the Whitechapel Police inspector who led the investigation into the Jack the Ripper slayings in London circa 1888. More stylish period piece than murder mystery, the movie does truly live up to its title (a term allegedly coined by the Ripper himself in a taunting letter to the authorities) when “Jack” – alias Royal Family physician and Freemason Sir William Gull (Ian Holm) – slaughters his final victim (whom he assumes is Mary Kelly) during a gore-soaked ritual in which he literally morphs into some kind of demon. Not surprisingly, there has been a number of other films and television series over the years that feature this fiend, including GW Pabst’s 1929 German black and white classic Pandora’s Box, Bob Clark’s entertaining 1979 Sherlock Holmes movie Murder by Decree and a two part TV show in 1988 starring Michael Caine as Abberline. As in From Hell, Gull is identified as the killer in the latter two (although he is referred to as Thomas Spivy in the Clark version).

9. BTK – Dennis Rader (Michael Feifer, 2008)

BTK_film_top10filmsAn extremely unsatisfying and quite nasty piece of work (which was shot on video), BTK doesn’t seem to dwell on too many facts regarding Wichita murderer Dennis Rader (1945-present), who killed 10 people using his “bind, torture, kill” modus operandi between 1974 and 1991. While Kane Hodder makes a mean killer, there’s no attempt by writer-director Michael Feifer to show what makes Rader tick. Ultimately the whole thing comes across as an excuse for some torture porn. Hodder also appears as a warden in Feifer’s other 2008 meandering serial killer opus Bundy: A Legacy of Evil.

8. Killer: A Journal of Murder – Carl Panzram (Tim Metcalf, 1995)

Killer-A-Journal-of-Murder-Carl-Panzram-Tim-Metcalf_1995_top10filmsThe use of flashback in the narrative allows director Tim Metcalf to effectively tell the story of two men – notorious murderer Carl Panzram (1891-1930), played by James Woods, and prison guard Henry Lessor (Robert Sean Leonard), who breaks the rules and allows Panzram to write his autobiography. Although Woods gives another solid performance (the quick scene when he defiantly – and somewhat triumphantly – strides out to meet the hangman is a hoot), and overall it’s not too bad a film, by wasting precious time focusing on the relationship between the prisoner and his guard, the movie omits a lot of the mayhem that the real Panzram allegedly left in his wake. Ultimately, Killer: A Journal of Murder is not really a biopic – it’s more of a prison buddy movie.

7. (TIE) Zodiac – The Zodiac Killer (David Fincher, 2007)

zodiac_jake_gyllenhall-robert-downey-jr_top10filmsNot so much a story about the Zodiac killer, who terrorised San Francisco and its environs circa 1968-69, but a study of the three men who spend a good portion of their professional lives trying to figure out who it is – San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist and eventual author Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the newspaper’s crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jnr) and police inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo). Despite the fact the killer has never been identified, the film points its finger at Arthur Leigh Allen (1933-1992), who is played by John Carroll Lynch. Although not a lot of screen time is devoted to the actual murders, when they do occur they are quite brutal.

7. (TIE) Summer of Sam – David Berkowitz (Spike Lee, 1999)

summer-of-sam_top10filmsAs with Zodiac, Summer of Sam isn’t really about lone New York gunman David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz (1953-present), who officially killed six people between July 1976 and July 1977. Rather, the film concentrates on the angst he caused some of the city’s dwellers – particularly amongst a group of uptight Italians from the Bronx and, to a lesser extent, the detectives who were hunting him. Unlike the shadowy murderer in the Fincher film, Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) gets a few scenes to himself, with director Spike Lee even throwing in a funny, surreal moment when Harvey the dog (voiced by John Turturro) orders him to kill. Once again the murder scenes are brutal.

6. To Catch a Killer – John Gacy (Eric Till, 1992)

To-Catch-a-Killer-Brian-Dennehy-as-John-Wayne-Gacy-1992Technically this shouldn’t really be on this list given it was originally a two-part television series that has since been repackaged as a stand-alone telemovie. Nevertheless, there are a number of legitimate reasons why it deserves a mention here. Firstly, Brian Dennehy is terrific as John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994), who was executed for the murder of 33 boys/teenagers in Chicago from 1972-1978. Secondly, in its streamlined version at least, To Catch the Killer is an effective cat and mouse thriller about the police hunt for a cunning and ruthless murderer. Finally there is the chilling denouement when Lieutenant Joe Kozenczak (Michael Riley) realises that psychic Rachel Grayson, whom he desperately brings into the investigation when all avenues look exhausted (an effectively spooky cameo by Margot Kiddor), is probably right – there are bound to be more of Gacy’s victims buried out there in the woods and beyond. The murderer’s story was retold in Clive Saunders’ Gacy (2003).

