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Ranked: The best serial killer movies of all time

The most masterful serial killer flicks, ranked

Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac.
Warner Bros.

Whether they’re based on a true story or not, serial killer movies are often the most visceral, intense cinematic experiences you can have in any given two hours. While they may not be great for every occasion, a good movie about a serial killer can thrill like no other, and leave you with nightmares for weeks afterward. We’ve pulled the cream of the crop for this list, which features all manner of killers who kill for all manner of reasons, or for no reason at all. 

10. M (1931)

10. M
Genre Drama, Thriller, Crime
Stars Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut
Directed by Fritz Lang
Perhaps one of the first great serial killer movies, Fritz Lang’s M tells the story of a murderer who targets children as he is hunted by both the police and the criminal underworld. The movie is revolutionary in part because it shows some sympathy for the killer at its center, and it part because it seems to suggest that no punishment, however severe it may be, could ever bring the children who have died back. Lang was one of the great directors of early cinema, and M may be the most chilling of all his films. 
M (1931) - Fritz Lang (Trailer) | BFI release

9. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

9. The Night of the Hunter
Genre Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish
Directed by Charles Laughton
A dark, twisted movie about a serial killer who is on the hunt for two small children, it can be hard to believe that The Night of the Hunter is as old as it is. Featuring exceptionally stylish, occasionally surreal direction from Charles Laughton and a horrific central performance from Robert Mitchum, The Night of the Hunter is genuinely the stuff of nightmares. The film tells the story of a serial killer who infiltrates the family of a widow and her two children, searching for money that her dead husband stole. As he hunts for the money, he begins to relentlessly follow the two children, and seems to have no scruples about offing anyone who gets in the way. 
The Night of the Hunter (1955) Trailer - The Criterion Collection

8. Se7en (1995)

8. Se7en
Genre Crime, Mystery, Thriller
Stars Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow
Directed by David Fincher
David Fincher’s first entry into the serial killer genre was Se7en, which follows two detectives as they hunt for a killer who kills people based on whether they’ve committed one of the seven deadly sins. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are a match made in heaven in the two central roles, and each of the grisly murder scenes is fascinating in its own right. Se7en is best remembered today for its gruesome ending, and rightly so, but it’s far from the only think about Se7en that will send a chill up your spine. This is a story where the bad guys win, and it’s that brutality that has kept the film relevant for decades. 
Se7en (1995) Official Trailer - Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman Movie HD

7. Memories of Murder (2003)

7. Memories of Murder
Genre Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars Song Kang-ho, Kim Sang-kyung, Kim Roi-ha
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
More than a decade before Bong Joon-ho made Parasite and picked up an Oscar, he was already making other masterpieces like Memories of Murder. Based on a real spate of killings in Korea from the 1980s, the film follows two bumbling local detectives who are aided in their search for the killer by a cop from Seoul. Like many of the best films on this list, Memories of Murder abides by the actual story, and in doing so, leaves the crimes unsolved. In doing so, and making it clear that the criminal at the movie’s center is just some ordinary guy, Memories of Murder becomes a stark reminder of how banal evil can be. 

6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Genre Horror
Stars Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Perhaps one of the more random horror films ever made, and all the more terrifying because of how random it seems, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre follows a group of young people who happen to stumble upon a family of cannibals living deep in the rural part of Texas. The movie’s violence is legendary, but what’s really terrifying about leatherface and his family of murderers is how completely unstoppable they seem. There’s nothing human here to appeal to, no qualities other than the lust for flesh that can keep these people from doing what they want. There’s a survivor at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but by the movie’s end, you find yourself wondering if the victims aren’t better off. 
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) Trailer #1

Scream (5. 1996)

Genre Crime, Horror, Mystery
Stars David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox
Directed by Wes Craven
Almost 30 years after the original Scream, the Scream franchise is still going strong. The original movie is not likely to ever be topped, though, in part because it’s a near perfect send-up of the slasher genre and also a pretty great slasher movie in its own right. Following a group of high school kids as they get picked off one by one by a killer named Ghostface, the characters begin to reference scary movies in their attempt to make sense of their situation. It all climaxes in a bloody, personal reveal as to who the killer is, and the sick reasons they started killing in the first place. Scream is both hilarious and visceral, and it’s that combo that makes it great. 

4. Halloween (1978)

4. Halloween
Genre Horror, Thriller
Stars Donald Pleasence, Jamie Lee Curtis, P.J. Soles
Directed by John Carpenter
Michael Myers may be the most terrifying, unknowable serial killer in the history of movies, and that’s why Halloween still feels like an all-time horror classic. Halloween is, in essence, what most people think of when they think of a slasher film. It follows a group of teenagers in suburban America who have sex and are then picked off, one by one. The only exception is Lori Strode, who doesn’t do the deed and manages to escape Michael Myers’ clutches by the end of the film. What makes Halloween so spooky, though, in addition to the masterful direction from John Carpenter, is the fact that Myers is just a human being. There’s nothing supernatural about him at all. 
Halloween (1978) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

3. Zodiac (2007)

3. Zodiac
Genre Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards
Directed by David Fincher
David Fincher’s spin on the serial killer saga is, perhaps characteristically, a bit more ambiguous than some of the movie on this list. The movie focuses on three people who became obsessed with solving the mystery of the zodiac killer who terrorized the Bay area in the 1970s. The chief among these is Jake Gyllenhaal as a cartoonist whose entire life becomes shaped by the mysteries surrounding the killer, even years after he seems to have stopped killing altogether. The Zodiac Killer’s identity remains a mystery, and that seems like part of the appeal for both Fincher and the movie’s characters, who are constantly searching for a silver bullet that’s always just out of reach.
Zodiac (2007) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

2. Psycho (1960)

2. Psycho
Genre Horror, Drama, Thriller
Stars Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Perhaps the most famous movie about a serial killer, and one of the more famous movies ever made, the twists and surprises in Psycho come early and often. Form its iconic shower sequence, which leaves almost all of the actual violence only implied, to the way the pieces are finally unwound so that the killer can be caught, Psycho is terrifying in a way few modern movies can manage. It’s a terrible, twisted thriller that features virtuosic direction and production design, and a commanding central performance from Anthony Perkins. Alfred Hitchcock is one of the great directors in cinema history, and Psycho is up there with his best work. 
Psycho (1960) Theatrical Trailer - Alfred Hitchcock Movie

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

1. The Silence of the Lambs
Genre Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Jonathan Demme’s take on Hannibal Lecter is so definitive that no one else has come close to replicating its success. Following a young FBI agent who develops a relationship with a psychiatrist who is also a serial killer as they work together to hunt down another killer, The Silence of the Lambs is a horrific, brilliant look at the blurry lines between criminals and law enforcement, and one of the best movies of the decade. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are thrilling in the two central roles, and the movie’s climax is undeniable – a tour de force that showcased everything Demme was capable of as a director. 
The Silence of the Lambs Official Trailer #1 - Anthony Hopkins Movie (1991) HD

Editors' Recommendations

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Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance culture writer based in upstate New York. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The…
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