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Best Serial Killer Movies Based on or Inspired by True Stories

Few feelings quite compare to the spine-chilling, heart-dropping rush of watching a great thriller movie. Whether a horror fanatic or not, waiting in anticipation before a serial killer pops out from behind the door has the power to scare the living daylights out of just about anyone.

Updated December 4th, 2022: If you enjoy true crime films, you’ll be happy to know this article has been updated with additional content and entries.

An even scarier thought that movies can convey is the consideration that some of these incidents and occurrences, however vile or morally corrupt they may be, have happened in real life. As ignorantly blissful as it would be to call it all make-believe, the most monstrous movie villains ever to hit the silver screens are modeled after real-life people and events. Here’s a list of some of the best serial killer movies based on true stories.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (2019)

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile follow Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), a single mother who believes she has found the man of her dreams. Her whole world is turned upside-down when he’s put on trial for a series of grisly murders. Adamant that he is innocent, Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) defends himself in America’s first nationally televised trial. At the same time, Liz struggles to come to terms with the truth.

Zac Efron’s mental health was reportedly put to the test for the gripping, controversial Netflix effort that chronicles the crimes of Ted Bundy from the perspective of Liz, his longtime girlfriend, who refused to believe the truth about him for years. Along with Efron, the film also stars Lily Collins, John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Jeffrey Donovan, Dylan Baker, Terry Kinney, and Haley Joel Osment. The “shockingly evil” subject matter is based on the book The Phantom Prince; My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall. Efron owns the role, despite the backlash that the film seems to glamorize the real-life serial killer.

The Clovehitch Killer (2018)

Inspired by the life and crimes of Dennis Rader, the Kansas serial killer who deemed himself BTK (for “bind, torture, kill”), the coming-of-age thriller The Clovehitch Killer focuses on a 16-year-old boy who makes the chilling realization that his seemingly picture-perfect family may not be all it seems when he suspects his father is a violent killer. Dylan McDermott is phenomenal as Don Burnside, the devout Christian patriarch who harbors a gruesome, secret identity in which he stalked and strangled 10 females a decade earlier before going dormant.

The film draws direct parallels to Radner’s story, as he was also a family man, a member of the church council and even a Cub Scout Leader; he was convicted of killing 10 people between 1974 and 1991 before being arrested in 2005. His daughter Kerri struggled with the devastating realization that her father was a horrific killer, expressing how her childhood was ordinary and that they were a “normal American family.” The Clovehitch Killer earned acclaim upon its release, with Paste Magazine declaring it “a devilish movie that does beautifully what horror films are meant to—vex us with fear—through the most deceptively simple of means.”

No Man of God (2021)

Speaking of Ted Bundy, No Man of God also centers on the killer who, in 1980, was sentenced to death by electrocution. In the following years, he agreed to share the details of his crimes, but only with one man, Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood). The movie is based on the true story of the bizarre and complex relationship that formed between an FBI agent and an incarcerated Ted Bundy (Bill Kirby) in the years leading to his execution. The standout performances alone make this one a can’t-miss, especially for fans of the dark subgenre.

Hagmaier recorded over 200 hours with Bundy. At the time, he was one of the five members of the original Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU). As Bundy’s execution neared, and he had exhausted all his appeals, he began confessing details of his crimes, from methods, motivations, and acts committed after the murders in a bid to avoid the electric chair.

The Frozen Ground (2013)

The Frozen Ground is a thriller based on real-life serial killer Robert Hansen, a.k.a. the Butcher Baker. Hansen abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered 17 women in and around Anchorage, Alaska, between 1971 and 1983. Hansen would turn his victims loose in the secluded Alaskan wilderness and hunt them down with a Ruger Mini-14 and a knife. He mainly targeted sex workers. The idea behind this was that he chose women he saw as inferior as a form of revenge for being rejected by women his entire life.

In the film, Hansen is portrayed by John Cusack. Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) is the Alaskan State Trooper trying to end Hansen’s reign of terror. He had become aware of the large number of women going missing in the area and decided to investigate. With the help of a criminal profiler, he was able to narrow down suspects, eventually finding his way to Hansen. If you like creepy movies, this is one for you, as the premise of being hunted for sport is spine-chilling.

Scream (1996)

Wes Craven’s iconic ’90s slasher Scream completely took the world by storm when audiences watched in horror as Hollywood It-Girl Drew Barrymore was brutally murdered by the terrifying Ghostface in the opening scene of the cult classic. In the highly-influential film, teenager Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and her fellow friends and high school students are terrorized by a deranged, masked killer in the fictional town of Woodsboro, California. Writer/creator Kevin Williamson drew inspiration for the premise of Scream from Danny Rolling, A.K.A. the Gainesville Ripper, a notorious Florida serial killer who murdered five students in 1990.