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Discover More: Top 10 Films to have Driven People to Murder


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5. Ted Bundy – Ted Bundy (Matthew Bright, 2002)

ted-bundy-film_top10filmsAlthough there have been a few films made about Ted Bundy (1946-1989), Matthew Bright’s version is arguably the most effective. Aside from the fact it is more horrifyingly violent than the telemovies (read Marvin J Chomsky’s The Deliberate Stranger in 1986 and Paul Shapiro’s The Stanger Beside Me in 2003) – and far better than Michael Feifer’s Bundy: A Legacy of Evil (2008) – it is also intelligently-told and points to Bundy’s penchant for necrophilia. Furthermore, it is scary insofar as it shows how easy it must have been for Ted to kidnap girls (in one early exaggerated scene he blatantly loads a body into his Volkswagen Beetle as a group of people walk by) while truly exposing his all-round viciousness (such as the moment when he gleefully rapes one unconscious woman in a bush shed before smashing her head in with a rock as his next victim, handcuffed and screaming, looks on). The only problem is Michael Reilly Burke isn’t as charismatic as Bundy must have been – he’s more pretty boy than handsome charmer. Bright also manages to throw in a moment of humour, that being a brief interrogation scene between Bundy and an incredulous detective (a funny Tom Savini) after he is arrested for the first time. As an aside, it’s strange that neither Ted Bundy nor the Feifer film mention one of the ultimate ironies regarding this monster’s existence – that a man who truly hated woman to the point of murder and necrophilia (some have even purported he dabbled in a bit of cannibalism) ended up fathering a daughter while in prison. At the end of the day, one of the legacies of this king rapist was giving the world another potential victim.

4. Snowtown – John Bunting and James Vlassakis (Justin Kurzel, 2011)

snowtown-lucas-pittaway_top10filmsDespite being based on the infamous “bodies-in-a-barrel” murder case which came to light in South Australia during 1999, the barrels don’t really appear until the last part of the movie. Rather, the story concentrates on the perverse stepfather/son relationship that develops between two of the convicted murderers – the older John Bunting (1966-present) and James Vlassakis (1979-present), who are played by Daniel Henshall and Lucas Pittaway respectively. Snowtown is also a somewhat harsh study of Australia’s outer-suburban poverty trap, where unemployment, boredom, pedophilia, drug use, broken families, deception and despair dominate the landscape. Having said that, the film does feature one of the grisliest torture-murder scenes ever seen in Australian cinema.

3. 10 Rillington Place – John Christie (Richard Fleischer, 1971)

10RillingtonPlace_top10filmsRichard Attenborough is surprisingly good as John Christie (1899-1953), the London terrace house landlord with a history of murder who frames Timothy Evans (John Hurt) for the death of his wife Beryl (Judy Geeson) and infant child Geraldine. While the whole thing ultimately becomes a statement about the inefficiencies of the British justice system (Evans was wrongly hung in 1950 before being posthumously exonerated in 1966), it is Attenborough’s performance as the sexually deviant Christie (he seemingly climaxes as he strangles Beryl) that truly carries the film. It was director Fleischer’s second foray into the world of real-life serial killers, having made The Boston Strangler (about Albert De Salvo) in 1968.

2. Monster – Aileen Wuornos (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

charlize-theron-monster_top10filmsFor anyone wanting to find out the facts pertaining to the life of Aileen Wuornos (1956-2002), they should visit Nick Broomfield’s pair of documentaries Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003). For those who want to sit through a riveting, albeit depressing, pseudo-biopic about a prostitute who is driven to murder because of the rotten circumstances that dominate her existence, however, then this is for you. At its core, Monster centres on the doomed relationship between Wuornos (an unrecognisable Charlize Theron in an Oscar™-winning role) and Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) who, together, try to etch out a pitiful existence in Poorsville. In real life, the killer became involved with the younger Tyria Moore (born in 1965), who eventually turned on her to avoid prosecution. As a result, Wuornos was executed during 2002 for the murder of six men. Although the literature and movie suggest not all of her crimes were committed in self-defence as she argued in court, Broomfield seems to be a little more sympathetic to her plight.

1. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – Henry Lee Lucas (John McNaughton, 1986)

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, John McNaughton, Michael Rooker,While it is only loosely based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas (1936-2001), it doesn’t really matter given the details surrounding his detestable life – and miserable legacy – are, according to a lot of the literature, also a little loose. In real life Lucas was regarded as something of a liar when it came to his murder tally (despite his one-time claim of killing 600 people, he was only directly associated with 11 deaths when he was incarcerated). His pseudo-fictional counterpart (Michael Rooker), however, is ruthlessly efficient when it comes to building up the body count. A dark and horrifyingly terrific film, its cavalier attitude towards random murder is kind of similar to the Remy Belvaux/Andre Bonzel/Benoit Poelvoorde-directed 1992 masterpiece Man Bites Dog – only this time there are absolutely no sick jokes or funny bits. Interestingly, a comparison between Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Michael Feifer’s 2009 nowhere-near-as-good Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas shows just how much attitudes towards censorship have changed over the past few decades. In the McNaughton film, Henry protests loudly when his degenerate sidekick Otis (Tom Towles) shockingly starts molesting a dead female victim. In the Feifer version, Lucas (Antonio Sabato Jnr) just sits back and waits as Otis (Kostas Sommer) has sexual intercourse with a young woman they have just murdered. What’s odd about all this is that back in 1992 – in Australia at least – so disturbed were the censors about this movie that they demanded there be a few snips before Portrait… could be released with an R-rating (that is, suitable only for people aged 18 years and over). Fast forward to 2009 and not only was there no protest over the necrophilia scene in Drifter…, but its DVD was only rated MA (suitable for people over 15 if accompanied by an adult). Don’t want to sound like an old stick-in-the-mud here, but have we really become so desensitised to the point that showing someone raping a corpse is considered OK for so-called popular entertainment?
Discover More: Read editor Daniel Stephens’ full review of Henry: Portrait of the Serial Killer

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Top 10 Films asks: what are the best movies featuring real life serial killers?

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joker-nurse-the-dark-knight_batmanHeading for disaster – read more from Mark Fraser about movies where catastrophic situations see characters’ lives and events spiral out of control. For instance, there’s the bus and train rides to avoid featuring Speed and Runaway Train, while the Top 10 Hospital Crime Scenes sees health services everywhere become the victim of foul play. Top 10 Films involving Terrorism that were made before 9/11 takes the horror global, while Top 10 Films that share an Apocalyptic View of New York City brings the destruction home. Top 10 Films where Submarines get a Starring Role submerges itself below the surface of the ocean to find its drama, while 10 Movies Afflicted with Space Madness heads into the farther reaches of the galaxy.

Other top 10 lists you might like:
Top 10 1990s Murder Investigations in Film | 10 Great Movies I Never Want to Watch Again | Top 10 Alfred Hitchcock Films

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. JB Reply

    I don’t think Charlize Theron has ever been better than Monster. Didn’t think she had a performance like that in her.

  2. Pete Reply

    Dennehy looks dead creepy as Gacy… That’s one I’ll have to check out. Good call on Zodiac, From Hell, Rillington, Snowtown and Monster. Agreed that Henry has to be top.

  3. CurlerKing Reply

    Interesting point about the necrophilia scenes involving Henry Lee Lucas and how that particularly horrifying scene was passed by the censors in more recent time. I do believe we have become more desensitised to violence but what’s incredible is that sex is still considered rather taboo by conservative censorship boards. That they passed a moment of sexual violence is either twisted or highlights how they too don’t know from one day to another what’s right or wrong.

  4. Movies and Bacon Reply

    Zodiac (unless you include ‘based on’, in which case I’d say Badlands, edging out Psycho).

    • Movies and Bacon Reply

      Must admit I haven’t seen many of those. Might need to check some out.

