The 50 Best Serial Killer Movies of All Time

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The 50 Best Serial Killer Movies of All Time

As recently as 2017, it was estimated by one nonprofit organization studying unsolved murders in the FBI database that there may be as many as 2,000 serial killers active in the United States at any given time.

Suffice it to say, they’re not all the stuff of classic horror movie plotting. Few are cannibals. Few live in rambling old mansions with secret passages and a private dungeon in the basement. Even fewer leave behind fiendishly complex cryptographs for a harried, chainsmoking detective and his partner to debate over plates of greasy diner eggs and black coffee. The more frightening reality is that many of them pass as the “average” people we interact with every day. That’s how these stories seem to go: A serial killer is not the sinister-looking stranger who just rolled into town; it’s that quiet next door neighbor who “kept to himself, mostly.”

Perhaps that’s why cinema has such a fascination with the more grandiose, manic version of the serial killer—these stories thrill us even as they’re distracting us from the more pressing danger and mundanity of everyday evil. Regardless, the concept of “a killer on the loose” has been rich cinematic soil for almost as long as film has existed. Go all the way back to 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and what you basically have is a serial killer story—albeit, one in which the murders are being carried out by a hypnotized somnambulist. But the point stands.

Below, we’ve gathered the 50 greatest films about serial killers: a nightmare gallery of murderers both fantastical and disturbingly everyday. Granted, there are a lot of films about people getting killed serially—too many to take into consideration and compare without some basic parameters. So, here’s how we’re operating:

The killers in these films must be human. Vampires, werewolves and giant sharks all kill serially, but they’re not “serial killers” per se.

The killers can’t possess any overt supernatural powers or abilities. They can’t be ghosts, or undead revenants. This means, for example, that Michael Myers of Halloween is still able to qualify, as he is definitely a human being, whereas Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th or Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street do not, given that one is (typically) an undead golem and the other is a supernatural dream monster.

Ultimately, these are all stories about genuine human beings killing other human beings. Got it?

50. Pieces
Year: 1982
Director: Juan Piquer Simón

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Pieces is the sort of silly, head-scratching early ’80s slasher wherein it’s difficult to decide if the director is trying to slyly parody the genre or actually believes in what he’s doing. Regardless, Pieces is a delightfully stupid movie, featuring a killer who murders his mother with an axe as a child after she scolds him for assembling a naughty adult jigsaw puzzle. All grown up, he stalks women on a college campus and saws off “pieces” in order to build a real-life jigsaw woman. The film’s individual murder sequences are completely and utterly bonkers, the best one being a sequence in which the female lead is walking down a dark alley and is suddenly attacked by a tracksuit-wearing “kung fu professor” played by “Brucesploitation” actor Bruce Le. After she incapacitates him, he apologizes, saying he must have had “some bad chop suey,” and waltzes out of the movie. The whole thing takes less than a minute. Pieces also boasts one of the best film taglines of all time: “Pieces: It’s exactly what you think it is!” As schlock goes, it’s an unheralded classic. —Jim Vorel

49. Hannibal
Year: 2001
Director: Ridley Scott 

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It would be highly suspect if anyone ever advocated for this film over The Silence of the Lambs, but despite an obvious downgrade from Jonathan Demme’s distinct visual style, Hannibal still features some fun performances that make it worth watching. Gary Oldman is equally disturbing and amusing as the horrifically scarred Mason Verger, left alive after Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) mauls him as a special kind of punishment. Julianne Moore sadly replaces Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, failing to connect with the character’s West Virginia roots in the way that made her both emotionally vulnerable and exploitable by Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Still, you get a double dose of the serial killer in the film that bears his name, as Hopkins receives considerably more screen time than he did in Demme’s movie, living abroad in Italy and leaving a trail of gore in his wake. Hopkins plays a character who is just so damn interesting that we always end up wanting to spend as much time observing him as we can. —Jim Vorel

