SPOILER ALERT – I CAN TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENS IN THESE FILMS, BUT THEN I’LL HAVE TO KILL YOU!
Serial killers and psycho killers are a commonplace threat in horror movies. We like the idea of a human being with inhuman desires or tastes and no mercy. Someone human on the outside, but alien within. Historical figures that fit the bill fascinate us, from Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Tepes to Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, and we are just as interested in their celluloid representations. Some people suggest that the first true serial killer in movies appeared in Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ in 1931. ‘M’ starred Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, murderer of nine young girls in Berlin. The police are getting desperate to catch the murderer and the criminal underworld have decided to catch him themselves to stop the constant hassling from the police. Beckert is unambiguously presented as suffering from a mental illness, claiming that he hears voices that force him to kill.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, played by Joseph Cotten (who had previously been seen in the Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane, playing the titular character’s best friend Jedediah Leland). Hitchcock had been directing films for two decades by this time, but Shadow of a Doubt was only his sixth Hollywood movie. His previous films had mainly been whodunnits, spy thrillers and heist movies, so this was a departure, not just for him, but for the movie industry, and Hitchcock is often quoted as saying that Shadow of a Doubt was the favourite of all his films.
Shadow of a Doubt is not, strictly speaking, a serial killer movie, as it focuses on the niece of the killer finding out Uncle Charlie’s secret, rather than the killings themselves, but it was the first depiction of what came to be known as a serial killer. Serial killers had probably been active for centuries, but records seem to start recording them from the late 1800s (and the name ‘serial killer’ wasn’t even recorded until the 1970s).
So, how do we define a serial killer? What makes a serial killer different from a mass murderer? Well, a serial killer needs to kill at least three people, in separate incidents, with some time in between. The victims are often (but not necessarily) connected by age, gender, race or some other attribute. There are almost as many motives suggested as there are serial killers, but most authorities agree that there will usually be a psychological trigger involved.
A year later, Franz Kapra released the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, in which lovebirds Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) and Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) return to Mortimer’s family home to discover that his sweet old aunts are happily murdering lonely old men (as an act of charity). In addition, Mortimer’s brother Teddy believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and has been helping the aunts by burying the bodies in the cellar. Things are further confused by the return of the third brother, Jonathan, who looks like Boris Karloff due to his use of plastic surgery to escape his crimes. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s good fun.
Even Charlie Chaplin got in on the act, with the 1947 release Monsieur Verdoux. Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, a Bluebeard inspired character that marries and murders wealthy widows, in order to provide for his real family after he unfairly loses his job. He sees no problem with the murders he carries out, judging them to be of far less importance than the large number of killings that occurred during the war.
The film was not well received on its release, especially in America, because of the relatively dark subject matter. This was an almost total reversal of his previous films, mostly featuring his trademark ‘Little Tramp’ character. Despite the poor reception, the film was nominated for an Academy Award and has become a classic example of Chaplin’s talents, eventually becoming a cult classic.
1955 brought the powerful and iconic Robert Mitchum film Night of the Hunter, in which Mitchum’s deranged and tattooed preacher, Harry Powell, tells the Lord all about his holy mission: to cleanse the world of the vain women who use sex as a weapon to ensnare men. After getting arrested for car theft, Powell is locked up with Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who has been sentenced to hang for murder. Harper confesses to Powell that he stole $10,000 and hid it with his wife and children. Powell decides to use this money to fund his mission. The rest of the film revolves around Powell’s attempt to persuade, trick, coerce and threaten Harper’s children. This does not work, so he marries their mother Willa (Shelley Winters), eventually murdering her because she wanted to sleep with him on their honeymoon. Powell’s eventual arrest frees the children from his evil influence and, although the money is lost, they find a new and loving home.
Night of the Hunter was director Charles Laughton’s final film and was not succesful, but, since its release, has been rightly raised to classic status. Mitchum’s diabolical preacher, with ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed across his knuckles, has become a truly iconic villain of cinema, and the expressionist-inspired camerawork lends a disturbing and bizarre atmosphere. It invariably ranks in any classic film list worth its salt!
