8 Heroic Serial Killers in Film and Television
Cinema has long been obsessed with those who transgress, those who commit the ultimate crime and violation of human rights. We’re talking murder here. The selfish and sick act of taking someone’s life without cause. It’s unforgivable and the ill individuals who are wired so wrong as to commit multiple acts of murder are deplorable.
And yet… we sure do love to watch them do these dastardly things, don’t we?
In real (not reel) life, when you read or hear news about some sort of psychopathic, psycho-sexual killer getting apprehended, what’s the first thing the neighbors say? “He was such a nice guy. Such a normal guy.” The serial killer is a domestic phenomenon, nestled effectively in polite society, walking among us. The scary thing is we have probably crossed paths with one before in our travels. And we probably thought they were nice. Normal.
In the movies (especially horror movies), murderers are a dime a dozen but there are several who also serve as our protagonists or “anti-heroes” and our entry points into a film’s narrative. I’m not talking about those cardboard, cartoonish franchise killers like Freddy, Jason or The Shape. I’m talking about complex human beings with dark sides that refuse to behave. People who have good qualities, people we can identify with. People who, even in the midst of their most vile acts, are so interesting that we the audience become complicit in their plights. We actually WANT these people to escape justice.
Here then are 8 of our favorites, heroic serial killers of film and television, some of whose storylines have spread over several movies and over multiple seasons.
See if your most loved murderers made the cut…
Mr. Meiks in Frailty
One of two films the late actor Bill Paxton directed, this evocative, disturbing Southern Gothic sees Matthew McConaughey as a man spilling his history to a cop, talking about his childhood being raised by a serial killer (Paxton). Seems Dad was convinced God was telling him to kill demons in disguise and taught his kids to be his bloody accomplices. Is he really on a mission from the ether or is he a madman? Paxton is so good, with those wounded eyes and easy charm, that we love him even when he’s burying an axe into someone’s skull. A minor horror masterpiece and a fantastic, complicated character.
Norman Bates in the Psycho series
The character of Norman Bates was already one that elicited sympathy in Hitchcock’s 1960 landmark Psycho, but our love for this sad, tortured man grows as the sequels progress, making the Psycho franchise unique. By the time we get to Psycho III and Norman’s duality is right on the table, we both fear and feel protective over him, a maniac who is kind and yet slave to his dark, psychotic impulses. A&E’s hits series Bates Motel went even further in painting a dichotomous portrait of Bates.
Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis’ perversely funny and obscenely violent first-person serial killer confessional American Psycho was adapted smashingly by director Mary Harron for her cult feature film. Both sources give us different, but equally magnetic, portraits of the story’s anti-hero, corporate 80’s serial killer Patrick Bateman. In the film. Christian Bale – in his breakout adult performance – is a marvel and when we’re not laughing at his perverse narcissism and shrieking at his deplorable acts, we feel somewhat sorry for him. Is he evil? Or a product of the soulless, cutthroat world he’s lost in? Or is he simply having a nervous breakdown?
John Harrington in Hatchet for the Honeymoon
Mario Bava’s delirious quasi-giallo thriller anticipates American Psycho, with Stephen Forsyth dynamic as the chisel-featured bridal dress magnate who is impotent and gets off murdering women. Like AP, Hatchet is a confessional, methodical look into this fiend’s daily life. He’s our hero and he’s suffering from some sort of trauma so naturally we feel some empathy for him. Forsyth is great. So is the film. One of Bava’s best.
Mr. Brooks in Mr. Brooks
This magnificent thriller rarely comes up when discussing serial killer films and it should because it’s so damn good. And Kevin Costner has never been better. Here, he plays a wealthy businessman, humanitarian and family man who is also a mass murderer by night. He’s followed by his spectral alter ego (William Hurt, also brilliant) who eggs him on to indulge in his spate of killing sprees. Brooks is a monster but, in his soul, a good man who has great remorse for his acts. This crackerjack flick takes many twists and turns as we follow Brooks and watch how he ingeniously gets away with murder. Demi Moore is great too as the hard-assed cop on his trail. Love this movie lots. You should too.
Dexter Morgan in Dexter
A character that owes plenty to both Tom Ripley and Mr. Brooks, Dexter is fascinating because of the multiple seasons of Showtime’s series in which we could watch him evolve. From mild mannered blood-spatter analyst who is a killer with a code (he only kills other murderers) to husband, father, brother, avenging angel and monster. A great show and one of the serial killer subgenre’s greatest creations.
Hannibal Lecter in the Hannibal films and series
There are many incarnations of Thomas Harris’ pulp cannibalistic fiend and almost all of them are worthy. And while a case can be made for Mads Mikkelsen in Bryan Fuller’s TV series version of the Hannibal saga, we still are locked on Anthony Hopkins’ definitive portrait in Silence of the Lambs and, especially, Ridley Scott’s Hannibal. In the latter we see the monster off the leash entirely, his refined, learned self sifting through Italy and murdering those who offend his sense of taste and get in his way. A supernatural performance, charming, endearing and blackly evil though still warm…as long as he’s not crossed.
Tom Ripley in the Ripley films
Patricia Highsmith’s dashing sociopath has been the subject of many films, from Rene Clement’s Purple Noon to Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley to Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game. In the books, we see the murderous and reptilian Ripley evolve into a wealthy, dangerous monster. And yet he can sustain romantic relationships, elicits kindness and, by the time we get the middle aged Ripley, can actually put others needs before his own. He’s perhaps the most important and influential of all “heroic” serial killers.