If like me, you’ve been watching season 7 of Dexter and are eagerly anticipating the season finale, you may want to steer your dark passenger towards a selection of films from the serial killer subgenre. Having already seen the genre’s signature films like M, Psycho, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en and American Psycho, you may be thinking, “Leonard, you can’t possibly show me anything new.” Well firstly, how dare you question my authority! Secondly, I have chosen a selection of lesser known serial killer films that have fallen through the cracks of the mainstream consciousness like Dexter Morgan’s favourite victims.
I should point out that I’m not one of those idiots who idolise serial killers. Far from being cool, they are often sad, pathetic, mundane men who have committed awful crimes out of desperation. However, I can’t deny that they occasionally make fascinating films. By which I mean they have fascinating films made about them. They don’t personally make the films. That would be obscene. Although it would be interesting to see a film made by a serial killer. Who knows? Maybe we already have. Maybe there’s one working in Hollywood today. I bet it wouldn’t be someone like Werner Herzog or the Coen Brothers. That would be far too obvious. No, it would be someone you’d never suspect. Someone unassuming like Christopher Nolan or McG. Just imagine a serial killer called McG. It would be problematic because the horrific nature of his crimes would be offset by his silly name. You wouldn’t be able to take the headlines seriously: ‘17 bodies discovered in a mass grave in the Hollywood hills; they are believed to be victims of McG – director of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle’.
I digress; tonight’s the night. I have a list of seven predators over five countries, so let’s hunt them down one by one.
1. Targets (1968)
The first film on this list is Peter Bogdanovich’s debut feature, Targets. This was back in the days of Roger Corman cinema, when art-house directors started off making B-movies. Corman gave Bogdanovich the green-light to make a picture; with the stipulation that he used Boris Karloff, whom owed Corman two days’ work and that he used existing footage from a Corman film called The Terror (1963). Under these circumstances you would have thought he’d have made a terrible mess of a film. Instead he came up with the genius solution of shooting two different stories running parallel that gradually merge together. One involving Karloff playing essentially himself; an old monster movie icon called Byron Orlock who’s fed up with making horror films. The other story concerns Billy, an all American boy who decides to gather an arsenal of guns and rifles and starts randomly shooting people. Targets is inspired by real life mass murderer, Charles Whitman, who went to the top of the University of Texas clock tower in 1966 and shot 45 people, killing 13 of them. The point of the film is that Orlock’s archaic horror films are obsolete compared to the modern real life horror of senseless mass murder.
2. 10 Rillington Place (1971)
Now, we’re going across the pond to 1940’s London for the British film, 10 Rillington Place (1971). The story concerns real life murderer, John Reginald Christie, who posed as a doctor and lured women with various ailments back to his house on the iconic street and gassed them with Carbon Monoxide before burying them in his backyard or under the floorboards. Christie is played by Richard Attenborough, who most of you will probably remember as Santa Clause or friendly old John Hammond in Jurassic Park. Attenborough delivers one of his best performances here, effectively menacing with his gentle whispery voice. John Hurt plays Timothy Evans who was wrongly hanged for one of Christie’s murders. Christie’s constant offerings of “would you like a cup of tea?” make this a very British serial killer film.
3. Cruising (1980)
Let’s go back to the USA for William Friedkin’s S&M gay killer-thriller, Cruising. This is one of the Exorcist director’s most controversial films, and features an unlikely role for Al Pacino as the cop who has to go undercover in New York’s sadomasochistic subculture to hunt a serial killer who’s preying on homosexuals. As Pacino’s cop becomes more immersed into this world, his identity and relationships become increasingly confused. This mysterious ambiguity is further emphasised by the fact that the killer is played by at least three different actors and at one point, by one of the killer’s victims. Fans of Friedkin should also check out Rampage (1987), his even lesser known serial killer film from the 80’s. Although not as memorable as Cruising, this courtroom drama was probably his last decent film before he went all shit in the 90s and eventually had a return to form with Bug (2006) and most recently Killer Joe (2011).
4. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Now it’s Belgium’s turn with the jet black comedy, Man Bites Dog; one of the best student films ever committed to film. It plays as a spoof documentary about a film crew following a mass murderer around, played by Benoit Poelvoorde. It starts off with several absurdly hilarious moments, particularly the killer scaring an old woman and giving her a heart attack and discussing the buoyancy of the average person compared with midgets. But as the film progresses and the crew get further implicated in his crimes, it becomes increasingly warped and disturbing as you start to question what you’re laughing at.
5. Dahmer (2002)
Jeremy Renner is probably best known for his Oscar nominated role in The Hurt Locker (2008) and most recently The Bourne Legacy (2012), but I first became aware of him in Dahmer. Films about notorious American murderers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein (etc.) are very common and usually have a tendency to be trashy and a bit tasteless. However Dahmer, based on the Milwaukee cannibal, Jeffery Dahmer, feels more mature and respectful. It’s well made for a start, adopting the use of a flashback structure and Renner is brilliant as the eponymous killer; showing him as a human being but ultimately never forgetting what he was. It stands out for me as a very melancholic film; portraying his crimes accurately without glorifying them or shoving them down your throat like the average killer biopic.
6. Tony Manero (2008)
Perhaps the most bizarre film on this list, Tony Manero is a Chilean film set in Santiago in 1978 about Raúl Peralta; a man who is obsessed with John Travolta‘s disco dancing character from Saturday Night Fever (1977). His goal is to enter the Tony Manero impersonation contest and become a showbiz star. Like a textbook sociopath, he’ll go to any lengths to achieve this, urging him to steal and kill whilst dodging the secret police. A stand out moment is when Raúl goes to his local cinema to see Saturday Night Fever for the billionth time (which he can mime along to) only to find that it’s been replaced by Travolta’s next film, Grease (1978). Clearly not impressed with the 50′s nostalgia musical, Raúl goes up to the projection booth and kills the projectionist before stealing the print of his favourite film. Tony Manero also has one of my favourite tag lines: ‘It’s murder on the dance floor…’
7. Snowtown (2011)
For the final film I’ve chosen, it’s fitting that we go down under (both literally and metaphorically) for the recent Australian drama Snowtown. Based on the true story of the ‘bodies in barrels murders’ in Adelaide, it centres on 16 year old Jamie who’s befriended by smiley, charismatic John Bunting and gets taken under his wing. Jamie comes to realise that John and his accomplices savagely torture and kill paedophiles and perverts, and make them disappear. After a while, it becomes clear that whether or not their victims are paedophiles is irrelevant; they just kill who they feel like killing. Now even for a jaded film enthusiast, this is one of the most grimly depressing films I’ve ever seen. I had to watch a bit of comedy afterwards to cheer myself up. It’s the ‘pulling-off-toenails-with-pliers’ graphic violence and hopelessly doomed, claustrophobic atmosphere (despite the barren open surroundings of Adelaide) that makes Snowtown a very tough film to watch.
Well, there you have it; seven films, seven serial killers. All potential victims for our favourite blood spatter analyst. So, like Dexter, I must now take their blood slides (films) and place them in my hidden rosewood box (DVD collection). Incidentally, I’m fairly certain that Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter novels, stole the character off me. I’ve come to the conclusion that he must have been listening to the thoughts in my head which I failed to ever write down or keep a hard copy of. Then again, this isn’t the first time this has happened. I remember being in a café in 1977 and drawing a picture of a robot on my napkin. Then Star Wars came out. Thieving bastards, the lot of ‘em.
I’m sure there are several other forgotten gems that I’ve failed to include here, so feel free to mention them. Just don’t kill me over it!