Rolling would mutilate his victims’ bodies and pose them in sexually provocative positions, targeting petite white brunettes with brown eyes. In the Wes Craven masterpiece, Ghostface often calls and taunts his victims before attacking them, focusing mainly on young females who are alone and vulnerable (much like Rolling did). Scream is credited with revitalizing the horror/slasher genre and helped launch a lucrative and enduring film franchise.

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Based on the story of John Christie, a British serial killer who has murdered eight people, this film focuses on how he lured women and strangled them to death at his flat, 10 Rillington Place. Richard Fleischer ensures that the reality of Christie’s crimes is reflected through the film. An important factor in this particular film is that it also focuses on the way in which Timothy Evans was wrongly executed via the death penalty for Christie’s crimes. Therefore, it looks at the law and justice of the time, which is not something many serial killer films focus on.

In his review of the film, Adam Scovell of BBC calls it “the ultimate in British true crime drama” because 10 Rillington Place focuses more on fact as opposed to fiction.

From Hell (2001)

From Hell is a 2001 psychological thriller directed by Albert and Allen Hughes. The plot follows Frederick Abberline, a Chief Inspector played by Johnny Depp, in his hunt for the renowned real-life supervillain everyone refers to as “Jack the Ripper.”

Dawning in 1888, Jack the Ripper was the name given to a mysterious culprit who killed and tortured five, and likely even more women, all found within a mile radius of each other. Knowing the person responsible for such heinous crimes was never found, caught, or identified at all is perhaps even more haunting than the startlingly mutilated state these victims were found in. Based on a book rooted in conspiracy, From Hell is very entertaining and befitting to what happened in history, but it is not entirely, wholeheartedly accurate.

The Boston Strangler (1968)

Loosely hinged on a true story from the early 60s, The Boston Strangler centers around a man named Albert Desalvo, played by Mauro Lannini, who was convicted for murdering 13 women and sentenced to life in prison on the account. After suffering a traumatic upbringing, Desalvo would go on to lead a lecherous and diabolical life. This epic espionage, directed by Richard Fleisher, does a great job both educating and entertaining audiences on the wicked inner workings of an evil mind.

Pirates of the Caribbean Kiera Knightly is set to star in a new film about the killer titled Boston Strangler. She will play Loretta McLaughlin, the reporter who first broke the story of the Strangler and challenged sexism in the 1960s to report on Bostons most notorious killer.

Monster (2003)

Whoever thinks only men can take the crown for violent and murderous intent has never heard of Aileen Wuornos. For those who fall under this category, Monster, a biographical crime film written and directed by Patty Jenkins, is a great watch. Starring household name Charlize Theron, Jenkins’ creative masterpiece retells the sinister story of a struggling young lady as she works her way from the streets to a next-level crime: murder.

Wuornos, both in real life and on the big screen, was a prostitute prosecuted for slaughtering seven men, whom she served as clients, between the years of 1989 and 1990. A crowd-pleaser doubling as a semi-fictional chronicle about one of the most disreputable female serial killers in true-crime history, Monster became a triple threat to the theaters when it won multiple Academy Awards upon release in 2002.

The Snowtown Murders (2011)

Australia’s most famous massacre was made into a movie in 2011 with Justin Kurzel’s directorial debut, The Snowtown Murders. Between August 1992 and May 1999, three young men named John Justin Bunting (Daniel Henshall), Robert Joe Wagner (Aaron Viergever), and James “Jamie” Spyridon Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), carried out what would become known as the “bodies in barrels murders.” The details of the gruesome killings are harrowing, involving both torture and cannibalism.

Not only was this one of the vilest trials South Australian courts had seen to date, but it also lasted longer and received more worldwide publicity. Whimsical and compelling to the core, Kurzel immaculately captures the catastrophic impact these three men — four, counting their getaway grave digger Mark Haydon — had on Australian history.

My Friend Dahmer (2017)

Jeffrey Dahmer may very well be the most infamous serial killer of all time, and My Friend Dahmer might be the best biography-based psychological thriller film about him ever made. Riveting from start to finish, the 2017 American adaptation was directed by Marc Lynch and is, hinted in the title itself, based on none other than the Milwaukee Cannibal himself.

Ross Lynch stars as Dahmer and former Naked Brother’s Band actor-artist Alex Wolff plays John “Derf” Backderf. Backderf is the cartoonist who inspired the movie’s making with his graphic novel of the same name he wrote back in 2012. However, as the narrative reveals, Backderf is more than just a talented artist and vivid storyteller. Up until the killings began in 1978, he was Dahmer’s real-life high school buddy.

