Psychos: the best screen killers of all time from Badlands to Se7en
We will never lose our fascination with mass murderers, and Hollywood has fed our addiction splendidly over the years
Serial killers are back in fashion. Late last year, in the brilliant Netflix drama Mindhunters, we found out how the science of profiling mass murderers was first arrived at.
Last month at Cannes, Lars von Trier attracted even more attention to himself than usual with his epically gory new film The House that Jack Built, which stars Matt Dillon as a dead-eyed killer. The second season of American Crime Story charted the nefarious career of Gianni Versace's murderer, Andrew Cunanan. And now, in My Friend Dahmer, we have a kind of origins story about one of America's most prolific and notorious serial murderers.
Marc Meyers' film is set in the mid-1970s and stars former Disney actor Ross Lynch as the young Jeffrey Dahmer, whose hobbies ought to worry his parents. While Joyce and Lionel Dahmer spend most of their time bickering, their teenage son lurks in a shed at the end of the garden dissecting road kill he's lovingly collected and watching the flattened animals slowly dissolve in acid.
Realising that this can no longer be described as a healthy interest in science, his father destroys the shed, but by this stage Jeffrey's addled focus is beginning to move from dead animals to live people. He fantasises about killing a man who jogs past his house every morning, and things are not much sunnier at school. Isolated and socially awkward, he decides to attract attention to himself by feigning spasms in public.
This earns the qualified admiration of a trio of smart alecs, who form a Dahmer fan club. But when Jeffrey finds out they're really making fun of him, he's overwhelmed by a simmering rage.
No one knows exactly what creates a multiple murderer, but in My Friend Dahmer we get a sense of how numerous factors can combine to produce a catastrophic psychological tipping point. It's among the more thoughtful films to have broached this subject, which seems to fascinate us all in a not entirely healthy fashion.
Perhaps the world feels safer if we can safely categorise these people and dismiss them as monsters. There's certainly a few monsters knocking around in our list below, which is my pick of the best psycho movies. And where else to start but Psycho?
Though it may not have been the first serial killer movie (see below), Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was certainly the most influential. When Hitch approached Paramount with his idea for a film based on the life of cannibalistic murderer Ed Gein, they were horrified, and so the great man was forced to finance it himself. Anthony Perkins plays the mother-obsessed owner of a remote motel, Janet Leigh is the conflicted beauty who stops there for the night and decides to take a shower. Not such a good idea.
Fritz Lang's Berlin shocker can claim to be the first real serial killer film, and it's a stylish but profoundly disturbing drama. A young Peter Lorre is perfectly cast as Hans Beckett, a child murderer who prowls the side streets of the city's poorer quarters looking for potential victims. In M's most upsetting scene, he befriends a little girl called Elsie, buys her a balloon and offers to walk her home: later, we see an empty place at her family table, and watch the balloon fluttering towards some telephone lines.
Peeping Tom (1960)
In 1960, Michael Powell was a beloved British cultural icon, the creator of such enduring classics as The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death. But critics were so horrified by Peeping Tom that they rounded on him, effectively ending his career. It's a fascinating, ghoulish film, and stars Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis, an aspiring film-maker who hunts and kills woman, using a movie camera to record their terrified expressions so he can watch them later. Nice.
Martin Sheen burst into the popular consciousness playing a brutal killer in Terrence Malick's beautifully filmed 1970s masterpiece. Badlands is loosely based on the true story of a young 1950s couple who embarked on a killing spree in Nebraska and Wyoming, and Sheen is Kit Carruthers, a preening and volatile garbage collector who's obsessed with James Dean and guns. And when he kills his girlfriend Holly's father because he objects to their relationship, it triggers a murderous and senseless road trip. Sissy Spacek co-stars in this unforgettably bleak film.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Rumour has it that director John McNaughton wanted to make a horror film about aliens but didn't have the budget: then he watched a documentary about the mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas and realised he had his story. Henry has been called the greatest serial killer movie of all time: it is certainly the hardest to watch because Henry (Michael Rooker) is a terrifyingly vacuous criminal who has worked out a clever way of staying ahead of law enforcement, but lives in squalor and seems to kill without rhyme or reason.
The first and, for me, the best of the thrillers based on Thomas Harris's crime novels, Michael Mann's Manhunter is suffused with 80s style and stars William Petersen as Will Graham, an FBI profiler whose study of serial killers has blighted his personal life. When he's called in to help track a murderer nicknamed the 'Tooth Fairy', Will realises that the case has a connection to his nemesis, the demented psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Brian Cox plays Lecter in this film, and gives a chillingly restrained portrayal.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
There is nothing restrained about Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Lecter in the late Jonathan Demme's 90s blockbuster, which co-stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a young FBI agent who's ordered by her boss to go and interview the incarcerated Lecter. They want the good doctor's help to track down a killer called Buffalo Bill who skins his female victims, but Lecter is determined to turn the situation to his advantage. And boy does he. Great fun.
David Fincher announced himself as a major director in some style with this grandly gothic crime drama. Morgan Freeman is an exhausted homicide detective who's about to retire when he's paired with a cocky and violent young cop (Brad Pitt) to investigate a series of biblically themed killings. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Pitt's sainted wife, and Kevin Spacey - remember him? - all but steals the show with a flashy and memorable cameo. It's gory stuff, but a gripping thriller.
Charlize Theron is all but unrecognisable in Patty Jenkins' drama about real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. In 1989 and 1990, Wuornos killed seven men across the state of Florida, but in Monster we find out why. Born into a horribly dysfunctional family and given little or no education, Aileen was pregnant at 13 and homeless by 15, when she began working as a prostitute. Things look up when she falls in love with a young woman, but when Wuornos is attacked by a client she snaps, and kills him.
It's David Fincher again, and at his very best in this dense and brilliant thriller based around the Zodiac killings that terrorised San Francisco in the late 1960s. The case inspired Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, but the real killer was never caught, and in Zodiac, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle whose obsession with discovering the murderer's identity begins to destroy his life.