The serial killer has been a focus of film for decades now. Most of the time the movies are about good guys trying to track down a murderer that keeps on producing bodies all over the city, either purposely leaving clues or making mistakes that almost always leads to him being caught by the film’s end.
But what makes these serial killers tick? What makes them do the things they do? Is it pleasure? Revenge? Or simply the need to kill? We here at Screen Rant thought it would be interesting to take a look back at all the most chilling serial killers in movie history, exploring such things as why they resort to such heinous and horrific acts, how they go about it and generally what makes them so lasting in our memories.
Before we get started, I want to establish the rules about which movie serial killers are eligible to be on this list. We had to set some boundaries, otherwise the list could go on and on. Here are the rules:
- They need to have killed multiple times.
- Their reasoning isn’t simply for money or other logical rewards.
- They must be a movie serial killer (i.e. not from a TV show e.g. Dexter).
- They cannot be a creature/monster/animal (Alien, Predator etc).
- They cannot be powered by supernatural forces (e.g. Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees).
- The character cannot be the onscreen version of a real-life serial killer (out of respect for the victims and their families) – however they can be inspired by them.
Okay, now that we’ve got the ground rules out of the way, let’s get on with it, shall we? Join us as we look at the most chilling serial killers in movies.
[Warning: The following contains SPOILERS about the characters and the movies they appear in. Also, the accompanying clips are NSFW.]
10. George Harvey – The Lovely Bones
Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones divided critics when it was released during last year’s awards season. I personally really appreciated what Jackson was trying to do (it worked a lot better for me on DVD than it did in the theater), even though some parts were a lot more effective than others.
For me the most memorable thing about the film was the serial killer that sets the story in motion by killing his 14-year old neighbor. George Harvey was played by Stanley Tucci and the actor fully deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.
Harvey (or “Mr. Harvey” as he’s referred to throughout the film) is a seemingly average and nice-enough neighbor who lives in a house that looks the same as every other house on the street. And yet, Harvey harbors a dark secret – he’s a serial killer with a penchant for raping and killing girls, ranging from very young to almost adult. We know for a fact early on that he’s killed Susie Salmon (the teenage protagonist of the film) but later on we find out – in a fairly disturbing scene – how long his killing spree has been going on for and just how many lives he’s taken.
One scene from the movie that showcases Harvey’s creepiness very well is when he lures Susie down into a makeshift hatch below a field not far from her school. He has set up a sort of “cave” that has everything from bottles of Coke to little dolls – all the things he thinks little girls like. We think Susie escapes him (because we see her kicking him away and crawling out of the hatch) but in reality she is raped and murdered.
During that scene, George’s chillingly deep and awkward laugh married with his strange sideways stare is enough to warrant him a place on this list. His character proves that effectively scary serial killers are still being portrayed on film these days.
9. Stuntman Mike – Death Proof
Now before most of you berate me with how awful you think Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof was, remember this list focuses on the serial killers themselves and not necessarily the movies they appear in. Whatever reason you had for hating Death Proof (the lengthy scenes of “pointless” dialogue being the most recited reason), you have to admit Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike was one awesome character.
The simultaneous protagonist and antagonist of Death Proof, he spends his time in his vintage car looking for women to meet, to “seduce” and terrorize and eventually to kill (with his car). We first see him pick on an unsuspecting group of women too pre-occupied with drinking and planning a trip to a lake house to see him coming. He manages to convince one young woman at the bar to get in his car, only to murder her with the aid of his metal dashboard. Then he goes back for the rest of the women he saw at the bar and crashes into them at over 200 mph, killing all of them (“All souls taken at exactly the same time,” as Sheriff Earl McGraw states).
Now tell me that isn’t one sadistic SOB…
Unfortunately for old Stuntman Mike, almost a year after the crash that he mysteriously survived, he picks the wrong group of women to target next (two of whom are stuntwomen) and ends up in a car chase that gets him shot and ultimately beaten up (presumably to death) by them.
So Mike is not exactly the most formidable serial killer on this list. But still, he sticks in your mind because of the way he goes after his victims, who he chooses out of sexual desire/impulses rather than simply a lust for murder. His too-cool-for-school look and the killer performance by the legendary Russell are what bring the character to vivid life.
