Friday, July 10, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Top Ten Movie Serial Killers

How many movies with a serial killer have there been over the years? I'm not sure, but I think there maybe more movie serial killers than actual serial killers in the past 50 years or so. But the ten listed below are the ones that I remember the most. Yes, the number one choice is as cliched as it gets, but sometimes things are cliched for a reason.

10. David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) in Summer of Sam (1999)
I seemed to be the only person in 1999 who loved Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, and a decade later, it hasn’t won over too many other admirers. The thing I love about Badalucco’s performance in this film is that for most of the running time of the movie, we are seeing nothing but paranoia from the main characters, as they wonder who the Son of Sam killer is, and slowly degenerate and start accusing Adrien Brody’s punk rocker, simply because he has changed from what he used to be. But every time we see Badalucco as Berkowitz, he is a pathetic figure, huddled on the floor of his apartment moaning, or yelling at the dog across the street who won’t stop barking, and talks to him telling him who to kill. Many serial killers in the movies – including most on this list – are portrayed as almost impossibly brilliant. Badalucco’s is a pathetic, lonely, loser.

9. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) in Grindhouse: Death Proof
Kurt Russell gives one of his best performances as Stuntman Mike, a man who used to do stunts for the movies and TV, and now hangs out in bars hitting on gorgeous young women, before killing them with his “death proof” car. Russell gets the rhythms of Quentin Tarantino’s speech just about perfectly, and for much of the movie is wonderful and menacing. In the finale though, he becomes as pathetic and whiny as Badalucco in Summer of Sam. A great performance in an underrated movie.

8. Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis) in The Boston Strangler
We do not see Albert DeSalvo until almost half of the movie has gone by. Up until that point, we have followed the police investigation, trying to figure out who is killing all of these women. But when Tony Curtis finally does make a screen appearance, he is unforgettable. Normally, when I think of Tony Curtis, I think of either his slimy agent in the Sweet Smell of Success or his cross dressing musician in Some Like it Hot, and similar roles. But here, as an evil man, who gets himself inside woman’s apartments and stranglers them to death, he is bone chillingly good.

7. Jeffrey Dahmer (Jeremy Renner) in Dahmer
This is the first movie I can recall seeing Jeremy Renner in. Since this movie, he has become one of my favorite actors working right now. Dahmer is the first in a low rent series of “real life” serial killer movies - most of whom are nothing but exploitation films. But Dahmer was different. For one thing, it focuses more on the psychology behind Dahmer, not on the grisly nature of his crimes. Renner completely gives himself over to the role creating one of the most chilling screen villains in recent memory. This is a film that not a lot of people saw, but it certainly deserved a wider audience.

6. Henry (Michael Rooker) in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Loosely based on the real life case of Henry Lee Lucas, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the intense portrayals of a killer I have ever seen on screen. Henry kills without feeling or remorse, seemingly at random, using different weapons at different times on different victims, making him impossible to track. Henry is a man incapable of any real human emotion. We see the result of his crimes at the beginning of the film, but we do not see any actual murders until much later on. The other two characters in the movie – Henry’s roommate Otis, and Otis’s sister Becky, are drawn into Henry’s world slowly. Otis starts to like killing people as much as Henry does, and the two commit several murders together – we do see – until Otis tries to rape Becky, and Henry kills him. Henry and Becky set off together, Becky thinks to drive off into the sunset and they stop at a motel. The next day, Henry leaves the motel himself, and drops a bloody suitcase off on the side of the road. Rooker’s performance in the film is powerful – he would never again get a role this good – and he makes the most of it.

5. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in Seven
When he uses it effectively, Kevin Spacey has one of the most chilling voices of any actor in history. Never has he used it better than in Seven, where his John Doe is a psychopath killing people who have committed one of the seven deadly sins. When he shows up late in the movie, he is all calm serenity, yet underneath that calmness lurks an insanity that only reveals itself slowly, a little more scene by scene, until the films shattering climax. Although this is a small role, it is absolutely unforgettable.

4. Patrick Bateman (Christain Bale) in American Psycho
Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman is one of the most unforgettable performances of the decade. He is a man who is obsessive in his competiveness with the other stock brokers - who has the best business card, who has the best credit card, etc. His release comes in the form of his sexual forays with prostitutes, who he then proceeds to kill in gruesome ways. But it’s not prostitutes - he’ll kill just about anyone for any reason. He needs that release, and if he cannot get that release, then he will go insane. Despite all the satire in the film, which is pitch perfect, Bale makes Bateman into a real person - we still do not like him, but at least we understand him.

3. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was daring in a lot of ways - from it’s abrupt shift in focus from Marion (Janet Leigh) to Norman at about the half way point, to essentially inventing the slasher genre. But all of it would be useless without Perkins amazing performance as the ultimate mama’s boy. From his first scene inside the parlor with Marion, full of stuffed birds mounted on the walls, you know that something is not quite right with Norman. As he starts killing people, dressed as his mother, things get really strange. Bates is the model of many modern day serial killers in the movies, and amazingly the psychology used to explain him, would be relevant to many actual serial killers. The movie is a masterpiece, and Perkins performance is one of the iconic in cinema history.

2. Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom
Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is one of the best films ever made. His protagonist is Mark Lewis, played in an unforgettable performance by Carl Boehm. Mark is a frustrated filmmaker, who was warped as a child by being used as a guinea pig in his father’s experiments. Now, he wants to capture the look of absolute terror on his victims faces. He murders them using a knife on his camera’s tripod, and a mirror so that they can watch themselves die. Lewis is one of the most obsessive examples of a serial killer ever put on screen – he needs to kill, and he needs the girls to die in the right way – getting angry with them if they do not. It is not a film that a lot of people have seen, but it should be.

1. Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs
Sometimes the most clich├ęd choice in a top ten list is also the best. In The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins created what is possibly the best screen villain in history. He is charming and chilling at the same time, playing with Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) like a cat plays with a mouse, deciding whether or not to kill her. But he cannot - he grows to love her too much. But that does not stop him from killing everyone else he can. There is not a scene in the film that has Hopkins in it that is not pitch perfect and chilling. This is truly one of the best performances in history, and the only possible choice for the number 1 spot on this list.

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