To Catch a Killer (1992)

John Wayne Gacy might have single-handedly created Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) with his reign as the formidable “Killer Clown,” and To Catch a Killer paints a perfect picture of why. Truly terrifying to anyone and equally entertaining for horror-film fanatics, the 1992 two-part television saga, directed by Eric Till, details the gruesome and gory past of a sadistic serial killer who sexually assaulted and brutally butchered over 30 young boys.

Despite the unspeakable nature of his crimes, the most frightening element to consider, whether dramatized or bona fide facts, is the costume he wore while committing them. And a red-squeaky nose was not the only prop he used. Gacy also wore a completely different, seemingly kind, and neighborly personality to mask his grueling, bloodthirsty face.

Helter Skelter (1976)

Named after the famous Beatles’ song, Helter Skelter, directed by Tom Gries, is a psychological-thriller television drama released in 1976. Giving the word cult-classic a whole new meaning, the flick is based on the horrible atrocities committed by the Manson Family. The Manson family murders are among the most arduous archives to dip into, and this movie certainly measures up.

Manson first came into the public eye when it was discovered that he had orchestrated the Tate-La Bianca murders in 1969. While he did not commit the murders himself, he was able to get his followers to commit the crimes for him, resulting in seven deaths. Manson is now dead, having passed away on November 20, 2017, after four decades in prison.

Zodiac (2007)

Another unsolved true-crime enigma and among the most notably well-known at that, the Zodiac killer deserves a movie more than anyone. Zodiac, directed by David Fincher and based on Robert Raysmith’s 1986 novel, is an epic account of the serial killer who littered the San Francisco Bay Area with bodies from the late 1960s to the early ’70s.

Not only does the dramatized version capture the cunning craft and terrifying tactics used by the Zodiac killer, but it also stars some huge Hollywood names, such as Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Albeit, even these A-list actors seem sidepieces to the suspense of this true-crime story.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

If the acts of one serial killer weren’t gruesome enough, imagine the addition of another to the frame. Interestingly, this cult classic focuses on the story of real-life murderers, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. What makes this film quite disturbing is its portrayal of these two characters’ thirst for blood. The film is a blend between fact and fiction simply because investigators and journalists found it hard to believe Lucas. In fact, he was known as “The Confessions Killer” as he went on to confess to around 600 murders even though he was only convicted of 11.

Thus, John McNaughton added his creative imagination to the seemingly false accounts of this serial killer, who is also a pathological liar, and created this gruesome film. It is definitely not an easy watch, but it does speak loudly about certain humans’ inhumane desires.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is indeed advertised as a true story, the character “Leatherface” was not an actual person who went around terrorizing the town with a motorized chainsaw. On another note, despite spinning slightly exaggerated prose, the story itself was inspired by the real 1957 human-slaughter-house, Ed Gein. Also known as the “Butcher of Plainfield,” notorious for making clothes from human remains, Gein has been a subject for inspiring many psychologically-thrilling cinematic plots, including Norman Bates’ character in Psycho.

Psycho (1960)

Speaking of Psycho, Norman Bates may be one of the closest interpretations on this list and one of the best characters inspired by a true crime and killer. Ed Gein had some serious mommy issues, a trait attributed to Bates in this film. It seems Gein may be the most influential when it comes to inspiring iconic movie killers.

When Bates is first introduced he comes off as rather odd and timid. However, this personality seems to turn on a dime as he harbors another personality, that of his belittling mother. Fans may notice the subtle changes in Bates’ demeanor throughout the film, and they can debate amongst themselves which half of the character is in control at a given moment.

Psycho was a landmark film in horror, but it may not have come to be without Ed Gein. The killer was known to have had his own odd relationship with his mother, who abused him and his siblings emotionally and forbade them from interacting with women. This dynamic helped form the personality of Bates’s mother, whose personality within Norman likely saw the attractive Marion Crane as a threat to her control.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

This one goes hand-in-hand with Texas Chainsaw as they both provide a consensus for what happened with a few aspects of the story changed for dramatic effects; however, Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, is truly one of a kind, and has left an impactful legacy, for better or worse. The murderer in the movie is referred to as”Buffalo Bill,” a sick-minded individual with a fetish for kidnapping plus-sized women and holding them hostage in a human flesh-filled chamber beneath his basement before eventually killing them to wear their skin as a bodysuit.

All these attributes are akin to that of Ed Gein, who allegedly drank from dishes he made from skulls and sat on chairs made of bones. Hannibal Lecter’s character (Anthony Hopkins), however, was based on a whole different story — the story of a sanguine prisoner with a death sentence who bribed a guard to let him escape from prison. The film’s cultural impact may have also inspired the making of others on this list. It’s thanks to Silence of the Lambs that a huge cultural fascination with serial killers developed in society. Ed Gein is only one of many individuals, who, although they committed heinous crimes, fuel fans to want to know more about the sick and twisted individuals of our world.

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