48. The Clovehitch Killer
Year: 2018
Director: Duncan Skiles


Life in small-town Christian America can have a stultifying effect on a person, sucking out all personality and vitality, replacing all individual identity with better living through dogma. In The Clovehitch Killer, director Duncan Skiles replicates this bait-and-switch through cinematographer Luke McCoubrey’s camera. The film is shot stock-still, the camera more or less fixed from one scene to the next, as if affected by the vibe of routine humming throughout its setting of Somewhere, Kentucky. Almost none of the characters we meet in the movie have a spark; they’re drones tasked with maintaining the hive’s integrity against interlopers who, god forbid, actually bother to be somebody. Caught up in this dynamic is Tyler (Charlie Plummer), awkward, quiet and shy, the son of Don (Dylan McDermott), a handyman and Scout troop leader, which brings no end of unexpressed consternation to Tyler as a Scout himself. On the surface, Don looks and acts like an automaton, too, with occasional hints of humor and warmth in his capacity as father and Scoutmaster. Beneath, though, he’s something more, at least so Tyler suspects: The Clovehitch Killer, a serial killer who once tormented their area with a horrific murder spree long completed. Or maybe not. Maybe Don just has a real kink fetish and keeps rope around for fun in the bedroom. Either way, fathers aren’t always who or what they appear.

Horror movies  are all about the squirm, the nerve-wracking build-up of tension over time that, done properly, leaves viewers crawling out of their skin with dread. In The Clovehitch Killer, this sensation is wrought entirely through craft instead of effects. That damn camera, motionless and unstirred, is always happy to film what’s in front of it, never one to pan about to catch new angles. What you see is what it shows you, but what it shows you might be more awful than you can stomach at a glance. This is a devilish movie that does beautifully what horror films are meant to—vex us with fear—through the most deceptively simple of means. —Andy Crump

47. The Hitcher
Year: 1986
Director: Robert Harmon

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In horror films, there’s something alluring to a relentless and unstoppable killer whose motivation is only to destroy innocent life with nihilistic, almost supernatural fervor. Part of the reason the original Halloween is still so frightening lies in its chillingly effortless ability to present Michael Myers as a figure of death itself: no reason, no rhyme, he won’t stop until you stop breathing. The original The Hitcher operates on many of the same levels, as the simplicity of its premise about a couple (C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who takes on a dual role, as the top and bottom halves of her body) hounded by a murderous maniac hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer) takes full advantage of the unresolved mystery surrounding the killer’s motivations. (Transform the truck from Duel into Rutger Hauer, and you get The Hitcher.) Director Robert Harmon’s film casts an appropriately icky, low-grade aura, perfectly fitting the killer’s philosophical point-of-view, an aesthetic approach that eludes the makers of the ill-fated 2007 remake, which looks too glossy to work on a visceral level. Also, with all due respect to Sean Bean, he’s no Rutger Hauer. —Oktay Ege Kozak

46. Summer of Sam
Year: 1999
Director: Spike Lee 

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Summer of Sam technically isn’t about the Son of Sam killer, who terrorized New York City during the summer of 1977 with his weapon of choice, a 44-caliber handgun— it’s a return for director Spike Lee to exploring how much irreversible damage unfounded paranoia and unchecked prejudice can inflict on neighborhoods, friendships and relationships. In a way, Summer of Sam operates as a mini-Do The Right Thing retread, focusing less overtly on race and more on how society marginalizes people who, for whatever reason, are different. When Richie (Adrian Brody) returns to his conservative Italian neighborhood dressing and acting like a proud member of a British punk band, the immediate reaction from his old friends is that he’s a freak, so he must be responsible for the murders that plague the city. Lee treating Son of Sam’s exploits as a sub-plot—Summer of Sam may feel a bit bloated and overlong, actually, with too many characters and sub-plots—actually works in heightening the visceral shock of the film’s killings: The death scenes lack the usual suspense of a standard serial killer flick, so that when the killer casually approaches his victims and empties his gun, the violence begins suddenly and ends suddenly, allowing us to contemplate the matter-of-factness of it, in direct contrast to more strangely macabre sequences, like when the killer has a conversation with a dog. —Oktay Ege Kozak

