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.