Serial killers are a real-life horror we face, which makes them so much more terrifying on screen. Of course, we’re not counting “action stars,” whose kill counts are somehow justified by their protagonist roles. Also movie monsters are disqualified, as they’re covered in other lists.
Here are the top 20 movies about serial killers released prior to 2020.
20. My Friend Dahmer (2017)
This movie from director Marc Meyers follows real-life serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer through the adolescent years that shaped him into the man he became.
19. Zodiac (2007)
18. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
This criminally forgotten series is a low-budget Friday the 13th clone that features a little boy who’s taunted and drowned as a child, has a sex change, and comes back to camp as a hot female counselor killing all the fornicators.
17. Badlands (1973)
Real-life killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate are the inspiration of this crime drama starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen as a couple on a murder spree through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana.
16. M (1931)
Of course it was Germany that gave use the best early serial killer movie about a killer whose crimes get the attention of both police and others in the underworld.
15. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
This overlooked film is set in a world where movie slashers like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees exist and follows a serial killer aiming to be the next great slasher. It follows all the classic horror tropes, including the final girl, and switches from documentary to third-person film halfway through.
14. Frailty (2001)
Bill Paxton is a widower who begins a life as a serial killer in the name of God. One of his sons (Matthew McConaughey) believes, while the other doesn’t. By the end, you’ll question which side you’re on.
13. Monster (2003)
12. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
The combination of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter is enough to make anyone with taste sit up and take notice. This musical about a homicidal maniac killing people to make meat pies for the tenant below.
11. Scream (1997)
Wes Craven’s new-age slasher classic plays with all the horror movie tropes with two teens murdering their friends over love of horror movies.
10. Memories of a Murder (2003)
A Korean movie set in 1986 following two investigators trying to catch the country’s first real-life serial killer.
9. Saw (2004)
A man who calls himself Jigsaw kidnaps three people and systemically tortures them over mistakes they made in the past.
8. American Psycho (2000)
This satirical take on serial killers features Christian Bale as a 1980s yuppie with a second life as a serial killer. An all-star cast, including Willem Dafoe, Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, and Jared Leto support him.
7. Mr. Brooks (2007)
Kevin Costner has a secret life as a serial killer in the form of William Hurt. He takes on Dane Cook, of all people, as a protoge.
6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
This movie was portrayed as real, so everyone kinda assumed it was, even though it’s based on the same Ed Gein most movie serial killers are. It still makes me nervous going through small Texan towns, but it’s also smiley that they used to call handicapped people “invalid.”
5. The Bone Collector (1999)
Angelina Jolie plays a police officer hot on the tail of a sadistic serial killer who leaves bone fragments at the scene. She enlists Denzel Washington’s Lincoln Rhyme to help her.
4. Psycho (1960/1998)
Everyone hates Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, but I love it. Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn turn in solid performances that make me want more.
3. Se7en (1995)
Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman hunt Kevin Spacey as he kills people based on the seven deadly sins. By the end Gwyneth Paltrow’s head ends up in a box.
2. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Anthony Hopkins is the iconic Dr. Hannibal Lector, a cannabalistic serial killer recruited by the FBI’s Jodie Foster to help hunt down and capture Buffalo Bill, a sadistic serial killer on the loose.
1. Natural Born Killers (1994)
NBK follows Mickey and Mallory, a couple in love and on a murderous spree very similar to Badlands but with the added dimension of being followed by a journalist who’s making them pop cultural icons. Several school shooters become enthralled with this movie, making it very controversial, in the vein of The Joker.