Jumping ahead to 1960, we find another Alfred Hitchcock classic: Psycho. This film has become the ultimate Hitchcock movie, throwing the audience a curveball by setting up Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, as the lead before killing her off in the now famous ‘shower scene’. Anthony Perkins, playing Norman Bates with a disarming shyness that contains just enough menace to seriously disturb, is the ‘psycho’ of the title, suffering from a split personality since murdering his overbearing mother and her lover. The film was loosely based on the Robert Bloch novel, which was itself based on the real-life murderer Ed Gein. Gein’s two victims meant that he was not classed as a serial killer, but his body-snatching ways affected movie villains for decades. His father died when Ed was in his early thirties, followed over the next five years by the deaths of his brother and mother. There were suggestions that he had killed his brother, but the authorities ruled out any foul play. There were also suggestions that Gein’s mother was “his only friend and one true love” (according to his biographer, Harold Schechter). This clearly inspired the Norman Bates character, dominated by his mother’s personality even long after her death.
The shower scene, in which Janet Leigh is stabbed to death, has become possibly the most famous scene in Hollywood. The scene is only around three minutes long but contains nearly eighty separate camera angles, over fifty cuts and took a full week to shoot. The strange effect of this visually intense scene is what people see in it. Many people have claimed to see Janet Leigh’s breast in one frame, others claim that they see the knife pierce her skin. Neither of these is true. Everything, including the violence and nudity, is entirely in the mind of the observer. This was Hitchcock’s great skill. He famously said that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”. He was a genius at making the audience fill in the gaps, simply through the power of suggestion. The combination of the rapidly changing visuals, Janet Leigh’s helpless screaming and the Bernard Hermann string instrument soundtrack (which has become one of cinema’s most famous audioscapes) create a brutally effective murder scene. The faceless killer, identifiable by the long dress and hair in a bun, is silent, mercilessly slashing and stabbing at Leigh’s naked frame. As she sinks into the tub, chocolate sauce blood swirling down the plug, the camera slowly tracks back from her dead, staring eye and pans across the room to the window, focusing on the Bates house as Norman’s voice rings out with “Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood!”. The murder itself only takes up around twenty seconds of this scene, reinforcing Hitchcock’s assertion that there is no tension in the violent act. The rest of the three minutes is pure, Hitchcockian atmosphere.
Some people would say that this film has no place in a discussion of serial killers, as Norman Bates does not fit into that category, but I would point out that at the end of the film, the psychiatrists explain that Janet Leigh’s character was Norman’s third victim: ‘Mother’ had killed two young women before her, both of whom Norman had been attracted to. Norman himself suffers from a psychological syndrome that affects his reasoning abilities, allowing him to ‘forget’ the murders committed by ‘Mother’ and disassociating himself from them by hiding behind the ‘Mother’ persona.
In 1963, French director Claude Chabrol released a film called Landru (released as Bluebeard in the US). This, like Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, was based on the real-life serial killer Henri Désiré Landru, and featured an educated and respectable man conning and murdering a string of women in order to steal their money. However, in Chabrol’s version, the main character is getting money for his wife (as with Chaplin’s film) but also his four children and his mistress, making him a far less sympathetic character. Landru (portrayed by Charles Denner) is cold and calculating, believing that he is far too intelligent to be caught or convicted, and as such is a far more effective cinematic serial killer than Chaplin’s Verdoux. We like our serial killers to be evil, rather than have a genuine reason for their crimes. We need them to be unrepentant, gloating, either through being two-dimensionally evil or some mental defect that renders them unable to show pity or remorse. They are monsters, not truly people, and we don’t want that layer of complication. After all, we can class mass murderers like James Bond or Jason Bourne as heroes because they only kill ‘baddies’, a simple and clear distinction. A more ambiguous character, like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny, forces us to think about the on-screen violence and its effects. We don’t want that in a serial killer movie.
Eastwood crops up in our next major serial killer movie, about a right-wing, loose-cannon cop chasing down the Scorpio killer in San Francisco in 1971. Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry is more famous for its title character and his “do I feel lucky?” catchphrase, but it is at heart a true serial killer movie. Scorpio plays the now traditional game of cat and mouse with the police, taunting them with demands for ransom, revealing himself before escaping again, building up to a large-scale operation. In Scorpio’s case, he also uses Harry Callahan’s loose-cannon status as something to hide behind, being released on technicalities (Harry searches his home without a warrant, so the evidence is inadmissible), paying someone to beat him up and blaming Harry. Harry eventually goes rogue and hunts down Scorpio against orders, killing him. This is an example of the cop being as cold and murderous as the serial killer, which is kind of the point of the film. Harry is a brutal cop, unafraid of breaking the law in order to protect it. His disgust with the system that protects killers like Scorpio, and cares more about the rights of the criminal than the rights of the victim, is evident when he throws away his badge. Dirty Harry spawned four sequels and a whole bunch of cop movie stereotypes that are still relied on today.
