Even with the best efforts, not all crimes can be stopped. These detectives aren’t the ones who step out from around a corner just in time to take out the killer before they can follow through with killing their victims. These are the detectives who run out of time, the ones who have to stand in the gory aftermath and feel regret that they couldn’t piece clues together faster, and those who become victims themselves.
10. Detectives Mills and Somerset – Se7en (1995)
Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) epitomize the trope of the detectives who can never seem to show up to find any of the victims of the gruesome Seven Deadly Sins killings while they’re still alive. Sure, they manage to find the Sloth-inspired victim (Michael Reid MacKay) while he’s barely clinging to life, but even that doesn’t count as a win. Like a chess game between a master and dogged novices, the detectives keep making the exact moves that killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) anticipates.
9. Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller and Sergeant Nash – Black Christmas (1974)
Despite girls going missing on campus, despite a student’s body being found in the snow, the police in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) just keep underestimating what’s really threatening Pi Kappa Sigma. Despite making a few good moves, such as tapping the sorority’s phone line to trace the culprit behind the obscene calls that Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her friends have been receiving, they ultimately fail to protect vulnerable students from the killer in their midst. By the time the credits start rolling, they’re still riding their same train of underestimation: they assume that the killer is caught and finished, but sole-survivor Jess‘s fate seems ambiguous at best as she’s left, unsupervised, inside the house.
8. Detective Ralph Anderson – The Outsider (2020)
To local cop Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), the gruesome murder of a boy has all the trappings of an open-and-shut case. Unfortunately, this case is part of something much larger and less human. What holds Anderson back is that, especially compared to his colleague Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), he has a hard time grappling with the idea that contrary to the strong evidence that he’s gathered, the murderer he’s after might not be the man that he’s arrested, but rather something supernatural. Killings just keep happening while Anderson sits in his skepticism.
7. Detective Stan Aubray – Anamorph (2007)
Semi-retired detective Stan Aubray (Willem Dafoe) gets called back to duty to support the investigation of an unusually artistic murder: like a precursor to the elaborate deaths of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, the murderer goes through great pains to pose his victim and project it through a camera obscura. The killings that follow have a similar aesthetic bent. Aubray lets himself become obsessed with the situation, withholding evidence and letting himself become the mouse to the killer’s cat. He’s so tunnel-visioned by the case that, while he suspects that he’s being stalked, he doesn’t even notice when one of his only friends in the city gets taken to be the killer’s next victim.
6. Lincoln Rhyme and Officer Amelia Donaghy – The Bone Collector (1999)
Former detective Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) is an insightful forensics investigator, but a spinal injury keeps him out of the field; spitfire rookie officer Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) is a mostly willing protegé, but she would really rather be working behind a desk. Their fresh team-up to solve a string of murders in New York City means that both Rhyme and Donaghy are constantly losing ground as they try to navigate working together and piecing together the killer’s cryptic messages.
5. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell – No Country for Old Men (2007)
The saddest part about Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) isn’t that he utterly fails to protect Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) from the various people who want him dead, including cold-blooded killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who’s been hired to dispatch him. The saddest part is that he just…retires afterward, knowing that Anton is still out there, still killing.
4. Detective Giermani – Tenebrae (1982)
When a murdered woman is found with her mouth stuffed with pages of horror writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa)’s book Tenebrae, it’s Detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) who predicts that this murder is just the beginning of what are bound to be serial killings. Unfortunately, Giermani‘s preternatural insights pretty much end there. The murdering continues as he predicted, but Giermani isn’t able to stop them. He isn’t any better at telling when people aren’t actually dead, either.
3. Kenichi Takabe – Cure (1997)
The murderers are all different, unconnected people, but they all disfigure their victims in the same way: by carving an X into the backs of their necks. Despite this continuity, none of the murderers seem to have motives, nor do they really understand what they’ve done or why they’ve done it. It’s a mystery that detective Kenichi Takabe wants to piece together. If you haven’t already, I recommend that you check out this Japanese crime thriller that director Bong Joon Ho has called his “all-time favourite movie“.
2. Detective Eric Matthews – Saw II (2005)
Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) is a bad-tempered, selfish cop, and he never had a snowball’s chance in hell of saving eight victims, including his own son, from a rigged house. Whether he plays by the rules or not, Matthews is destined to become John Kramer‘s (Tobin Bell) pawn throughout the franchise.
1. Sheriff Dan Gillis – Dead and Buried (1981)
Any visitors who enter small town Potter’s Bluff are doomed to be murdered by a mob of violent townspeople. It doesn’t make sense, and local sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) plans to get to the bottom of these attacks. Strangely, Gillis takes the idea of being “fatally late” more literally than any other cop on this list. He’s much, much less in control of this investigation than he thinks and he’s the only one out of a horrible loop.
Whether inept, obsessed, or just in way over their heads, which cops would you add to this list? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and on the Nightmare on Film Street Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook.