Americans seem to fear and love serial killers in equal measure. How else to explain us huddling, stricken, around a neverending deluge of movies, shows, novels, podcasts, true crime non-fiction, and even video games that constantly puts these (mostly) men and their bloody deeds front and center? Our latest national obsession is the Netflix miniseries, Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, which has already become one of its biggest hits. (Although given that so many people inexplicably equate Netflix with streaming — or even television itself — and given the streamer’s persistent dearth of premium content, I wonder if anything semi-compelling and suitably buzzy would instantly become a huge hit for it.)
But where were we … oh, right, serial killers! They’ve been everywhere in our popular culture for decades, the subject of acclaimed stories like Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Dexter, and True Detective. Even as real-life serial killing has declined since the 1980s due to a safer overall society and more sophisticated policing techniques, we remain hungry for more, um, serialized content. While we couldn’t hope to create an exhaustive list in this space, here are four relatively recent shows and one movie you can switch over to once you’ve devoured Dahmer.
After a shaky start with a few underwhelming and mixed-reviewed offerings (See, The Morning Show) Apple TV+ has rebounded with several gems, including the instant masterpiece, Severance, a show so expertly wrought it almost defies belief. Though not in that rarefied air, Black Bird, by the great crime novelist and screenwriter, Dennis Lehane (Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River), also deserves attention, especially for the brave and harrowing performances of its two leads, Taron Egerton and Paul Walter Hauser.
Egerton plays Jimmy Keane, a convicted drug dealer who agrees to be transported to a dangerous maximum security prison to help the feds get a suspected serial killer, Larry Hall (Hauser), to confess to more murders before he is released on a technicality, free to kill again. Why Keane? Because he’s handsome and charming and he can get people to open up to him. But despite his skill at manipulation, Keane is far from a narcissist, and his conscience agonizes as he begins to understand how his own history of womanizing may come from a similar place as Hall’s murderous misogyny.
In a parallel story, Greg Kinnear and Sepideh Moafi play mismatched law enforcement partners trying to dig up more dirt on Hall from the outside. But Keane’s redemption arc drives the show. His journey is tortured given what he learns about Hall — brilliantly conceived by Hauser as a man-child with a high-pitched voice — and has to confront about himself and human beings in general.
You can stream Black Bird on Apple TV+ and stream and rent it on other digital platforms.
If you don’t mind the gore, this horror comedy from Blumhouse is pure pleasure, not least for the terrific performances. One can argue that Vince Vaughn has phoned in his share of movies (one can even argue that Vaughn doesn’t try to hide the fact that he sometimes phones them in), but that is far from the case here. The actor is totally committed to the movie’s body switch premise and he is an absolute hoot.
Vaughn plays the Blissfield Butcher, a serial killer who attacks high schooler Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), wounding her with an ancient mystical dagger. The next day they discover they’ve switched bodies, a la Freaky Friday, and Millie, now inside the body of the Butcher, has to convince her friends that it’s really her (Misha Osherovich and Celeste O’Connor do hilarious supporting work as the friends). Meanwhile, the Butcher assumes the body of Millie, makes her over into a hot girl, and uses her as cover to slice and dice various teachers and students. Of course, the horrific dispatching of jerks and bullies provides vicarious gratification for anyone in the audience who still harbors hate in their heart for high school (which is, let’s face it, most of us).
Director Christopher Landon is an expert in the genre, having written and directed entries in the Paranormal Activity franchise and made the satirical Happy Death Day. You’d think that 25 years after Scream there would be few places left to go with the slasher parody, but Landon consistently mines fresh humor and invention from the dusty old well. That, paired with the skillful work of the actors, provides a hilarious and disgusting time at the movies.
You can rent and buy Freaky on multiple digital platforms.
