The formula fiction of stalk-and-slash movies would have us believe there’s a knife-wielding psycho lurking behind every tree and inside every conveniently darkened room. The facts are less dramatic and in many ways more frightening. Actual serial killers often live undetected for years, perpetrating unspeakable crimes while maintaining their cover of apparent normality. Their terrible deeds hold us grimly fascinated precisely because the killers seem so much like us on the surface. The supremely evil undercover killer has inspired filmmakers ever since Jack the Ripper made his first appearance, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 silent, The Lodger. Here are some of the modern era’s more notorious serial killers and the movies that attempt to do them justice.
Wisconsin farmer Ed Gein seemed a harmless loner whose domineering mother had ruined his chances for a normal life. Secretly a grave robber who turned to murder, Gein made ghoulish constructions of skin, bones, and body parts — a practice recalled in The Silence of the Lambs. He directly inspired three earlier films and left his mark on countless others. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960, MCA/Universal), released only three years after Gein’s capture (he died in a mental institution in 1984), focused on mother-fixated Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), with only a nod to Gein’s more grotesque obsessions. A masterpiece of understated horror, Psycho forces us to see the killer’s terrible loneliness and how desperately he wants to be like other people. Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby’s Deranged (1974, not on video) stayed closer to the unsavory facts of the Gein case, but it’s notable mostly as a footnote to the career of splatter-effects superstar Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead). Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Media) turned Gein into Leatherface, a bona fide horror-movie star. Hooper didn’t aim to illuminate; he wanted to scare people, and that he does, in images that are especially tough to shake when you know they’re rooted in reality.
Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck
Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1970, Vestron) looks at the career of ”Lonely Hearts Killers” Fernandez and Beck, a sleazy grifter and an overweight nymphomaniac who met through the personals in 1947 and were suspected of killing at least a dozen women. Updated to the ’70s, the film is simultaneously a love story gone terribly wrong and a tale of murder for profit, showing how the pair preyed on gullible widows (he married them for their assets and, with her help, murdered them). Tony LoBianco and Shir-ley Stoler play the pair (who were convicted of one murder and executed at Sing Sing prison in 1951) as victims of romantic delusion — self-styled star-crossed lovers driven to hideous extremes to preserve their passion — without excusing the viciousness of their crimes.
Bespectacled John Christie strangled at least six women between 1939 and 1953, when the discovery of their corpses concealed in and around his London home led to his arrest and execution. Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place (1971, RCA/Columbia), starring Richard Attenborough as Christie, was named for the killer’s street address and filmed near the scene of the crimes. It sticks very close to the facts, even drawing its dialogue from existing records.
Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate Nineteen-year-old Charles Starkweather murdered three members of the family of his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, because they disapproved of him. The Nebraska couple then hit the road and left a trail of bodies, 10 in all, before they were caught a little more than a week later. (Starkweather was executed in Nebraska in 1959; Fugate was sentenced to life and paroled in 1976.) Renamed Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) in Terence Malick’s Badlands (1973, Warner), the teenagers are hollow kids driven by pop music and images from comics and movie magazines. Cool, spare, and visually stunning, Badlands mesmerizes and troubles.
Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler (1968, CBS/Fox) casts Tony Curtis wildly against type as Albert DeSalvo, a mental patient with a criminal record who confessed to strangling 13 women between 1962 and 1964 (he was imprisoned on other charges and murdered by a fellow inmate in 1973). The film uses a split-screen technique to mirror the killer’s shattered mind. The ultimate evidence of The Boston Strangler‘s authenticity may have been DeSalvo’s attempts to stop it being shown, claiming it portrayed him as a ”vicious and desperate criminal.”
Called the ”Monster of Düsseldorf,” Peter Kürten was charged with nine killings and executed in 1931. Mild-mannered and respectable-looking, he was in fact a one-man crime wave: thief, arsonist, rapist, and murderer. Inspired by the case, Fritz Lang fashioned M (1931, Nelson), a thoughtful examination of guilt and retribution, with Peter Lorre as a child murderer driven by irresistible compulsions. Unlike the unrepentant Kürten, Lang’s killer is also a victim; his final plea for mercy is genuinely pathetic.
Handsome, personable Theodore Robert Bundy was suspected of killing more than three dozen women in five states when he was arrested in Florida in 1978. Convicted of three murders, he was executed in 1989. Marvin J. Chomsky’s The Deliberate Stranger (1986, not on video), a four-hour TV movie starring Mark Harmon as Bundy, is a portrait of the most frightening kind of serial killer of all: one who could pass at close range for someone we might call a friend.
Henry Lee Lucas
John McNaughton based Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986, MPI) on a TV report about Henry Lee Lucas, a 47-year-old drifter who was caught in 1983 and confessed to hundreds of murders, alone and with his sometime accomplice Ottis Toole. Lucas later recanted, claiming he was coerced by law enforcement personnel eager to close hopeless cases. Still, Henry‘s unflinching look into the terrifying void of multiple murder transcends the issue of Lucas’ honesty.