Hitchcock returned to the serial killer genre in 1972, with his second to last feature film Frenzy. This British thriller focuses on killer Bob Rusk (played by Barry Foster), who rapes several young women before strangling them with his tie. Hitchcock cleverly builds tension by showing how evidence is piled up onto an innocent man, Richard Blaney (played by Jon Finch), the boyfriend of one of the murdered girls and ex-husband of a second. The murder scene (only one is shown in the film, the others are all implied) is brutal, utilising similar quick editing as the Psycho shower scene over a decade earlier. It is often classified as one of the most disturbing murder scenes in cinema history, and is undoubtedly far more effective than the gory slash-fests of more modern fare. Barry Foster’s Bob is chillingly friendly, especially as the audience is aware that he is the killer from the start. His cheery flirting with his victims makes one’s skin crawl, as he manages to make innocuous comments seem darkly threatening. His repeated catchphrase, “You’re my kind of woman”, is enough to seal the fate of his victims in the minds of the audience. Frenzy is a masterclass in the representation of the charismatic killer.
The 1970s weren’t a great time for the serial killer movie. There were a few attempts, such as the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force (not really a serial killer movie, instead focusing on a group of cops operating as a ‘death squad’ to take out criminals), and the first real ‘slasher’ movie, Halloween, which tells the story of teen-murdering lunatic Michael Myers. John Carpenter’s film established many of the conventions of the slasher flick that continued through the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, almost entirely replacing the true serial killer movie genre. Myers is dehumanized by the white mask he wears, turning him into a monster, rather than a man. This allows the audience to distance themselves, undoubtedly reducing the emotional intensity in favour of shock tactics.
However, in 1986 a director called Michael Mann released a film based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. The film was called Manhunter and the plot centred around a semi-retired FBI agent, Will Graham (played by William Petersen), called in to consult on the Tooth-Fairy killing, so called because of the bite marks left on the victims bodies. The film introduce the world to a character, here played by Brian Cox, who would enter the public consciousness as the embodiment of evil: Dr Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor). Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist who also happens to have a penchant for murder and cannibalism. He appears in the later films, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and the remake of Red Dragon, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins with malicious glee. Manhunter was a flop on its release, but has since been rightly re-evaluated and its true value as a film recognised. It is seen now as a film released before its time, with a reliance on heavily stylised colour and sound design that borders on the expressionist in places. The later films in the series were directed in a far more straightforward manner, which has aged them, especially Silence of the Lambs from 1991. It is still an excellent serial killer movie, with a fabulous performance from Anthony Hopkins as the creepy doctor, but it has become a victim of its own success, almost a parody of itself. This is even more true of its sequels and the prequel, Hannibal Rising, which was pretty comprehensively panned by critics on its 2007 release.
Silence of the Lambs was the second novel by Thomas Harris that featured Hannibal Lecter. The film was directed by Jonathan Demme with only a slightly healthier budget than Manhunter‘s $15 million: Demme had just $19 million to play with. The film revolves around trainee FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) tasked with convincing Lecter to assist in the ‘Buffalo Bill’ serial killer case. Lecter uses the opportunity to enter into a game of wits with his captors, eventually escaping and disappearing. Starling’s conversations with Lecter reveal her traumatic childhood and the identity of the ‘Buffalo Bill’ killer, but really the point of the film is the interaction with Lecter. Bill’s presence is essentially a MacGuffin, a plot device to bring Lecter and Starling together. Lecter is the true menace in the film, even when safely ensconced within his plexiglass cage, and ‘Buffalo Bill’ is reduced merely a temporary physical threat at the end. Foster plays Starling with a naive nervousness that is entirely fitting, and compliments Hopkins masterful portrayal of Lecter. The psychotic doctor is erudite, charming and devastatingly intelligent, he just so happens to also be a cannibalistic murderer without mercy or empathy. this portrayal again uses the ‘intelligent killer’ archetype, just like Chaplin and Chabrol’s interpretations of Henri Désiré Landru.