45. God Bless America
Year: 2012
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait 

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Black comedy God Bless America follows Frank (Joel Murray), a depressed middle-aged man with an ex-wife and a bratty daughter who fantasizes about killing the idiots he’s surrounded by at home, work and in his day-to-day life. After he’s diagnosed with a brain tumor, fired from work and told that his eight-year-old daughter no longer wants to see him because he’s boring, Frank decides to take his own life—until, just as he’s about to commit suicide, the TV turns to a reality show about a spoiled teenager named Chloe (Maddie Hasson) who throws a huge tantrum on her 16th birthday because her parents bought her the wrong extremely expensive car. Frank decides there are people in this world more deserving of death than himself. So, Frank first stalks Chloe to her high school, where he shoots her in her car, but as he leaves, he’s spotted by one of Chloe’s classmates, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), who is deeply excited by Frank’s passion to exterminate the people whom she also considers to be the scum of the earth. Bobcat Goldthwait’s angry, biting satire rips apart all of the worst aspects of our culture, from the vapid idiocy of reality TV and caffeinated energy sports drinks, to the sheer rudeness that humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. Frank may be complaining about the herd mentality of many Americans, but underlying that is his battle against a society that bullies and mocks its weakest members, making the daily lives of some so unbearable hey would rather die than live in such company. For those who hold any part of the American Dream in high regard, this film is sure to offend. Though Frank and Roxy’s reaction is extreme, the sheer frustration and feelings of impotence that lies behind their mass murder spree are all too relatable. It’s a wonderfully sharp, funny film that fights tooth and nail against what is considered de rigueur behavior in modern life. —Emily Kirkpatrick

44. Creep 2
Year: 2017
Director: Patrick Brice

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Creep was not a movie begging for a sequel. About one of cinema’s more unique serial killers—a man who seemingly needs to form close personal bonds with his quarry before dispatching them as testaments to his “art”—the 2014 original was self-sufficient enough. But Creep 2 is that rare follow-up wherein the goal seems to be not “let’s do it again,” but “let’s go deeper”—and by deeper, we mean much deeper, as this film plumbs the psyche of the central psychopath (who now goes by) Aaron (Mark Duplass) in ways both wholly unexpected and shockingly sincere, as we witness (and somehow sympathize with) a killer who has lost his passion for murder, and thus his zest for life. In truth, the film almost forgoes the idea of being a “horror movie,” remaining one only because we know of the atrocities Aaron has committed in the past, meanwhile becoming much more of an interpersonal drama about two people exploring the boundaries of trust and vulnerability. Desiree Akhavan is stunning as Sara, the film’s only other principal lead, creating a character who is able to connect in a humanistic way with Aaron unlike anything a fan of the first film might think possible. Two performers bare it all, both literally and figuratively: Creep 2 is one of the most surprising, emotionally resonant horror films in recent memory. —Jim Vorel

43. Serial Mom
Year: 1994
Director: John Waters

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Ever the prescient scumbag sophisticate, John Waters presaged America’s true crime fixation—in the wake of the Menendez brothers and the Pamela Smart trials, before, even, Gus Van Sant’s groundbreaking To Die For, and in the glow of the OJ Simpson murders—with the tongue-through-cheek Serial Mom. Farce at the fore, Waters fully understands the power of having Kathleen Turner play the titular murderer, a woman whose attractiveness, domesticity and class status allow her the unearned sympathy and forgiveness her despicable crimes require in order to continue, but never shies away from juxtaposing the friendliness of Beverly Sutphin’s (Turner) demeanor with the putrid nature of her psyche, producing a film as upsetting as it is hilarious about the corrupt core of society’s cravings for such shitty stuff. Even as her family attempts to curb her homicidal ways, Beverly succeeds in ending the lives of those whose lives she wants to end, her husband (Sam Waterston) and daughter (Ricki Lake) and son (Matthew Lillard) helpless against the tide of ratings and Nielsen numbers working to thwart them. With little room for debate, Waters lays the blame for such blithe misery at our feet, insisting that with every bit of reality TV wretchedness we consume, we encourage another psychopath to take that extra step toward their own 15 minutes of sinister stardom. —Dom Sinacola

