Bio-pics are preposterous enough when the star decides his job is to don a bad Halloween disguise to impersonate a real person — John Travolta just did a gut-busting turn as Robert Shapiro in The People vs. O.J. Simpson a few months back, for example. But when the actors incorporate the ADDED layer of playing a booga-booga CREEP with a priceless combination of over-the-top hammy histrionics AND dead-seriousness…that is when the laws of unintended consequences give us some of our best bad entertainment. The effect is best when it is an actual recognizable celebrity, though not a respected one, making the the transformation. Some of the classics of the genre tend to be tv movies…television specializes in exploitation, as well as the quick turnaround for topicality. I don’t pretend this list of serial killer bio-pics is exhaustive. It’s just ones I happened to have seen and relished or that happened to catch my eye as something I might like.
NB: Jack the Ripper is an entire subgenre, so we leave films on that topic out on this occasion, with the intention of giving the matter its own post sometime in the future. Also we have left out plenty of other delicious celebrity true crime movies (it was hard) in order to focus on serial killers.
Forgive me, though..they’re not all camp; some of these movies are actually quite good.
In Cold Blood (1967)
Truman Capote’s book and the film adaptation thereof essentially gave birth to a genre; something like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but REAL. I’ve long thought the structure (and very existence) of In Cold Blood gave Vincent Bugliosi his literary template for Helter Skelter. Here of course, we have Robert Blake and Scott Wilson as Dick and Perry — the ex-cons who killed a rural Kansas family for nothing, ultimately. Blake would of course go on to live his own true crime story, giving this movie a special added savor. There’s no camp element here; it’s strictly an excellent movie.
The Boston Strangler (1968)
Oddly, this one SOUNDS way worse than it is, kind of the opposite of the way that usually goes. If it had been full blown Tony Curtis in total Tony Curtis mode as the Boston Strangler it would have been a howler. But here Curtis gives one of his most subdued performances, in fact one tends to forget that he is even in it. It was made only five years after the actual events; considerable license was taken with the facts. Henry Fonda, George Kennedy and Murray Hamilton play cops.
The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
This true story was a major influence on John Waters — you can see a lot of proto-Divine in Shirley Stoler’s semi-comical turn as a nurse who helps her new feller (Tony Lo Bianco) bump off a series of trusting brides he met by answering ads in newspaper Lonely Hearts columns. Based on events that happened in the 1940s. Look for Doris Roberts in a supporting role. It was the only cinematic effort of musical composer Leonard Kastle. And it was Francois Truffaut’s favorite film! Go figure!
The Todd Killings (1971)
A fictionalized retelling of the exploits of real-life murderer Charles Schmid, the so-called “Tucson Pied Piper” starring Robert F. Lyons. The film features old timers like Gloria Grahame and Barbara Bel Geddes, as well as a pre-Waltons Richard Thomas, and a pre-Mary Tyler Moore Ed Asner.
The Zodiac Killer (1971)
One of the more cynical exploitation movies ever, as well as one one of the cheapest looking films ever made. Looks like it was shot on 16mm? Anyway, it looks like a home movie, populated almost exclusively with non-actors. L.A.’s notorious Zodiac Killer has never been identified, let alone caught, so this film is almost entirely a work of imagination, but an entertaining one. It keeps you guessing, even as it keeps you howling.
Every Terence Malik movie is a masterpiece and this one is no exception, simultaneously romantic and elegiac (at least outwardly), even as it chills the blood. Martin Sheen as a fictionalized Charles Starkwether, and Sissy Spacek as a version of Caril Ann Fugate. They go down the highway on a killing spree, and feel nothing about it. A love story for the ages!
The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)
We watched this one on the night it premiered. It was a big deal at the time, for it starred Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery as the notorious 19th century ax murderer Lizzie Borden. There have been subsequent tellings, notably the Christina Ricci series, but none has yet surpassed this one in my heart. Of course, the blond, beautiful, cultured and THIN Montgomery was nothing like the real Lizzie, but who cared? Ya think Liz Taylor looked like Cleopatra?
Deadly Tower (1975)
Kurt Russell as University of Texas at Austin sniper Charles Whitman in this made-for-tv movie. Russell in this role amounted to stunt-casting in those days; he was primarily thought of as the all-American star of Disney movies at the time, giving the snapping and unhinging of his character (equally squeaky clean until that point) real power.
Helter Skelter (1976)
To this day, Helter Skelter remains the gold standard of Manson Family movies. To my mind, there ARE no other worthwhile films about the Tate-LaBianca murders, and I’ve seen them all. They always get the period detail wrong, and Manson’s character is always off. But in Helter Skelter, Steve Railsback IS Charles Manson. (No offense, Steve! And I’ve seen him in other roles so I know it’s because he gave a great performance because he’s a good actor). I love this movie so much I wrote a Mad Magazine style musical parody of it which was a 2009 hit of the NY International Fringe Festival. I just may have to revive it to take advantage of the new Tarantino project announced for 2019 — the 50th anniversary of the murders.
Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980)
This tv movie was the first thing I ever saw Powers Boothe in, and it made such a chilling impression, I was never able to shake it. In other words, I NEVER looked at Powers Booth without seeing him as Jim Jones, with those sunglasses on, talking into a microphone telling a thousand human beings to drink the kool-aid. Movies are powerful. They can effect you and change you. To this day I’m terrified of cults: groups, clubs, teams — ANYTHING where they expect you to drink the kool-aid.
Out of the Darkness (1985)
TV movie about “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz (played by Robert Trebor) with Martin Sheen as the cop who tracks him down. We are starting to move into the era of cheese, although the stopper is not quite yet out of the bottle. I was going to include Spike Lee’s 1999 Summer of Sam, as well, but in a way, that one is really about everyone BUT Berkowitz. The point of these movies is spending a good bit of time in the presence of a creep — hopefully an overacting creep in a wig.
The Deliberate Stranger (1986)
Okay, now the stopper is out of the bottle. Who can say why it started in the mid 80s? I think the proliferation and success of cable tv has something to do with it. At any rate, this one gives us Mark Harmon as Ted Bundy and is pretty much a howl from beginning to end. I’m not sure it’s within the power of any actor to play a role like this without being inadvertently hilarious. But if it is, Mark Harmon sure isn’t the one to pull it off. Frederick Forrest and M. Emmett Walsh are among the cops who pursue Bundy for a LONG time.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Well, this one is the reverse of the ideal I described at the outset. It is the opposite of fun. It is a documentary-real ride-along with three people with no feelings as they leave a trail of dead bodies in their wake. I saw this one when it came out and vowed never to see it again. I debated whether to include it here, but a friend pointed out that the main characters are based on the real-life Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole. The film was Michael Rooker’s entry onto the scene; he’s back in circulation lately thanks to his powerful, jerky character on The Walking Dead.
The Case of the Hillside Stranglers (1989)
Dennis Farina and Billy Zane as the Hillside Stranglers, with Richard Crenna as the cop who pursues them. We are ALMOST into SCTV territory here. They’re all good actors, but there’s the surrealism of seeing them all together, on top of the material they’re supposed to transcend. Like so many of these films, there are big stretches where they try to make it about the personal problems of the cop who has devoted so much time to the case. Who’s on board for that story arc? His ex wife, I guess. Not me!
To Catch a Killer (1992)
Okay, this one is the ever-lovin’ lulu of all time, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that Brian Dennehy is earnestly doing his best to be good in this two-part sea of swirling garbage. ‘Twould be enough to see him as John Wayne Gacy — but to see him as John Wayne Gacy as the children’s birthday party clown, is multiple layers of pleasure, a veritable layer cake of sweet, sweet dementia. I’m usually scornful of people who claim to be afraid of clowns, but you can go ahead and be afraid of the John Wayne Gacy birthday clown. He really will eat you up.
Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993)
Robert Blake again! As John List, a man who killed his mother (Carroll Baker), wife (Beverly D’Angelo) and children before fleeing, assuming a new identity and evading capture for almost 20 years. David Caruso as the cop who pursues him. The real List was caught in 1989, making the film topical when it aired. A dozen years after this film, Blake had his own murder trial on his hands. He really did seem to be re-enacting his own movies.
The Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story (1993)
I love how the title announces this woman’s story like we’ll recognize this woman’s name. This is a highly entertaining tv movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery (with lots of hair dye) as a cheerfully insane Christian woman who murders her husbands and lives off the proceeds. Being Elizabeth Montgomery, she’s almost too charming. Why don’t they leave that nice lady alone and let her go about her bidness? The real Blanche Taylor Moore is still sitting on death row in North Carolina.
Yeah, this one was sick. I have no idea why this movie exists. The much cheesier cheapie The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993) is much more my speed.
Charlize Theron won the Best Actress Oscar and several other awards for transforming herself into the mentally ill (and damaged) serial killing prostitute Aileen Wornos.
Drew Peterson: Untouchable (2012)
I actually watched this Lifetime movie with my wife when it premiered, and have watched it since. Truth to tell, it’s probably what gave me the whole idea for this post. Watching Rob Lowe chew the scenery as multiple wife killing cop Drew Peterson, radiating full awareness of how bad the script, his make-up and his performance are, is a glory to behold. He is clearly having the time of his life — and who wouldn’t? To step into the shoes of Brian Dennehy and Mark Harmon in crud like this? It’s kind of like the true crime equivalent of Syfy’s made for tv disaster and monster movies. The tongue is planted so far in the cheek it’s practically poking through. And yet, if you have an IQ of about 60 you can watch and enjoy it as real entertainment. Everybody wins!
Now, if you’ll excuse me — I have to go watch Mindhunter!