A year before Silence of the Lambs was released, a small budget movie starring then-unknown actor Micheal Rooker (of TVs The Walking Dead) was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. The film had been shot in just 28 days, four years previously, but had sat unreleased because of problems with gaining a rating from the MPAA. It was an unusual serial killer movie, in that it was told from the killer’s perspective and followed his life over a few weeks, explaining how he operated, how he thought, how he evaded capture. The budget was just $110,000 and it made around six times that on its original theatrical release. The film was called Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and is regarded as a true classic of the genre. It is loosely based on the claims of a man called Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over six hundred murders committed over an eight year period. However, it has been proved that Lucas was a fantasist, unable to have performed the murders than he claimed, although he was found guilty of a handful. He died in prison in 2001 after having a death sentence converted into a life sentence. The film shows Henry as a man who is totally comfortable with killing. He alters his methods with each kill, so as not to tip the police off that they have a serial killer on their hands. He moves from city to city, so he doesn’t draw attention to himself by racking up too high a body count in any one place. His housemate, Otis (played by Tom Towles), joins him on some of his kills (the two met in prison) and Henry tries to teach him how to avoid capture. Otis’ younger sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), falls in love with Henry, although he has no idea how to deal with this, but earns the displeasure of her brother who rapes her and tries to murder her. Henry stops him and kills him, later escaping the city with Becky before (probably) killing her too and disappearing.
In 1992, a dark Belgian comedy made waves when it portrayed a group of documentary film-makers following a serial killer around and recording his crimes for use in their film. Man Bites Dog was directed by and starred Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel, and follows ‘Ben’ on his campaign of violence and sadism. Ben is not, strictly speaking, a serial killer – he is more of a mass murderer – but I include it here because the portrayal of this killer is also charismatic and intelligent. He has a series of guidelines that he uses, but as the film progresses, these fall by the wayside and it becomes a stark (if still tongue-in-cheek) vision of a psychopath mentally disintegrating. The film-makers (in the film) get drawn into the savagery and violence, and they all end up paying the price at the end.
Basic Instinct, starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, was released in the same year, and is at the other end of the serial killer spectrum. For a start, our killer is a sexy and self-assured woman, rather than a man suffering complete mental collapse, and she does not face the consequences of her actions – rather she arranges that other people do that for her. This film is also a slick and expensive Hollywood creation, with a budget of around $50 million, compared to the tiny college budget of the black-and-white Man Bites Dog.Basic Instinct became one of the highest earning movies of the closing decade of the 20th century, and featured an excellently confident performance from Sharon Stone, although many people were drawn to the film purely on the promise of sexual imagery. To be fair, Ms Stone did not disappoint, flashing her…um…you-know-what at a room full of cops during her interrogation. Critics were divided on the film, with some praising the director, Paul Verhoeven, and even calling the film ‘Hitchcock-esque’, while others criticising the portrayal of homosexuals as evil and twisted in the film. Personally, I would say the film falls far below Hitchcock’s oeuvre, being too typically Hollywood (except maybe for the ending), but is still well worth watching for the well-developed acting and direction involved.
1993 gave us Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis in Kalifornia, Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer (notable mainly for the police chief trying desperately to act as though he is a tough, stereotyped, movie-style police chief), and Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland in The Vanishing (a poorly received remake of the far superior 1988 French/Dutch movie Spoorloos). These were just build-up to the main event – in 1994, Oliver Stone, famous for films like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, released a movie satire on the way that the media glamorized violence (this may be the dictionary definition of irony): The film was called Natural Born Killers. It starred Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory Knox, the psychotically romantic killer couple, with Tom Sizemore as Detective Jack Scagnetti, the violent and vengeful cop on their trail, Robert Downey Jr as Wayne Gale, journalist and presenter of the ‘American Maniacs’ TV show, and Tommy Lee Jones as Warden McClusky, the violent and corrupt prison warden. Virtually every character in this film is unpleasant, from the killers to strangers in diners, from cops to reporters. There is effectively no difference between the violence exhibited by Mickey and Mallory, and that shown by Scagnetti and McClusky, except that Mickey and Mallory don’t have a badge to hide behind and they do not excuse their behaviour as ‘keeping the peace’ or ‘upholding the law’. The pair are incarcerated and manage to start a riot before escaping, a riot in which McClusky is brutally murdered by rioting inmates and Scagnetti is killed by Mallory after he tries to rape her. Part of the modus operandi of the couple is that they always leave someone alive to tell the tale, to spread the legend. At the end of the film, this technique is extended. The reporter, Wayne Gale, uses this MO to try to convince Mickey and Mallory not to kill him. Their response? They don’t need him alive because they have his camera, neatly encapsulating the message that it is the media who encourage violent behaviour.
The film was always going to be problematic for censors and critics alike. By condemning the glorification of violence in the film, they would be proving Stone’s point. By not doing so, they would be tacitly glorifying it themselves, thus proving Stone’s point. In the end, they went for suggesting that the film was too focused on glorifying violence and not enough on the satire. It became just another violent movie in many people’s eyes, which really is missing the point.