  5. Adam Denton Reply

    Figured there might be more mentions of Jack the Ripper but I’m glad he actually only makes one appearance! Good to see you referencing Murder by Decree though, one of my favourites. I’d actually place it higher than From Hell which I thought was a bold piece of work that looked stunning but felt oddly unfinished (perhaps this was intentional given the real life case’s outcome).

    As a huge fan of James Woods I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t crossed paths with A Journal of Murder. There’s also a couple of others on here that I’m intrigued to see (Snowtown and To Catch a Killer).

    Henry, though, is a perfect number one. A haunting experience that captures the clinical madness of these psychopaths.

  6. Matt's Movie Reviews Reply

    Zodiac, Monster, The Iceman (though more of a hit-man film) and Snowtown.

  7. Tina Reply

    Chopper – based on Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read

  8. jjames36 Reply

    I haven’t seen most of these, but I agree that Monster and Zodiac are quality flicks. Especially Monster.

  9. Dan Reply

    As much as I appreciate the qualities of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, it’s the films that focus on the impact of serial killers on those living in fear (Summer of Sam) and the investigations to capture them (Zodiac, From Hell) that I really enjoy. Certainly, I’m put off by depictions of extreme violence/cruelty, so it’s unsurprising that the “whodunnit” or “who-doing-it” element is far more satisfying for me.

  10. Rodney Reply

    I’d like to throw my hat into the ring here – I sitll believe the Michael Caine television miniseries about Jack The Ripper remains the best portrayal of the horror, desolation and fear of that time, and the best ficionalised account of the case to-date; at least, it’s a far superior film than From Hell, which wallowed in an overabundance of unneccessary character development and salaciousness. It’s a matter of opinion, I guess, but if I can urge folks looking for a real potent version of that story, that’s the one I’d have. However, From Hell is probably the best FILM of the Ripper story so far, even if it’s not as good as a lot of people might think it is.

  11. Evan Crean Reply

    Haven’t seen a lot of the films on this list, but I agree that From Hell and Zodiac Belong on here. Your number 1 film with Michael Rooker sounds the most interesting. I’ve always thought he was an underrated actor. I’ll probably check out Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Monster at some point.

  12. Neal Damiano Reply

    I see you have the Ted Bundy story with Mathew Bright here, which was a great view of the notorious killer. However I thought the” Stranger Beside Me” with Mark Harmon, this version was amazing. Mark Harmon played the seductive, manipulating serial killer with near perfection.

    Great list

  13. Neal Damiano Reply

    Correction in my comment above I meant The Deliberate Stranger ( 1986) version.

  14. Mark Reply

    @all – thank you for the comments.

    @Matt’s Movie Reviews – Believe it or not The Iceman was on my original list based on a book I read about Kuklinski (forgive spelling) and some TV interviews with the man. Then I did a bunch of research on the web and found out he was also regarded as a notorious liar (he once claimed that he was in on the Jimmy Hoffa killing) so I left him in the hitman category.

    @ Neal – cheers bloke. Not sure Ann Rule would agree with you about Harmon. In The Stranger Beside Me, she wrote: “Physically Harmon was a good choice, but he played Ted Bundy as confident from the beginning, as a young Kennedy clone. To Harmon’s credit he could not have known that Ted Bundy had begun his 20s as the man I knew, the socially inept man, the man who felt he didn’t fit into a world of wealth and success.”

    Then: “Infamy bedcame Ted. Only as his crimes made black headlines did he become the Ted Bundy portrayed by Mark Harmon. Harmon’s Ted was so charming and sexy that he sometimes seemed heroic. And that was the Ted that a whole generation of teenage girls fell in love with. I was appalled at the letters and phone calls I got from young girls who wanted to rush to Florida to “save Ted Bundy”. Finally I said – or wrote – firmly to each one : ‘You are not in love with Ted Bundy. You are in love with Mark Harmon’.”

    For my money, I thought the guy who played TB in the Feifer film bore the closest physical resemblance to the man (or at least how I imagine him based on photos and TV appearances). BTW, if you haven’t read the Rule book, and you have some spare time up your sleeve, maybe you should give it a go. It’s quite an insightful piece of work. And, like the Gacy film mentioned above, it suggests TB’s official victim list may not be a truly accurate reflection of the extent of his murderous activities.

  15. Novroz Reply

    I haven’t watched any of those movies before…thank you for sharing this.

    I honestly don’t know that monster is based on real life. I think I will start from that one

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