Serial killer movies are based on real or fictionalized accounts of infamous killers. They are usually adapted from true events. They are often disturbing, gory, and unsettling.
This genre of movies is not for everybody. There are some viewers who are put off by the disturbing details of the killings. While other viewers are fascinated by both the distorted mind of a serial killer and the struggle of the police to catch him.
Best serial killer movies are not always about killing. They are about following the investigation to find the killer. They are about learning more about the killer’s motives. These crime thrillers are also about the victims and their families, who are left behind to deal with the consequences of the killings.
In this LisPink post, we will be looking into the 20 best serial killer movies of all time.
1. The Silence of The Lambs | 1991 | 8.6 IMDB
The film that made the world forget about the brilliance of Manhunter (1986), The Silence of The Lambs (1991) introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant, disfigured cannibalistic serial killer that has since become the model for every serial killer since. Jodie Foster is Clarice Starling. Jodie is a young FBI agent who must track down the serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who is kidnapping young women (and killing them for their skin) to make himself a suit.
Anthony Hopkins is brilliant as Lecter, the brilliant, cannibalistic serial killer who helps out Starling when he sees how much she can be broken. The film has so many memorable lines, so many amazing moments, so much tension, so much beauty, so much horror, and of course, so much tragedy.
2. Manhunter | 1986 | 7.2 IMDB
Manhunter is based on the novel Red Dragon, which is the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter. He’s still a psychiatrist, but he’s called Hannibal Lecktor here, and his character is more fleshed out.
The movie follows Will Graham, the FBI profiler who eventually tracks down serial killer Lecktor, who’s played by Brian Cox. The final scene, where Graham is in the doctor’s office, is what audiences had been waiting for. Not because they wanted to see Graham get help, but because they wanted to see Graham get help from the guy who ate people.
It’s a fascinating serial killer film because it’s truly a cat and mouse game. There are no other characters in the film except for Graham and Lecktor, and the film takes place over the course of a few days.
3. Se7en | 1995 | 8.6 IMDB
Two detectives, a rookie, and a veteran hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi. The movie itself is a masterpiece. There’s a killer, a detective, a pile of corpses, and a ticking clock. It’s got everything you need for a thriller.
The killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is hunting for sinners. He leaves them messages, like “greed” carved into a victim’s chest. The best character, by far, is David Mills (Brad Pitt), the rookie. He’s new to the force, but you can tell that he’s smarter than the people he works with. He’s the only one that realizes that the way this guy is killing people is like a clock.
The movie is set in an unsettling, dark world. It’s mired in the details of the murders, the messages the killer leaves, the clues. Then, there’s the ending. It’s brilliant, and it’s so shocking that you feel like you were punched in the gut.
4. Memories of Murder | 2003 | 8.1 IMDB
Based on a true story, this South Korean murder crime mystery is set in 1986, at the height of the country’s dictatorship. The story follows two detectives, played by Song Kang-ho and Kim Sang-Kyung, who are investigating a series of brutal murders that are turning into a nationwide panic.
Pretty soon they discover that the murders are the work of a serial killer and that the killer is targeting women in the countryside. The case becomes even more complicated when they discover that the killer is one of their own.
5. Zodiac | 2007 | 7.7 IMDB
This is the story of the manhunt for one of the most elusive serial killers in history. Starting in the late 1960s, the killer called “Zodiac” murdered victims in San Francisco, Vallejo, and Lake Berryessa. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police departments and some of the best detectives in the area.
Zodiac is the kind of movie that will have you checking the backseat of your car for a rope before you get out. It’s that scary. It’s that suspenseful. Director David Fincher has directed some of the best serial killer movies of all time, and this one is right up there, up there with Seven.
6. American Psycho | 2000 | 7.6 IMDB
What happens when you combine a black comedy, a satire, a teen drama, and a serial killer thriller? A mess of a film that’s good for a few chuckles and some decent performances, but fails to fully satisfy as anything more than an interesting curiosity piece.
Christian Bale is Patrick Bateman, a 1980s Wall Street investment banker with a penchant for murder. He’s a bit of a narcissist, and he’s also a bit of a misogynist and a bit of a racist and a bit of a homophobe and a bit of a sexist and so on and so forth. He’s a bit of a tit, and it’s hard to be sympathetic to him – even if we can understand what drives him to such violence.
7. Arsenic and Old Lace | 1944 | 7.7 IMDB
The Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, are sweet old ladies who live in Brooklyn. They run a boarding house and are loved by many of their tenants. The only problem is that the two sisters are actually homicidal maniacs who like to poison lonely old men who come to stay with them! And if their nephew, Teddy, doesn’t stop them, they may poison everyone in the building!
8. The Night of the Hunter | 1955 | 8 IMDB
A psychotic ex-minister is on the run with his two latest hostages, a boy, and his young sister. The trio ends up in a small town where the children’s uncle (a sheriff) and a local woman (a fallen woman with a heart of gold) try to protect them from the psychopath.
The Night of the Hunter is a slow burn, with a lot of creepy atmospheres and a killer performance from Robert Mitchum.
9. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer | 2006 | 7.5 IMDB
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born an orphan, has an abnormally acute sense of smell, which he uses to create the world’s finest perfumes with the aid of a priest. Unfortunately, Grenouille’s creations are so wonderful that he starts killing women to extract their scent.
Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Süskind, the movie is a perfect example of what happens when you try to make a film based on a book that is way too complex to be adapted without leaving out essential elements, details, and scenes.
10. Psycho | 1960 | 8.5 IMDB
A Phoenix secretary embezzles $40,000 from her employer’s client, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the domination of his mother. If you’ve never seen Psycho, I sincerely hope you’ve never experienced the feeling of having to take a crap so bad it’s making your shoulders knot up.
There’s something about that score that just keeps you on edge, and the fact that the whole thing is shot in black and white just makes it all the more sinister.
11. Scream | 1996 | 7.3 IMDB
Ghostface, the masked psychopath who killed Sidney’s mother, returns to terrorize the teenager again while she is visiting Woodsboro on the last day of school. Sidney must face her fears while trapped in a local high school when Ghostface returns to kill the teens one by one.
Wes Craven’s Scream is one of the original ‘slasher’ films, and while it’s not the best written, it’s one of the best shots. The film has a fantastic cast, especially Neve Campbell who plays Sidney, and while the script is quite good, it’s the suspense that really makes the film. There are many jumps scares, but also some great tension-filled scenes, and the whole ‘rules of horror’ sequence are still hilarious.
12. My Friend Dahmer | 2017 | 6.2 IMDB
Jeffrey Dahmer – a teenage serial killer and cannibal – is the subject of this biopic, based on the graphic novel of the same name. Dahmer is played by Disney star Ross Lynch, who is unrecognizable behind a prosthetic nose and glasses.
The movie is told from the point of view of Dahmer’s high school friend, Derf Backderf, who got to know Dahmer as a teenager and was fascinated by him. As the movie progresses, the audience sees Dahmer’s descent into insanity – and the grisly murders he committed – from a different perspective.
13. The Monster of Florence | 2015 | 5.2 IMDB
When a serial killer is stalking the streets of Florence, Italy, an American detective who is in Italy working on a case, assists the police in the investigation. The serial killer is killing women, and the detective gets involved with the case after the wife of an old friend of his is killed. The detective follows all leads to find the killer. The move is slow and methodical but well done for what it is.
14. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer | 1986 | 7 IMDB
A lot of serial killer movies tend to romanticize the crimes and the criminals themselves, but this one does not, and it doesn’t pull any punches, either. The film follows Henry, a serial killer who goes on a murderous rampage and is never caught, and the people involved in his life, including his brother and his victims.
The opening scene will forever be etched into my mind, and the rest of the film, while rough to sit through, is even better. The film is an excellent example of why we need to get away from the glorifying of serial killers in the media.
15. The Poughkeepsie Tapes | 2007 | 6 IMDB
In 1977, a series of gruesome murders occurred in Poughkeepsie, NY. The victims were all young women and the crimes were never solved. Over 30 years later, a documentary filmmaker is making a film about the unsolved serial killings and discovers a box of tapes in the attic of the house where the killer lived. She listens to the horrifying recordings and realizes that the killer has not only never been caught, but may still be at large.
16. Candyman | 2021 | 6.2 IMDB
The film tells the story of a graduate student, Helen Lyle, who discovers the legend of the Candyman, the spirit of a dead slave who wanders the alleys of an impoverished Chicago housing project and sets out to learn more about the Candyman. The legend, as she discovers, is all too real, and the Candyman is not happy with her meddling.
17. Man Bites Dog | 1992 | 7.5 IMDB
On the surface, the stylistic, yet darkly comic Man Bites Dog seems like a quasi-documentary, a film made by a killer who’s been caught and is now being interviewed by a journalist. In fact, Jean-Philippe Douin wrote, directed, and starred in the film as Ben, a documentary filmmaker who’s following around a serial killer named Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde).
At first, Ben’s a likable guy, a little naively enthusiastic about his subject, but as the film progresses, so does the realization that Ben is far more bloodthirsty than he initially lets on.
18. The Wicker Man | 1973 | 7.5 IMDB
Nicolas Cage (the man of everything) starred in what remains one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. An American police officer investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a small Scottish island where the locals are not at all welcoming. The more he investigates, the more he begins to think that the girl was murdered by someone in the small town. The movie is both brilliantly creepy, and it’s got a fantastic soundtrack. It’s also got one of the most famous endings in horror history.
19. The Big Heat | 1953 | 8 IMDB
James Cagney plays a tough cop on the trail of a brutal killer in this crime noir directed by Fritz Lang. His character, Sergeant Ted Crawford, is investigating the murder of his partner. He has to navigate the politics of the police department, the city’s corrupt politicians, and even the local mob boss, in order to get the killer.
Along the way, Crawford uncovers layers of corruption in the department and realizes that there’s more than one killer loose in the city.
20. The Zodiac Killer | 2007 | 7.6 IMDB
This is what you get when you put David Fincher in the director’s chair. What you get when you give him a budget to play with. This is what you get when you let him go crackers. It’s an astonishing, chilling, brilliantly-made piece of cinema, but like the best serial killer movies, The Zodiac Killer takes its inspiration from real life.
The Zodiac Killer was an unidentified serial killer who operated in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They claimed 37 murders in letters to the press, although they were never confirmed, and never solved. The Zodiac Killer was very active in the Bay Area, haunting the highways and the lovers’ lane. The Zodiac Killer was never caught. His identity remains unknown.