With the popularity of everything from My Favorite Murder and Netflix's Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile to Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, true crime seems more popular now than ever before. Though this mania for all things gritty and gruesome seems to be hitting a fever pitch, true crime has been a source of fascination and entertainment, making it a favorite American pastime at least since the 1966 publication of Truman Capote's landmark novel, In Cold Blood. Below we list 10 of the most shocking, haunting, and disturbing films worth checking out for true crime junkies.
The most accurate and compelling depiction of the uproar surrounding the killings that gripped San Francisco from the '60s-'70s, David Fincher's film stars Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey Jr. as investigators/reporters who find themselves obsessed with unmasking the Zodiac killer and bringing him to justice.
Boasting the chilly, patient filmmaking style of Fincher and a dialogue-driven script that raises just as many questions as it attempts to answer, Zodiac is a paranoid portrait of the 1970s and one of the crown jewels of the true-crime subgenre in film
7 Foxcatcher (2014)
When wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum) is summoned to the estate of John du Pont (Carell) to join his team for the upcoming 1988 Olympics, he jumps at the chance to get out from under the thumb of his star brother, Dave (Ruffalo). However, being part of the Foxcatcher team proves far from glamorous, and before long, du Pont’s attentions toward the young man turn cruel and violent.
Nominated for five Oscars in 2014 (including best actor for Carell and best supporting for Ruffalo), Foxcatcher is a disturbing study of obsession played out against the brutal and bloody world of competitive wrestling.
6 In Cold Blood (1967)
After ex-cons Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Richard Hickock (Scott Wilson) slaughter an entire family during a robbery gone wrong, the two must contend with the realities of the murder and the impending truth of their mortality.
Befitting a cinematic retelling of the Truman Capote penned non-fiction masterpiece that single-handedly made “true crime” a viable and respected genre, Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood is a probing and suspenseful docu-drama bathed in noirish black and white. Though it can never quite break the surface of the two stoic killers like Capote’s untouchable source material, it remains a somber masterpiece in its own right.
Set during the summer of 1977 when the killings of David Berkowitz were at their peak, Spike Lee’s film concerns the social circle of Vinny (John Leguizamo) who almost becomes a victim of the killer’s rampage, and how his wife, best friend, and an aspiring porn star try to pinpoint the "Son of Sam’s" true identity before he can kill again.
Rarely (if ever) listed among Lee’s best, Summer of Sam’s scattered focus may be difficult for many viewers to take. Lee seems to be doing his best to remind the viewer that the humans we forget when we obsess over the monstrous deeds of a serial killer are deserving of more than a moment’s thought, but his typically sharp social messaging gets buried beneath an unwieldy and overcrowded narrative. Still, it's an interesting portrayal of an underexamined moment in NYC’s dark history.
5 Monster (2003)
Charlize Theron’s plays prostitute Aileen Wuornos who, after entering into a relationship with the shy Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), tries to go legit. After a violent run-in with a john, which ends in Aileen killing him, she promises to give up prostitution altogether. But providing for her partner with a normal job simply isn’t in the cards for Aileen, and she falls back into hooking and murder, leaving a trail of male corpses in her wake…
Theron deservedly took home an Oscar for her portrayal of a woman stripped of choice by a cruel and unfeeling world. Writer/director Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) smartly keeps the focus squarely on Wuornos’ as a flesh and blood character rather than her misdeeds, taking a magnifying glass to the scars on the soul of a profoundly damaged individual. Occasionally soapy, but utterly engrossing and gut-wrenching, Monster is true-crime as high drama.
Marc Meyers’ film is based on a graphic novel by John "Derf" Backderf, who knew legendary serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer when he was in school during the 70s. Starring former Disney star Ross Lynch as Dahmer, the film attempts to chronicle the familial, societal, and adolescent influences that lead to his killing spree.
Treading the dividing line between nature and nurture, My Friend Dahmer views its subject with both revulsion and empathy. Was young Jeffrey always evil? Or was he pushed into it? My Friend Dahmer may be able to answer the question, but it leaves the viewer with plenty to meditate on.
4 Changeling (2008)
In 1928, single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) returns to her home and finds that her young child, Walter, has disappeared. Months later, the authorities inform her that they’ve found Walter, but the boy who turns up is decidedly not her son. When the police insist that she’s mistaken and refuse to help her further, Christine turns to a clergyman (John Malkovich) to help her discover what happened and shine a light on the corruption eating away at the Los Angeles Police Department.
Clint Eastwood’s grim and gorgeously overwrought exploration of this strange-but-true case isn’t introspective enough to make it a modern classic, but as a juicy and often unsettling melodrama, it's unmissable.
3 Devil’s Knot (2013)
When a trio of boys murder three young children, their small town makes national headlines. Known as the “West Memphis Three”, Satanism seems to be to blame for their actions, but a local mother (Reese Witherspoon) and Investigator (Colin Firth) have reason to doubt this diabolical motive.
Those familiar with the case central to Atom Egoyan’s film will find little to surprise them in Devil’s Knot, but this dramatized retelling will prove quite compelling to most, and the ways in which it explores the failings of our justice system and how the press can demonize individuals make it worthy of recommendation.
2 Helter Skelter (1976)
This film based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 bestseller, Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders was one of the most successful made-for-tv movies of all time. Airing over two nights to a public who had seen the drama of this epoch-ending crime unfold in real-time, Helter Skelter is still the most compelling and troubling chronicle of the events leading up to the murder of actress Sharon Tate and her friends at the house on Cielo Drive. Though obviously dated in some respects and limited by the television format of the time, Steve Railsback’s performance as Manson is still unequaled, and the film is compelling as both a cultural artifact and document of the case.
1 Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer (1986)
Newly released from prison after the murder of his mother, Henry (Michael Rooker) takes a job as an exterminator. Working by day and committing violent acts at night, he teams up with Otis (Tom Towles), an ex-convict and drug dealer who becomes his accomplice in the murders. But as Henry’s relationship with Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold) becomes more serious, it puts a strain on the evil duos’ friendship.
Director Jon McNaughton based his infamously nasty opus on the case of real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. Though it received the dreaded “X” rating from the MPAA and was subjected to heavy censoring, the film found a few champions (including Roger Ebert) and is now widely considered one of cinema’s most psychologically astute explorations of violence and its toll on the human psyche, as well as a rite of passage for fans of extreme cinema like Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Irréversible.