8. Ghostface – Scream Trilogy
Ghostface first appeared in Wes Craven’s Scream, a film which was simultaneously a send-up of the clichés found in slasher movies and an entry into the genre in its own right. He’s one of the most over-the-top and campy killers of recent times, in large part because of the fact that his full ensemble appearance isn’t the most intimidating of all movie killers. Having said that, Ghostface’s does carry a certain amount of fear (scream) factor, and his face alone has become something of a horror movie icon.
What sets Ghostface apart is the fact that his true identity changes with each movie. It’s not just one person under that ghostly mask doing the killing – in fact in the first and second Scream movies it actually turns out to be two people “doing the deed.” This means that motives for the killings differ depending on who’s under the mask. For example, as part of the first Scream’s plot, Ghostface murdered Sidney’s mother (before the start of the movie) because she slept with the father of one of the killers, Billy Loomis, causing his parents to divorce. Throughout the rest of the trilogy motives range from pure revenge to the acts of a pure psychopath.
Whatever the motive, Ghostface remains a character that stays with you because of everything from his distinctive appearance, to the way he seems to appear at just the right moments to jump out and scare and/or attack his victims. I certainly wouldn’t like to see that face appear out of nowhere in MY house!
All this might have something to do with why Ghostface will be making a (welcome?) return to the big-screen in Scream 4 next year.
7. Jigsaw – Saw Franchise
You may be wondering why Jigsaw, the villain of the long-running torture franchise Saw, is on a list of serial killers, when technically he doesn’t actually kill people. Apart from cases of self-defence/preservation (for example, when he cut the detective’s throat in order to escape in the first Saw) Jigsaw doesn’t actually put down victims with his own hands.
But then, that’s the logic of Jigsaw himself that we’re buying into. Only in his mind is he “innocent” and doing a good deed by teaching people “lessons.” Looking at it from a logic point-of-view, Jigsaw is as much a serial killer as the rest of the killers on this list. As Donnie Wahlberg’s policeman Eric Matthews says in the second movie, “Putting a gun to someone’s head and forcing them to pull the trigger is still murder.”
Look at it this way: Without Jigsaw putting his plans/games in place, all those people wouldn’t be dead. He manufactures traps and puts people in impossible situations in which they have to choose between cutting out their own eye (to use just one example) or getting their head spiked from the front and back. The only difference between Jigsaw and other serial killers is that his violence isn’t immediate but rather delayed – nevertheless he still causes death.
Jigsaw is motivated by something so simple it’s almost poetic: To teach people lessons for not appreciating the life they have, whether that’s because the victim does drugs, “scoffs at the suffering of others,” or any other number of twisted views and so-called values. In his mind, if someone doesn’t appreciate their life then they don’t deserve to live.
Despite Jigsaw being dead and gone (as far as we know) for the past three Saw movies (only appearing in flashback form) he still sticks in my mind. The continually inept instalments of the Saw franchise still don’t take away from Jigsaw being a fascinating and rather chilling character.
6. Buffalo Bill – The Silence of the Lambs
Next on the list we have Buffalo Bill, the sadistic and seriously messed up serial killer from The Silence of the Lambs.
Buffalo Bill (a.k.a Jame Gumb) is motivated by his sexual orientation and perverse desires. It mustn’t be mistaken that he chooses his female victims for sexual gratification – he considers himself transsexual and murders his victims in order to cut off their skin and wear it so that he can feel like a woman.
Buffalo Bill specifically targets overweight women for this reason: he pretends to be in need and then kidnaps them using his van. Sadistically, he starves his victims until their skin is loose enough before he kills them and skins them, using their pieces for his “woman suit.” Just think for a moment how sick and twisted that is…
The iconic scene in The Silence of the Lambs when the police find a body with a moth larva down its throat is related to how Gumb is fascinated by the transformation cycles of moths – a perfect representation of his wish to change into a woman.
It’s a testament to how well-written and portrayed a character Buffalo Bill is that he is still memorably disturbing, despite being in the same movie as a certain psychiatrist killer (w’ell get to him in due time). Brilliantly played by Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill is as compelling as he is bloodcurdling.
5. Patrick Bateman – American Psycho
Patrick Bateman is one of those serial killers who can quite comfortably be placed in the crazy category. Although the movie he appears in, American Psycho, is more of a scathing look at the superficiality and materialism of 1980s Wall Street, that doesn’t take away from the brilliantly written and portrayed character of Bateman.
