There’s something about the darker side of human nature that fascinates us. Perhaps it’s that tingle of fear we get watching a horror movie or true crime show while knowing the odds of anything happening to you are minimal. While scary movies about poltergeists and zombies can still deliver chills, nothing quite frightens like real life monsters that lack the fangs of Vampires and the claws of Werewolf but make up for that lacking in body count and blood.
Here are five movies based on real-life serial killers that are bound to have you gripped by morbid fascination and fear. Expect some spoilers.
5. Peter Kürten – M (1931)
The Great Depression sent shockwaves throughout the world, plunging millions into poverty. Economic devastation impacted many countries, but perhaps none so devastatingly as Germany. If the economic collapse wasn’t bad enough, a vampire was lurking in the dark alleyways of Düsseldorf. This vampire didn’t wear a cloak and certainly wasn’t a Count, but he was very real. Peter Kürten was a sexual sadist who gained pleasure from the murder of younger women, mostly teenagers. He was a disorganised killer who didn’t discriminate when it came to methods. He committed a confirmed nine murders and upwards of thirty attacks, even drinking the blood of his victims, hence is given monicker, The Vampire of Düsseldorf. He was apprehended in 1931 and was executed by beheading. Kürten never showed any emotion at his trial, proclaiming, “I have no remorse”.
Calling anything “before its time” has become a tiring platitude, but for Fritz Lang’s M, I’ll make an exception. Lang’s uneasy depiction of a child-murdering serial killer, decades before the term was coined, is among the greatest films ever made. The existence of the movie at all is something of a wonder. If made just a few years later, it’s unlikely it would’ve passed the censors of the Nazi’s who were almost of the cusps of power the year of its release. Peter Lore delivers an unforgettable performance as tormented killer Hans Beckert, one that would sadly typecast the actor for years to come. Set in Berlin, one can’t help but notice how Lang contrasts the city’s dual personality, the innocence of children and the depravity of poverty and vice. If you can get over the film’s age, you’re sure to love it!
M is available on Amazon Prime.
4. John Christie – 10 Rillington Place (1971)
As the Second World War came to a close, thousands of Brits from the big cities were left homeless. Turning to lodging houses with cheap rents, eight poor souls found their way to 10 Rillington Place in London, the home of John Christie. Before the war, Christie was a petty criminal and frequenter of prostitutes. In the First World War, a gas attack left him with a damaged voice box giving the man a soft voice and an exterior of harmlessness. In truth, Christie was a cold-blooded killer who took the lives of at least eight people between 1943 and 1953. Gaining the confidence of women in need, he’d strangle and use poison gas to kill his victims, burying them in and around his property. When John Christie left Rillington Place in 1953, the new tenant found three bodies hidden within the walls. Christie was caught and executed for his crimes the same year.
Richard Attenborough delivers a terrifying portrayal of John Christie in the classic biopic 10 Rillington Place, Digging into the man’s ability to deceive those who were either under-educated or naive enough to know no better. When Timothy Evens moves into the lodging house with his pregnant wife, Beryl, the depressed woman attempts an abortion which fails. Christie uses this as a pretence to have his way with her, proposing to terminate the pregnancy for her. Both accept this proposal, believing that Christie is qualified. When the procedure goes according to Christie’s twisted plan, Tim flees, inadvertently making him look guilty and is wrongly hanged. This movie is as much an indictment of capital punishment that had only been outlawed several years before the movie’s release, than it is about the horrors individuals inflict on each other.
10 Rillington Place is available on Amazon Prime.
3. Ed Gein – Psycho (1960)
Though the events of this Hitchcock classic are purely fictional, the character of Norman Bates is loosely based on the murderer and all-around Ghoul, Ed Gein. Growing up in Plainfield, Wisconsin, Gein was a loner dedicated to his ultra-religious mother. When his mother died, Gein took on the family farm, working as a handyman. When local female residences began disappearing in 1957, police focused on Gein. He had purchased antifreeze from the victim’s store shortly before her disappearance. Officers weren’t prepared for the horrors that awaited them in the old farmhouse. Chairs covered in human skin, Bowls carved from skulls, and body parts in boxes were just a few of the gruesome trinkets they discovered. Ed Gein had murdered two women (that we know) and desecrated the graves of nine people.
Psycho features Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) as the meek manager of Bate’s Motel. On the surface, he appears placid, even pleasant, but inside he is consumed with a mix of hatred and devotion for his dead mother, who instilled him with a hatred of other women. When criminal Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) visits at the hotel, Norman can’t help but become infatuated with the bewitching Crane but knows what his mother expects of him. What follows is one of the most famous scenes in film history. I won’t spoil it because, you know… Spoilers. Psycho righty holds a place in the 100 movies to watch before you die. Fun fact: It was the first time a flushing toilet was ever seen on screen.
Psycho is available on Amazon Prime.
2. Aileen Wuornos – Monster (2004)
Florida is the home of the much lambasted “Florida Man”. But the sunshine state is also infamous for the number of serial killers that call the state home. One Floridian who broke the mould when it came to killer stereotypes was Aileen Wuornos. Originally from Michigan, Wuornos lived a life of instability and abuse. She hitchhiked down to Florida, relying on petty crimes to fund her alcoholic lifestyle. In December 1989, the body of a man was found in woodland, shot to death. Several more murders followed, leading police to suspect a serial killer was on the loose. A woman wasn’t suspected due to the violent method of death. It wasn’t until Aileen was fingerprint matched to those found in a victim’s car that her killing streak ended, with a total of seven men dead. On October 9, 2002, Aileen Wuornos was executed.
Charlize Theron delivers a career-defining tour de force performance in her emotional and challenging role as Wuornos in Monster. The movie deals with the descent of a woman who has been used and abused her entire life. Let down by a system that makes it difficult for former criminals to escape a life of crime until she finally snaps. Desperation leads her to prostitution to support her and her girlfriend, Selby (Christina Ricci). What I love about Monster is that it does revel in violence. The movie flips the general script of many serial killers (primarily men) who prey on vulnerable women. There’s no sympathy on the part of her crimes, but no one is born a monster – they are formed through life experience and circumstance.
Monster is available on Amazon Prime.
1. The Zodiac Killer – Zodiac (2007)
Some serial killers crave the spotlight, hungry for fame. Others are like phantoms who terrify a population and then vanish – the Zodiac is a prime example of the latter. The Zodiac haunted the streets of San Francisco and the surrounding areas during the late 60s, shooting young couples and, allegedly, a taxi driver. The search was one of the largest in the city’s history. Still, through a litany of unverifiable leads and a failure to communicate between police departments, the killer was never brought to justice. Half a century later, there is still hope that this murderous phantom’s identity will become known one day.
Zodiac stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr, and chronicles 5 confirmed murders and the ultimately fruitless attempt at capturing the man. When the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper receives an encrypted letter, Political cartoonist Robert Graysmith takes an obsessive interest in the case. With the assistance of Inspector Dave Toschi (Ruffalo) and journalist Paul Avery (Downey, Jr), they are driven to near mental and physical ruin in their attempt to catch the culprit. It’s a fantastic biopic, but due to the enigmatic nature of the killer, picks prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen as the Zodiac. It is disputed whether Allen was the culprit.
Zodiac is available on Amazon Prime.
Hollywood has always used gruesome reality to create entertainment. These five movies are, in my opinion, the best to ever take on the subject of serial killing, handling the portrayals with depth and pathos without making excuses for their horrendous crimes. Which is your favourite film based on real crimes? Make sure to tell us in the comments below.