42. Black Widow
Director: Bob Rafelson
Year: 1987

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Taking the femme fatale conceit to literal extremes, director Bob Rafelson, whose credits include Five Easy Pieces and the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, delivers a modern noir elevated by two ace lead performances. Debra Winger does Debra Winger as an FBI agent, Alex, who grows obsessed with the perpetrator of a series of unsolved marriages-then-murders. Theresa Russell matches her note for note as gold-digging vixen Catharine, who’s as good at the long con as she is a cat-and-mouse game with Winger’s humdrum suit. Then there’s the staggering amount of research involved—Catharine on the passions of her soon-to-be victims, Alex on her suspect. It’s smart, with pointed gender commentary to boot. The plain-Jane Fed plays frenemies with the glamorous chameleon while cinematography great Conrad L. Hall (Cool Hand Luke, American Beauty) mines suspense in the shadows, all the better to spotlight Russell’s steely eyes and porcelain veneer—she’s bone-chilling. Bonus points for a droll cameo from Dennis Hopper as one of Catharine’s marks, and a lecherously long-nailed Diane Ladd as one of his relatives. —Amanda Schurr

41. Death Proof
Year: 2007
Director: Quentin Tarantino

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Kurt Russell plays serial killer Stuntman Mike in Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s half of the double-feature Grindhouse, but the cars are the real stars. Just as he does in all of his works, Tarantino fills the lives of his diverse menagerie of characters with his trademark blend of mundane pop-cultural dialogue and insane violence. In one exhilarating sequence, real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell precariously hangs onto the hood of a speeding car in what is one of the greatest chase scenes in cinematic history. Ultimately, Death Proof will never be considered one of Tarantino’s “major works”—especially after the recent revelations of Uma Thurman’s car accident on the set of Kill Bill—but it’s still a satisfying shot of righteous adrenaline to see Stuntman Mike finally get what’s coming to him. —Tim Basham

40. Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile
Year: 1974
Directors: Alan Ormsby, Jeff Gillen

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Imagining Deranged as the loose prequel to Home Alone makes Buzz’s tall tales about the creepy next-door-neighbor the stuff of actual nightmares. In Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen’s nasty-ass Canadian cult curio, Roberts Blossom plays Ezra Cobb (his only starring role, though it never gained close to the amount of attention he garnered as misunderstood Old Man Marley), a deeply unsettling small-town weirdo who harbors a disturbing obsession with his recently-deceased mother, which of course grows into a murderous spree to gather more corpses to keep his mother’s corpse company. Like most stories about serial killers, Ezra’s mental afflictions draw liberally from pop culture’s morbid fascination with the—cough—deranged individuals who exist in every domesticated corner of the planet, disguising their neuroses to function within society, and so Deranged pulls from the story of Ed Gein as much as it seems to pull from the shocking realism of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—which came out the same year (the two films probably pulling from the same collective pool of unconscious Jungian fears)—reveling in breaking one taboo after another, unfazed by the gruesomeness portrayed on screen. Deranged does get gross, its final moments revealing that, like so many films of its ilk, this could only happen in a godless universe, a universe in which there is no reason or purpose to evil. Throughout it all, Blossom delivers a stomach-churning performance, his face a graveyard of shadows and terrible memories pushed to Jim-Carrey-like levels of elasticity, as inhuman as it is strictly corporeal. In retrospect, one understands Buzz’s warnings, however manipulative they may’ve been: Blossom’s is the face of a guy who could beat an innocent bystander to death with a snow shovel without flinching. —Dom Sinacola