On the surface he’s a well dressed, extremely fit, well educated and good-looking businessman. But what his colleagues and the rest of the world don’t see is what’s underneath Patrick Bateman’s facade: a sadistic serial killer driven by a certain need to kill (much like TV’s Dexter Morgan).
His victims are usually women (prostitutes) but that doesn’t stop him from killing someone who upsets or annoys him. One memorable scene in American Psycho is when a homeless man asks Bateman for help. Instead of lending a hand, Bateman reaches into his suitcase, takes out a knife and stabs the man to death. To top it off, he savagely stomps the man’s dog to death – all because the man stank, didn’t have a job and (to paraphrase), “had nothing in common with him.” A seriously disturbed individual, I think you’ll agree.
The character is made all the more effective by a wonderful performance from Christian Bale. Bale almost always manages to embody the characters he’s playing, but nowhere is that as true as it is here. Patrick Bateman is portrayed as both friend and foe, as both a relatable “antihero” spouting his love for ‘80s pop music, to a sadistic villain with a penchant for chopping people up.
The ending of American Psycho is ambiguous in that it leaves it open to interpretation whether Patrick really killed anyone at all, or whether he just imagined it. If the latter is the true meaning of the ending, then Patrick Bateman isn’t a serial killer in any tangible sense.
However, I much prefer the explanation that he did kill people and it just went unnoticed because of how superficial the portrayed society is. For example, when Patrick finally confesses to his lawyer, his lawyer mistakes Patrick for someone else. Whether he killed for real or not, in his mind Patrick Bateman did kill those people. That’s what’s important to remember.
Iconic, quotable and with a constant air of creepiness (you’re never quite sure what he might do next), Bateman is one of my personal favorite movie serial killers.
4. Norman Bates – Psycho
*Note – This entry focuses primarily on the origin of the character as portrayed in the original Psycho.
Next up on our list we have Norman Bates, the killer from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho. Audiences were creeped-out by the film when it was released (that shower scene in particular did for hotel showers what Jaws did for the ocean) and a big part of that is due to the character of Norman Bates.
This was one of those choices that I debated even including, but in the end I felt I had to go with Bates. He’s not like a lot of other movie serial killers, in that he doesn’t go out purposefully to find victim after victim. He is – as the title suggests – a psychopath who has a split personality: one of whom is himself, a mild-mannered hotel manager who just happens to keep his mother’s skeleton in his house. The other personality is that of his mother’s “spirit,” which Bates preserves by taking her on as a second personality.
Norman’s murderous path first started when – as we find out at the end of the first Psycho – he murdered his mother and her new husband in an act of jealousy. It’s at that point that his mother became an integral part of his psyche.
It’s the mother side of Norman’s mind that is the “real” serial killer, although admittedly he is the vessel used to carry out the heinous deeds. When we first see poor Marion murdered in the shower during that now-iconic scene (up until that point everyone thought she was the focus of the film), it’s at the hand Norman’s “mother.” He even wears a wig and a dress to further the delusion.
Norman kills because the mother side of him is threatened. She kills Marion because Norman paid attention to a woman who wasn’t her. “Mother” wasn’t going to allow her son to get involved with a woman – a stranger at that – when he should devote himself entirely to her and her alone.
But the Norman persona isn’t entirely innocent either, as after he discovers what his “mother” has done he always cleans up her mess, in order to avoid the destruction of the relationship he has with her.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” as the saying goes.
It could be argued Hitchcock’s film overshadows the serial killer in question but that doesn’t necessarily take away from the character. There’s something insanely creepy about Norman Bates – even as he simply sits and talks to someone in the reception area of the hotel, there’s always something going on behind those eyes that we can’t quite describe. It’s just one of the many reasons Norman Bates is still as chilling today as he was half a century ago.
3. Leatherface – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Leatherface was first seen in Tobe Hooper’s terrifying 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The subsequent films in the franchise may have waned in quality, but the iconic figure of Leatherface is still as effective today as he was back when he was first unleashed upon the world.
