Society has always been fascinated with serial killers, real and fictional. The psychology and innate fear embedded in the thought process is one that continues to endure and attract filmgoers. While movies like Se7en, The Silence of the Lambs, Scream or Opera have become iconic examples of fictional on-screen serial killers for good reason, there are just as many films that have eluded success or proper recognition.
For some, the issue was timing. Others fell victim to poor distribution, licensing or lack of a large, well-funded studio. And then there’s those films that are indeed great, but struggle to live up to the high standards of their creator’s overall output. Whatever the reason for their place in the shade, here are 10 films featuring cold-blooded killers that deserve a chance in the spotlight.
10. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
Tagline: Obsession can cause the unthinkable.
Directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Perfume tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a young man living in 18th century France. Gifted with a keen sense of smell and the opportunity to learn the art of perfumery, Jean-Baptiste develops a strange desire to capture and extract the essence of young, beautiful virgins. Soon, murders soon begin to pile up as Jean-Baptiste turns his thoughts into reality. A strange and beautiful journey, Perfume is a film that racked up nominations and wins overseas back in 2006-2007, but seems to have eluded many North American genre fans. The unusual plot, beautiful cinematography and supporting roles from Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman make the film a worthwhile venture into the slightly more philosophical range of serial killer films.
9. Murder-Rock: Dancing Death (1984)
Tagline: Save the last dance . . . for hell!
Here we have a New York City arts school plagued by jealousy, competition and a mysterious killer whose weapon of choice is a bejeweled hatpin. Directed by the one and only Lucio Fulci, Murder-Rock is part giallo, part slasher, part Flashdance in all of the best ways. The abundance of spandex and leotards is enough to warrant a watch, but add in a killer score from Keith Emerson and you have a genuine good time. With the bevy of gore-tastic films from Fulci, it’s easy to understand why Murder-Rock has taken a bit of a back seat. However, don’t for one second think that it’s not worth the ride. Fulci will have you guessing who the mysterious serial killer is all the way until the end and you won’t be disappointed when you get there.
8. The Psychopath (1966)
Tagline: Mother, May I Go Out to Kill?
Written by Psycho author Robert Bloch, The Psychopath tells the tale of a serial killer who leaves mysterious dolls resembling his victims at the crime scenes. Adeptly directed by Freddie Francis (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors), the film benefits from his knowledge and experience of the horror genre. While not as flashy or critically acclaimed as Psycho, there is still a lot to love about this film. Oh, and if the murders themselves weren’t enough, there’s a couple dozen creepy dolls thrown in for good measure.
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7. Shocker (1989)
Tagline: No more Mr. Nice Guy
Before Mitch Pileggi played everyone’s favorite FBI Assistant Director on The X-Files, he was the TV repairman serial killer Horace Pinker. However, state-mandated execution is not the end for Pinker. Little do people know he had previously orchestrated a deal trading in his soul for the power to return as a body stealing energy source. A wild and crazy ride from the mind of Horror Master Wes Craven, Shocker takes the serial killer story one step further. Also, don’t for one second think I’m not going to mention the incredibly awesome soundtrack with songs from Iggy Pop, Megadeth, Dangerous Toys and The Dudes of Wrath. Horns up everyone.
6. Blood Hook (1986)
Tagline: Fishing Was Never Like This!
Leave it to Troma Entertainment to release a regional horror film based around a Wisconsin fishing contest called ‘Muskie Madness.’ As droves of fishermen (and one group of teens) descend on a small lakeside town, they soon find themselves being picked off by a serial killer fisherman with an accurately nasty cast. Elevated horror this is not, but one could argue the film tackles the issues of grief, trauma, PTSD with Troma style tenderness. One could argue… However, the pure goofiness of the effects, dialogue and general plot make this silly slasher a fun film best watched with a group of like-minded friends.
5. Pieces (1982)
Tagline: When you meet him, you’ll go to PIECES!
Widely regarded in horror circles as one of the best single slashers of the 80’s, Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces has slowly been racking up fans since it’s release. While we follow the film’s serial killer throughout the movie, his grown-up identity remains a mystery until the very end. Everything horror junkies love about 80’s slashers can be found here in abundance. Guts, gore, mythos, method and mystery are all well represented within the film’s serial killer. Plus, there’s just enough randomness in Pieces to keep even the most seasoned fans on their toes. Kung-Fu class anyone?
4. I Am Not A Serial Killer (2016)
Tagline: Every Town Has Its Monsters
A more recent addition into the serial killer sub-genre of horror films, I Am Not A Serial Killer tackles the serial killer in a way we haven’t really seen since Dexter. 15-year old John Cleaver knows he is dangerous and therefore lives by his own set of mandated rules to keep his urges in check. But what happens when John is pushed by another dark force to break his own rules? A fascinating film that tackles mental health, family, fate and friendship, I Am Not A Serial Killer is a fresh take on well trod territory.
3. Nightmare Beach (1989)
Tagline: The beach of terror!
The sands are stained with blood in this sun-soaked Spring Break serial killer bonanza from director Umberto Lenzi. John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Enter the Dragon) stars as a Miami detective who is tracking down a serial killer stalking the beaches for young co-eds. However, this killer has more than just a tricked out motorcycle up his sleeve. This completely over the top and completely vicious film has remained under the radar mainly due to it’s long time limited availability. Thanks to the folks at Kino Lorber the film is no longer a faded memory, but a brand new 4K remastered delight that you can now bring home and enjoy…if you dare!
2. Cruising (1980)
Tagline: Al Pacino is Cruising for a killer.
Cruising is one of those films that immediately rustled up heaps of controversy upon it’s release. Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Cruising stars Al Pacino as undercover cop Steve Burns who’s investigating a serial killer that preys upon gay men in the subculture of New York City. As Burns embeds himself deeper and deeper into the gay and S&M culture in an attempt to draw out the killer, he soon finds himself questioning his own identity and motives. More than a simple serial killer flick, Cruising is a fascinating look at toxic masculinity, the early AIDS crisis and one man’s struggle with his own sexual identity. It also provides a performance from Al Pacino unlike any other in his career and gorgeous cinematography. While mainstream film society seemed to initially bury the film, Cruising definitely deserves better treatment than the underground clubs it presents.
1. Terror Train (1980)
Tagline: Don’t waste money on a return fare. You won’t be coming back!
A serial killer on the loose is bad enough, but Terror Train kicks it up a step further. As a group of college students rent a train to celebrate New Year’s, they soon find themselves hunted by a serial killer…and their past. Not only are there costumes, pranks and parties, but the film also features a truly magical performance from David Copperfield. Oh, and did I mention it stars post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis? Truly a killer ride from start to finish, Terror Train is a film that needs to pulled out from under the heaps of early 80’s slashers that seemed to have buried it.