39. Maniac
Year: 2012
Director: Franck Khalfoun

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Maniac is a rather impressive reimagining of the 1980 exploitation horror film of the same name, an attempt to take some grindhouse material and redress it in a modern skin, equal parts shocking and thought-provoking. Elijah Wood gives a transformative performance as the killer, Frank Zito, even though you almost never see Wood’s face, given that the entire movie is filmed from the killer’s perspective—yes, the entire film. Rather, the audience hears the running background noise of his madness as he mutters to himself and stalks his female victims. Be warned: The violence of Maniac is difficult to watch for even seasoned horror vets, and the constant POV shot of the killer’s perspective immediately makes the audience feel both guilt at their complicity and sick at their solidarity with the killer. Some will call it overly gratuitous in terms of its brutality, but the film is so assured in its artistic aims that it’s difficult to hold to the criticism. Set to a score of alternating, Carpenter-esque synth and classical/opera music, Maniac is an arthouse gore film if there ever was one. —Jim Vorel

38. Cruising
Year: 1980
Director: William Friedkin

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A source of uproar and protest upon its original release, William Friedkin’s Cruising saw the director dip his toes again into gay subculture, and though he moved from the middle class, booze-soaked apartments of The Boys in the Band (1970) to underground, sweat-stained leather bars, little changed in terms of how he conceptualized how gay men conceptualized their own fears and desires. Outsider perspective or not, the link between his adaptation of Mart Crowley’s Albee-esque play and Gerald Walker’s pulpy noir of a thriller is self-loathing, both about adult men whose entire identities are contingent on how well they can numb themselves. Friedkin’s Cruising frames that anxiety within the story of a cop, Steve Burns (Al Pacino), who goes undercover in New York’s leather culture to find a serial killer murdering men on the scene, Friedken’s connection between sex and death amplified because of its queerness. If the director has a gawky, wandering eye, it seems logical that Pacino’s Burns, too, is entranced, repulsed, attracted to and captivated by a manifestation of maleness that deliberately mixes the foreign and familiar. Like an amalgamation of the danger of toxic masculinity and a prophetic meditation on the AIDS crisis (the first report of AIDS was not published in the New York Times until July 3, 1981), Cruising is stunning as one man’s reluctant trip down a gay rabbit (glory) hole. —Kyle Turner

37. The Cell
Year: 2000
Director: Tarsem Singh

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The career of director Tarsem Singh has never quite managed to live up to the promise first seen in 2000’s The Cell. This futurist, fantasist spin on The Silence of the Lambs sees a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez, back when she was an actor first and foremost) descending into the twisted mind of a serial killer (an unrecognizable Vincent D’Onofrio) via an experimental piece of technology that allows one person’s consciousness to be inserted into the subconscious of another. Presaging the likes of Inception, The Cell is startlingly imaginative at times, a visual feast that recalls Clive Barker’s fixations upon grandiosity and sadomasochism, as Lopez comes up against the killer’s mental projection, who dresses and behaves as an omnipotent god-king in a twisted dream world like something out of H.P. Lovecraft. Unpolished and self-congratulatory at times, one still has to admire its sheer chutzpah. If any of these films were going to be remade as an episode of Black Mirror in 2018, it would probably be this one. —Jim Vorel

36. Tenebrae
Year: 1982
Director: Dario Argento

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If you wrote an ultra-violet horror book, and if your ultra-violent horror book inspired a workaday psycho to go on their own ultra-violent killing spree, would you be put off or would you take it as a compliment? Maybe that’s not the question Dario Argento asks in his notorious 1982 giallo film Tenebrae, but the plot does call to mind a certain old proverb about imitation and flattery: American author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) heads to Italy to promote his new book, and finds that there’s a serial killer on the loose, emboldened by Neal’s bibliography and murdering Romans in his name. That’s gotta feel pretty good for Neal, though not so much for the killer’s victims. The guy isn’t exactly into efficiency; he prefers to make his prey suffer, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given Tenebrae’s source. (Argento isn’t into efficiency, either. He’ll kill people with random stockpiles of razor wire if he feels like it.)