This particular killer could be lumped into the crazy camp. He comes from an inbred cannibalistic family and kills “on their behalf.” He is a lumbering giant of a man who wears human skin as a mask and whose only mission – whenever he sees a potential victim – is to chase them, catch them and either kill them on the spot or take them home to his basement to save them for later.
His weapon of choice is (of course) a monster chainsaw, which he lifts with little effort, even – as seen at the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – swinging it around with one hand.
Despite him being a fictitious movie killer, Leatherface is grounded in reality not only by the gritty and realistic way he carries out his work, but also by the fact that he’s partially inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein.
What sets Leatherface apart t from other serial killers portrayed in movies is that he’s not motivated by the usual impulses – sexual sadism or overwhelming sexual urges and so forth. In fact, he’s portrayed as mentally challenged and is, “a big baby,” as director Tobe Hooper has previously described him. He has a primeval urge to kill that can be easily manipulated, in this case by his family.
A terrifying and iconic killer, Leatherface more than earns his place on this list.
2. John Doe – Se7en
Probably the most intelligent and methodical serial killer on this list is John Doe, the mysterious character from David Fincher’s masterpiece, Se7en. Unlike previous crazy killers on this list, this is one killer who knew exactly what he was doing and planned it to perfection.
Just one of the many strokes of brilliance in Se7en is the fact that we don’t see the killer until near the end. It isn’t until he gives himself up by walking into the police station covered in blood do we see the true face of who was responsible for the meticulous killings seen throughout the movie.
This killer’s convictions and reasons for killing are of the strictest and simplest kind – to spotlight those who commit one of the seven deadly sins. They are (in the order that the killings happen): Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Lust, Pride, Envy and Wrath. By most people’s standards these sins aren’t even an issue – people don’t even give them a second thought. But in John Doe’s mind, committing one of these sins is unforgiveable and, indeed, punishable by death in the most horrendous of ways.
Although Doe’s actions are obviously wrong, you can’t help but admire his commitment to “his work.” It really is astounding the patience and the drive he has to pull off what he thinks he has to do. For instance, with the “Sloth” killing: he keeps a man on basic life support for an entire year, watching him gradually waste away. Now try and tell me that doesn’t amaze you even just a little.
As Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset says in the midst of the hunt for Doe, “This guy’s methodical, exacting and worst of all, patient.” The way Doe goes about killing and his twisted logic for doing so makes him, in my eyes, one of the most memorably chilling serial killers in movie history.
1. Hannibal Lecter – Manhunter/The Silence of the Lambs/Hannibal/Red Dragon/Hannibal Rising
When people talk about serial killers in movies, Hannibal Lecter is bound to be one of the first mentioned. Almost 25 years since his first appearance in Manhunter (yes it really has been that long), Lecter still sends shivers down the spines of even the toughest of movie goers.
Although Lecter was first seen in Manhunter (portrayed by Brian Cox), most people associate the character with The Silence of the Lambs (a film which houses a certain other entrant on this list). Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for his unforgettable portrayal of a former psychiatrist and psychopathic cannibal, who taunts Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling from behind bars.
What makes Lecter so effective as a character is just how calm and calculating he is. He’s undoubtedly out of his mind, but not in an outward or obvious way as some other serial killers mentioned here (Leatherface, etc). He speaks in a soft (albeit creepy) tone of voice and rarely overreacts to the situation at hand. His delivery of advice to Clarice on how to catch a serial killer on the loose is as fascinatingly ironic as it is spine-tingling.
However, despite spending a lot of his time in a cage during The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter shows that he’s as capable physically as he is at psychologically manipulating people. For instance, he disguises himself as an injured police officer by cutting off and wearing the officer’s face in order to escape captivity. A sick yet determined man, indeed.
As was revealed in the origin story Hannibal Rising, Lecter was traumatized as a child when he witnessed the murder and consumption of his younger sister. However, that still doesn’t explain the extreme lengths of Lecter’s insanity – something is clearly inherently wrong with him on a base level.
Lecter remains one of the greatest fictional characters of the last few decades and is the epitome of the psychopathic serial killer.
So that’s it for our list of the 10 most chilling movie serial killers. Now it’s time for you, our loyal Screen Rant readers, to give YOUR thoughts and opinions: Agree with our list? Any glaring omissions or killers on there that shouldn’t be? Sound off in the comments below.
Images source: “JasonMiller91”