HBO’s six-part documentary series chronicles one of the most horrifying true-crime cases in American history, that of the “Golden State Killer,” who menaced California in the 1970s and ’80s with more than 50 home-invasions, during which he typically terrorized his victims for hours before raping and sometimes murdering them. The bloodcurdling tale is made more fascinating by the way that the show frames it through the experiences of Michelle McNamara, an amateur detective who detailed her years of work trying to track down the killer in the book that became the basis for the series.
I won’t reveal the fates of either McNamara or the Golden State Killer here. Suffice it to say, law enforcement made stunning breakthroughs just in the last few years based on McNamara’s work and emerging DNA tracing technology. In addition to weaving the stories of detective and killer, the series is also a disquieting mediation on the nature of obsession. Our society — particularly women, who are typically the victims of these monsters — has gone through a true crime infatuation over the last decade, during which podcasts such as Serial and My Favorite Murder have become among the most popular of the form. McNamara’s case becomes a cautionary tale about how constantly dwelling on this macabre material can have deleterious effects on the psyche.
You can stream I’ll be Gone in the Dark on HBO Max and rent it on other digital platforms.
Quentin Tarantino has called Tim Roth one of the best actors in the world and watching the BBC’s Rillington Place, in which Roth disappears behind makeup to embody the real-life post-WWII English serial killer, John Christie, you’d be hard-pressed to argue with him. In fact, great acting seems to characterize most of the entries on this list, as well as many other famous serial killer movies (Monster, Badlands, Zodiac). I suppose inhabiting serial killers and their victims takes an advanced level of skill and commitment, which you will certainly find in Roth’s chilling portrait, as well as Samantha Morton’s performance as Christie’s long-suffering wife, Ethel.
Christie’s murders of at least eight women (also dramatized in the earlier classic 10 Rillington Place starring Richard Attenborough as the serial killer) are among Britain’s most notorious crimes, especially because Christie used his unassuming manner to lure desperate young women with promises of abortion, which was then illegal in the country. One of his most famous victims was his neighbor, Beryl Evans, and Christie was thought to also have killed her infant, though the baby’s father was hanged for it, partially thanks to Christie’s testimony (ironically, Jodie Comer plays Evans just a few years before she became a star as Villanelle, another serial killer of sorts on Killing Eve).
As I wrote previously, “Rillington Place is a blistering indictment of a mid-century English society that restricted women to second-class status, thus enabling a monster like Christie.” The miniseries hasn’t been widely seen in the US, but perhaps the Dahmer hype will prompt some to seek it out.
You can stream Rillington Place on Hoopla and rent it on other digital platforms.
The Silence of the Lambs is typically considered the best of the filmed Hannibal Lecter content (which also includes Michael Mann’s Manhunter, the movie version of Hannibal with Julianne Moore, Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising) but the cult NBC series is arguably better. How this deranged gore-fest made it onto network television — even when the networks were trying to keep up with “Peak TV” innovation on cable and streamers — remains a mystery. But thank God it did, as it is one of the most creative and artfully rendered shows ever produced.
Hannibal initially makes a half-hearted attempt at being a forensics procedural, ala CSI, with a group of lab technicians quipping over bizarrely mutilated corpses. Though perhaps recognizing that the show wouldn’t last long in primetime, showrunner Bryan Fuller and his team quickly abandoned any pretense of conventionality and leaned fully into their macabre vision, which includes disturbingly beautiful arrangements of mangled bodies and the exquisite dishes they become in Hannibal’s (Mads Mikkelsen) 5-star kitchen.
In this version of the material, the famous serial cannibal is not only at-large and practicing high-priced psychiatry (The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson plays a fellow shrink), but he is on retainer with the FBI to evaluate their troubled profiler, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who slips further down the rabbit hole after every depraved criminal he is asked to mentally inhabit. Of course, Hannibal uses his therapy sessions with Will for his own purposes in his eternal project to bend all humans to his Machiavellian designs. From the character psychology to the twisted art direction, Hannibal is a freak show in the best way.
You can stream Hannibal on Hulu and buy it on other digital platforms.
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