Tenebrae, more so than other Argento movies, is tough to watch; it’s an especially bloody affair, but its artistic merit demands we consider it essential cinema. The film stages arterial geysers to soak its sets in crimson equally as often as it admits Argento’s own twisted indulgences as a filmmaker. He opens the film with a narration about finding freedom in taking life, for Christ’s sake. You figure it out. It’s not that Argento condones murder or anything as nutty as that; it’s more that he’s willing to confess his hopeless fixation with depicting murder on screen. When you’re possessed of as great a gift for that kind of thing as Argento, what reasonable person can blame you? —Andy Crump

35. Frenzy
Year: 1972
Director: Alfred Hitchcock 

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Hitchcock’s penultimate (and arguably last great) film is also his grisliest. As movie censors became slightly more relaxed in the 1970s, Hitchcock was allowed to show more violence and even some nudity. It’s still tame by today’s standards, but the tale of a London serial killer who rapes and strangles his female victims with a necktie is the master of suspense at his most graphic, while retaining the typically twisty, turny plotting you’d expect. —Bonnie Stiernberg

34. Black Christmas
Year: 1974
Director: Bob Clark

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Fun fact—nine years before he directed holiday classic A Christmas Story, Bob Clark created the first true, unassailable “slasher movie” in Black Christmas. Yes, the same person who gave TBS its annual Christmas Eve marathon fodder was also responsible for the first major cinematic application of the phrase “The calls are coming from inside the house!” Black Christmas, which was insipidly remade in 2006, predates John Carpenter’s Halloween by four years and features many of the same elements, especially visually. Like Halloween, it lingers heavily on POV shots from the killer’s eyes as he prowls through a dimly lit sorority house and spies on his future victims. As the mentally deranged killer calls the house and engages in obscene phone calls with the female residents, one can’t help but also be reminded of the scene in Carpenter’s film where Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) calls her friend Lynda, only to hear her strangled with the telephone cord. Black Christmas is also instrumental, and practically archetypal, in solidifying the slasher trope of the so-called “final girl.” Jessica Bradford (Olivia Hussey) is actually among the better-realized of these final girls in the history of the genre, a remarkably strong and resourceful young woman who can take care of herself in both her relationships and deadly scenarios. It’s questionable how many subsequent slashers have been able to create protagonists who are such a believable combination of capable and realistic. —Jim Vorel

33. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Year: 2006
Director: Tom Tykwer

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An orphan with a superhuman sense of smell makes the startling discovery that he has no scent of his own, and his quest for the ultimate perfume takes a very dark turn. Adapted from Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume and set in 18th century France, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer stars Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an unfortunate urchin who’s sold to a tanner but finds his way into becoming a perfumer’s apprentice. The perfumer (Dustin Hoffman) ultimately sends him to the perfume masters of Grasse, France, to learn enfleurage, the art of extracting essences by coating them with fat. Jean-Baptiste isn’t interested in jasmine and lavender, though. He wants to distill and reproduce the essence of people, particularly beautiful virgins. So naturally he goes on a rampage of murders to capture some personal scents. Ultimately he’s caught and slated for a very grisly execution, but he’s stashed away the perfume he’s concocted from the women he’s killed, and covers himself with it, causing everyone to declare he is innocent, and possibly an angel, provoking a frenzy in which the townspeople devour him.

Directed by Tom Tykwer, the film received mixed responses from critics, with the general consensus that its excellent cinematography was undermined by a less-than-stellar script. (Even Alan Rickman, as the wealthy Antoine Richis, father of the final victim, couldn’t sound 100% convincing at times.) Fans of the novel might find the film’s deviations annoying, and it is profoundly challenging to successfully evoke the sense of smell on film. However, any connoisseur of serial killer movies should have this one under their belt if purely for the unusual, and slightly magical, high concept. Beneath the uneven writing there’s some pretty deep philosophical questioning of the nature of human “essence,” or soul, and what it would be like to be without one. —Amy Glynn

32. I Am Not a Serial Killer
Year: 2016
Director: Billy O’Brien

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On the surface, this overlooked 2016 gem feels subtly familiar to those who have perhaps seen series such as Dexter: a boy (Max Records) with pronounced sociopathic tendencies fears he is “fated” to become a serial killer, and thus lives by a set of rules designed to keep those around him safe. But the film makes the unusual distinction of having young John Wayne Cleaver’s mental and emotional condition be much better understood by those around him than is typical for films in this genre—they’re at least attempting to be allies, whether he can see it or not. Records is captivating as the lead, projecting a fascination with the icky inner workings of both the human body and human condition, while a 78-year-old Christopher Lloyd steals the show as John’s doddering but dangerous next-door-neighbor. Low-budget but gory and stylish in spades, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a film whose final act diverges from the expected narrative in ways that may be shocking, to say the least, but throughout it maintains a rock-solid grasp on its fundamental themes of emotion, family and predestination. —Jim Vorel

31. Manhunter
Year: 1986
Director: Michael Mann

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Received at the time to mixed reviews, its hyper-aestheticized allure surprisingly a bit too much for audience tastes in the mid-’80s, Manhunter more than 30 years later represents (maybe ironically) what the mid-’80s felt like to those who can’t quite remember it concretely. In other words, it’s a movie unstuck in time, a product of a decade that’s long past but so surreal and steeped in symbolism and superbly manicured that it seems to hide generations of terror inside it. The first of many adaptations of Thomas Harris’s novels, Manhunter crafted the model and set the dead-serious stakes for every iteration to follow, mooring dream-like imagery to a careful police procedural, attempting to depict the harrowing emotional experience of being an FBI profiler while never skimping on the melodrama.

All the while, Mann draws big abstruse lines around the serial killer at the core of the film—a laconic lurch of a man, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), the so-called “Tooth Fairy”—who inhabits every scene with the foreboding promise that he is a person whose reality is a fragile delusion. Brian Cox haunts the fringes of the film, the first actor to inhabit Hannibal Lecktor (for some reason, first spelled that way), the manifestation of Agent Will Graham’s (William Peterson) Id, a foil to the “good guy” and a psychopath whose lack of empathy makes all the starker Mann’s intuitive sense of framing. Abetted by DP Dante Spinotti’s willingness to treat color like he’s lighting a giallo as much as a Miami Vice-minded crime thriller, in Manhunter Mann found an early career balance between the gritty minutiae of investigative police work and the abstract, cerebral violence of the investigations themselves. Dollarhyde wants only to be wanted, so he kills to be truly “seen” by his victims, which then, in his mind, transforms him into something powerful. Manhunter acts in much the same way, growing stronger the harder you stare into it. —Dom Sinacola

30. Deep Red
Year: 1975
Director: Dario Argento

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Dario Argento’s movies would be easy to pick out of a police lineup, because when you add all of his little quirks together they form an instantly iconic style. Deep Red is one of those films that simply couldn’t have been made by anyone else—Mario Bava could have tried, but his wouldn’t have the quintessential soundtrack by Argento collaborators Goblin, nor the drifting, eccentric camerawork that constantly makes us question whether we’re looking through the killer’s POV or not. And the story is a classic giallo whodunit: Following the brutal cleaving of a German psychic (Macha Méril), a music teacher (David Hemmings) who lives in her building starts putting the pieces together to solve the murder mystery, uncovering a tragic family history. Along the way, anyone who gets close to the answer gets a meat cleaver to the head from a mysterious assailant in black leather gloves—except for those who die in much worse, more gruesome ways. Argento has a real eye for what is physically disconcerting to watch—he somehow takes scenes that are “standard” for the horror genre and makes them much more uncomfortable than one would think by simply reading a description of the sequence. In Argento’s hands, a slashing knife becomes a paintbrush. —Jim Vorel

