Biopics are a strange breed of films. They can be absolutely spectacular, like Spike Lee’s Malcom X or David Fincher’s The Social Network….or they can be Bohemian Rhapsody. Somewhere along that scale of great-to-garbage lies the elusive serial killer biopic. Some are beautiful and challenging, and others are simply challenging. There have been dozens of these films made throughout the decades, but the heyday of the subgenre came after the turn of the century. With the ease and profitability of the Direct-to-Video and Video on Demand distribution models, the market has been absolutely flooded with terrible horror films. Some of these movies fall into the category we are listing today.
So, before we get started on the list, there are a few ground rules. First, I have to have enjoyed the film. That should be pretty straightforward, but it means that some of you might holler at me for leaving something out. I don’t care. Art is subjective, bro. Secondly, these had to be distributed films and not made-for-tv movies. This was difficult because it left out some absolutely incredible movies like 1986’s The Deliberate Stranger with Marc Harmon playing Ted Bundy, and 1992’s To Catch a Killer starring Brian Dennehy as John Wayne Gacy. Both of these made-for-tv movies are amazing (seriously, find them and check them out for yourselves), but I had to draw the line somewhere. Otherwise this list would be way too long and my editors would murder me dead.
“[…] the only way we can truly understand horror is to learn as much as we can about the real monsters that lurk in the shadows.”
These films have to be about the killer themselves, not the investigation. This leaves out two of the very best of the genre, Fincher’s Zodiac and 1968’s The Boston Strangler. Both of these movies make me drool and blather on for hours, but like I mentioned before, I don’t want to be dead. Finally, and most importantly, these movies have to lead you to do your own research. It might be macabre, and some people might feel like you’re celebrating death, but the only way we can truly understand horror is to learn as much as we can about the real monsters that lurk in the shadows.
So, without further ado, here are 8 serial killer biopics that, while they might not give you the true story, they will all lead you down the rabbit hole of research and show you the true horror this world contains.
Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield (2007)
Directed by Michael Feifer and starring Kane Hodder (everyone’s favorite Voorhees) as the titular Gein, this movie starts out directly claiming to be a “true tale”. No greater lie has ever been told. This movie, while still fun and gory, tries to sell Ed Gein as a Leatherface-type horror villain instead of the extremely sick man he actually was.
You see, Ed Gein was barely even a serial killer. He confessed to two murders (even though everyone, me included, believes that he also killed his brother many years before the “troubles”) and had a house full of body parts. These corpses and limbs were gathered from years of grave-robbing and turned into furniture and masks. So, the guy was definitely messed up and guilty of ending 2 lives, but he was not a murderous luniatic like depicted in this film.
During the film’s 90-minute run time, we see Hodder’s Gein murder three-times the amount of people than the real man did. He uses tree limbs, guns, saws, knives, and a shovel to murder everyone around him. He is, essentially, a cross between Jason Vorhees and Leatherface, only without the masks. Not, the deranged man suffering from schizophrenia who spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital. While it’s a fun watch, it’s not a movie about Ed Gein. Not even close.
Would you look at this??? We have another movie directed by Michael Feifer that stars Kane Hodder as a serial killer! This time, they are taking on the Garrotte Phantom, better known as B.T.K.
Now, there are a lot of things this movie gets right about Dennis Rader, the B.T.K. Unlike in their previous collaboration, they get the feel and motivations surrounding this killer correct. Rader was a complete psychopath, leading his church and his local Boy Scout Troop as he also stalked, tortured, and killed women in his town. Hodder does an admirable job as Rader, walking that fine line between asshole and saint very well.
The one qualm I have about the movie is that, by trying to make Rader more frightening, they actually made him less so. They show him selecting his victims almost randomly, using his position as a city ordinance officer to poick people who were rude to him. He then breaks into their home and kills them. In reality, Rader was so much more frightening. He would toy with his victim’s lives. Strangling, then reviving, until his sexual fantasies were fulfilled. This film doesn’t show the truly sadistic side of Rader. They make him out to be almost a random spree killer, and not the child-murdering psychopath he was.
Released back in the Frosted-Tips and Popped-Collar Age, David Jacobson’s Dahmer stars a baby-faced Jeremy Renner as the notorious Milwaukee Cannibal. It’s an interesting film that takes a close look at Dahmer’s desire for companionship that turned into a deadly need for possession.