A year later, a very different serial killer movie, and arguably one of the finest of modern times, was released. David Fincher – who would go on to direct Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – gave us a very dark and cerebral serial killer movie in Seven (or Se7en). With the double act of Morgan Freeman as mature, sensible and experienced cop William Somerset, and Brad Pitt as young, headstrong and impulsive cop David Mills, Seven follows the trail of a serial killer themed around the seven deadly sins – envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath – while, in the background, Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) tries to adjust to her lonely new life in the big city. The murderer (Kevin Spacey in an originally uncredited role) targets people that he sees as exhibiting the sins – for example, a grossly overweight man (who is forced at gunpoint to eat himself to death) for the gluttony killing, a vain young model (who has her face mutilated and has the choice to commit suicide or call 911) for the pride killing – before apparently turning himself in before the cycle is complete. The closing scenes are cleverly written and expertly handled by the actors.
The film is wonderfully shot, with moody shadows and almost omnipresent rain giving the city a dirty, oppressive feel. It is only in the final scenes that the rain eases off and the sun comes out, an ironic piece of pathetic fallacy. Freeman uses his elder-statesman-like charm as an effective counterpoint to Pitt’s frustrated and angry young man, while Paltrow portrays the nervous and lonely new wife excellently (unusually for her), but the film is stolen by Spacey’s wonderful serial killer. He is only in the film near the end, but he steals every scene with his creepy calm and total control of the situation he has put himself in. You know he is much, much smarter than the two policemen and whatever happens will be entirely according to his plan.
We need to jump forward to 1999 to find Spike Lee’s interpretation of the Son of Sam killings in New York in 1977. Summer of Sam focuses on the reactions of people living in the Bronx at the time of the killings, rather than on the killings themselves. It is therefore barely relevant to this article, despite being an interesting take on the serial killer movie. The following year, however, Mary Harron directed a film based on the Brett Easton Ellis novel American Psycho. This starred Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a yuppie in 1980s New York, who is so obsessed with the materialistic lifestyle that he and his associates aspire to, it drives him insane, and he embarks on a series of ever more violent murders of prostitutes and colleagues. Or does he? The film offers the possibility that the entire thing takes place inside Bateman’s head, going so far as to suggest that even the persona of Bateman is fake. The constant shallowness of Bateman’s respectable life holds some moments of humour, and the murders are suitably gruesome – and executed (no pun intended) with gloriously macabre joy and abandon by Bale – but the film itself is somehow unsatisfying. It does not deliver anything except more questions, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the questions aren’t interesting enough to make one want to find the answers. It is as if the shallowness portrayed on screen has permeated even the meaning of the film, leaving it devoid of any point beyond visceral entertainment.
In 2003 came the last of the true serial killer movies that I will include here, and it is a fictionalised biopic of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, played by an unrecognisable Charlize Theron. Monster was directed by Patty Jenkins and also starred Christina Ricci as Selby Wall (a character based on Aileen’s real lover, Tyria Moore). Wuornos was a prostitute who killed and robbed several of her clients after being raped by one of them, and there is some suggestion that she suffered from a serious mental illness, although she was judged mentally fit to be executed by the state of Florida. The real Wuornos spent her life in and out of correctional facilities after accusing her grandfather and one of his friends of raping her. She also had sex with her own brother. She became a prostitute at age 15. The film deals with some of these issues and shows Wuornos in a generally sympathetic light. It is a challenging film, mainly because the real-life killer’s personality shadows everything on screen. It is certainly worth watching, but it is a harrowing film.
Since the early years of the 21st century, serial killer movies have once again devolved into simple slasher flicks, gory depictions of torture with little or no depth to them. The obvious examples are the Saw films, of which there are seven, all based on a ten minute short film, about a killer known as ‘Jigsaw’ who contrives elaborate traps to torture his victims. There are also the Scream films, which are satires of slasher flicks, combining horror with comedy (very successfully in the case of the first film).
So the serial killer seems to be in hiding again, sneaking through the back rooms, waiting his chance to step back onto the big screen. I don’t think he’ll be gone very long. We need him too much. We like having him around – his inhumanity reaffirms our own while simultaneously providing us with blood-soaked entertainment. His ability to inspire fear comes from the very simple face that he could be anybody, anywhere. If he wears a mask, he just takes it off and he disappears. If he doesn’t wear a mask, it’s because he looks so…normal.
The danger of the serial killer is that the evil isn’t written on his face: it lies hidden behind the eyes.