29. Creep
Year: 2014
Director: Patrick Brice

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Creep is a somewhat predictable but cheerfully demented indie horror film, the directorial debut by Patrick Brice, who also released 2015’s The Overnight. Starring the ever-prolific Mark Duplass, it’s a character study of two men: naive videographer (played by Brice) and not-so-secretly psychotic recluse (Duplass), the latter hiring the former to come document his life out in a cabin in the woods. The found footage two-hander leans entirely on its performances, which are excellent, early back-and-forths between the pair crackling with a sort of awkward intensity. Duplass, who can be charming and kooky in something like Safety Not Guaranteed, shines here as the deranged lunatic who forces himself into the protagonist’s life and haunts his every waking moment. Anyone genre-savvy will no doubt see where it’s going, but it’s still a well-crafted ride that succeeds on the strength of the chemistry between its two principal leads in a way that reminds me of the scenes between Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. —Jim Vorel

28. Blood and Black Lace
Year: 1964
Director: Mario Bava

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You can credit films such as Psycho or Peeping Tom for laying the groundwork for the slasher genre, and 1974’s Black Christmas for first bringing all the elements together into what is undeniably a “slasher movie,” but Mario Bava’s foundational 1964 giallo is so close as to almost merit that title as the first “true” slasher in almost every way that matters. Blood and Black Lace is an absolutely gorgeous, sumptuous movie that is all the better to see on the big screen, if you can, featuring dramatic splashes of primary colors used to maximum impact. The story is a blend of darkly comic murder mystery and titillation-tinged exploitation, featuring a gaggle of female models stalked by a mysterious assailant whose face is covered in an impenetrable stocking mask with blank features—a killer who looks for all intents and purposes like the DC Comics character The Question. It’s an immediately iconic image that seared its imprint into an entire Italian genre, and subsequent killers would reflect so many of this film’s killer’s features, from the black gloves and long coat to the mask itself. Although many tried to ape its visuals, very few could match the decadence and the sense of luxurious (and deadly) excess that Bava captures in Blood and Black Lace. —Jim Vorel

27. The Element of Crime
Year: 1984
Director: Lars Von Trier 

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While Lars von Trier trained at Copenhagen’s premier film school, his twisted little mind made its auspicious debut with The Element of Crime in 1984. Even before Dogme 95, in which he made a bunch of rules only to ruefully break them, von Trier’s preoccupations were on the subversive from the get go. This neo-noir exploration on guilt and obsession set the groundwork for films like Europa, with its tricky somnambulatory tone, and even films as far forward as Nymphomaniac, in which he returned to testing the limits of desire and destruction between men and women. In The Element of Crime, his post-apocalyptic vision of Europe (part of his “Disintegration of Europe” trilogy), a former cop/current ex-pat detective, Fisher (Michael Elphick), recalls his last case, concerning a serial killer who strangled, raped and mutilated young girls. As influenced by Blade Runner as he is by Kafka, von Trier spins a classic tale of spiritual annihilation by way of imitation: Fisher uses a book called The Element of Crime to identify with the killer and, therefore, begins to see himself meld with the elusive culprit. Von Trier was button-pushing right out of the gate, his palette urine-painted and garish, and his obsessions provocative. With his first feature, the Danish director knowingly established himself as an incomparable enfant terrible. —Kyle Turner

26. The Bad Seed
Year: 1956
Director: Mervyn LeRoy

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The Bad Seed is one of the most disturbing American portraits of pure psychopathy or sociopathy, coming from the least suspected of all sources: an 8-year-old girl. The piercing eyes of little blonde, pigtailed Rhoda (Patty McCormack) are terrifying to behold, moreso once we begin to suspect what lays behind her facade. Rhoda’s ability to function and hide her true self with wily cunning foretells the likes of Patrick Bateman or Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but the seeming ease with which she does so is especially disturbing. There could be no We Need to Talk About Kevin without The Bad Seed there to ask the question: What is the nature of innate evil? The menace and sheer, unflinching look into human cruelty in The Bad Seed is truly unique for its time period, with young McCormack’s performance ranking among the all-time greats for children in a horror film. The Bad Seed is about the horrors of responsibility as a parent, when there’s something you know needs to be done but the act of carrying it out is something the world will never be able to understand. It’s a film that may turn you off pigtails for life. —Jim Vorel

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