It’s not the most exciting movie on the list, but it does a fairly good job of depicting Dahmer’s separation from society. Unfortunately, the film focuses almost exclusively on his homosexuality and shies away from his self-hatred, blinding alcoholism, and horrific psychopathy. Renner is perfect as Jeffrey, but the film itself struggles with the story. It never shows just how despicable Dahmer was, nor does it try to explain the “why” over the “what”.
There has never been a more perfect casting choice than when director Clive Saunders tabbed Mark Holton to play the Killer Clown, John Wayne Gacy. He becomes the Chicago-based killer, making the terrible things he does in the film feel completely authentic and real. While the film itself might drag a little bit in places, the sneering Holton’s manic bursts of charm and violence snap the audience out of their boredom very quickly.
There are a few minor factual changes made in the film, but the spirit and macabre madness of Gacy remain intact. Holton finds a way to show the true dual personality that Gacy possessed, transitioning from loud, laughing clown to a snarling, venomous beast in a matter of seconds. It’s a chilling portrayal of a very chilling man.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019)
I get it, Ted Bundy was handsome. Maybe not Zack Efron handsome, but he was handsome, nonetheless. Partly because of this, a ton of people know the story of Ted Bundy and his crusade against women in the 1970’s. So, this film doesn’t give us any new information that we haven’t seen before.
Instead, Joe Berlinger’s film for Netflix doesn’t try to teach us about the intricacies of the different trials. It doesn’t want to show us the crimes themselves. It’s not here to glamorize the man or to debate his guilt. Instead, what it does so beautifully well, is show us what it was like to be around Ted, to be entranced by him, to fall for his ruse and live to tell the tale.
My Friend Dahmer (2018)
I was initially hesitant to watch this movie. I hadn’t read the graphic novel it is based on, but I had been told in the past that it lent a sympathetic eye towards a young Jeffrey Dahmer. I didn’t want anything to do with that, to be honest. There’s nothing I hate more than when people try to justify serial murder with cries about abusive or neglectful upbringings.
When I did finally watch it, I didn’t feel like they were trying to make us feel sympathy for the killer. Instead, they were showing a true story about how he was as a teen. This is probably one of the most accurate biopics I’ve watched, following his migration from quiet loner to class clown perfectly while keeping the undercurrent of evil and madness at the forefront. We aren’t supposed to feel bad for him, we are supposed to see that this level of psychopathy is more prevalent than we thought and exists in those we all have known in our lives.
Aileen Wournos was not the first female serial killer, as some like to say, but she is one of the most interesting. Her life was ripe for adaptation even before she blazed her trail of blood and murder through Florida in the early 90’s.
While they do focus on Aileen’s confessions, which lean heavily on her victimization complex and claims of self-defense (which I don’t agree with, based on the evidence), they do an incredible job of showing the downward this killer travels on her way to damnation. No matter what you believe about Wournos, the reason to watch this film is the performance from Charlize Theron. It’s simply the finest acting, a true embodiment of the damaged woman, that exists in the biopic sub-genre.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Let’s get this out of the way—this film is not the actual story of the transient serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. It scores a “zero” on the True Story Scale. At the most, the film was inspired by Lucas and his partner-in-crime Ottis Toole. But, even with the liberties they take with the story, there has never been a more accurate depiction of a killer in the history of biopics.
From the subtle lies Henry tells, to the control he exerts on his roommates and accomplices, to the simple scene of them watching their handiwork on a stolen camera, no other serial killer biopic captures the chilling nature of the unnatural like this film. Michael Rooker plays Henry like he is an animal, which is what Lucas was. Did he kill 600 people for Satan and the Black Hand cult? No. Was he a ruthless rapist and killer who only derived joy from the pain and anguish of other human beings? Absolutely. The final shot of the film, with Henry ditching his love interest on the side of the road, encapsulates the very nature of this beast. No person mattered to Henry. No thing mattered to Henry. Despite his death-row conversion to Christianity, the only god Henry Lee Lucas worshipped was pain and death.
“Despite his death-row conversion to Christianity, the only god Henry Lee Lucas worshipped was pain and death.”
There you have it! While this list is not even close to complete, this is a great start if you want to get into the serial killer biopic game. While each film and filmmaker value the truth differently, what is undeniable is that the stories that inspired these movies are always more terrifying than the biopics that we watch. So, watch these films with a skeptical eye, then head onto the internet to learn about their subjects and the true horror that exists in this world.
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