The 20 best real-life serial killer portrayals on screen, from Charlize Theron to Zac Efron

Isobel Lewis and Louis Chilton select a list of the finest dramatic portrayals of real-life killers in film and TV

Tuesday 15 September 2020 12:40
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David Tennant in 'Des'
David Tennant in 'Des'
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his month, David Tennant will take on one of his darkest roles to date. In ITV’s Des, he plays Dennis Nilsen, the notorious “Muswell Hill Murderer” who killed at least 12 young boys and men in North London from 1978 to 1983.

Tennant is the latest in a long line of actors to dramatise the lives of some of the world’s most prolific murderers and it’s easy to see why such a part would be appealing. Playing a serial killer allows an actor to show their range and move away from being typecast. For those who’ve gone before them, such roles have been known to make a career, winning Oscars, Golden Globes and Baftas for those who take them on.

However, portraying serial killers obviously comes with its own set of challenges. These are people audiences know well, so do they mimic them word for word or do their own interpretation, knowing that people at home can compare them to the TV reports of their childhoods, now tracked down in seconds online.

There’s also the issue of sensitivity: nobody wants to be accused of exploiting trauma or trivialising events that still have an impact on people today. The actors on this list perfectly walk that fine line, providing heart-rendering performances that manage to humanise killers just enough without ever excusing what they did.

Here are 20 of the best performances of real-life serial killers to ever hit the screen…

Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper in Mindhunter (2017)

Netflix’s Mindhunter featured a number of real life criminals in its two seasons, but it is Cameron Britton’s turn as Ed Kemper, the so-called “Co-ed Killer” who murdered 10 people including his own mother, that sticks in the mind of everyone who watches. There’s a chilling, matter-of-fact politeness in the way Britton lists off his crimes and how he did them that gained the actor critical praise, as well as an Emmy nomination.

Samantha Morton as Myra Hindley in Longford (2006)

It takes an impressive actor to play “the most evil woman in Britain” but in 2006’s Longford, Samantha Morton showed that she was up to the challenge. Seen through the eyes of Lord Longford (Jim Broadbent), a man looking to pardon Moors Murderer Hindley, viewers were presented with an unexpectedly soft-spoken, feminine version of the killer as she drifts between both performative and genuine repentance, but one worthy of a Golden Globe.

Chilling: Cameron Britton (centre) as Ed Kemper in the Netflix series 'Mindhunter'

Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer in My Friend Dahmer (2017)

First on the list of former Disney Channel stars portraying serial killers, we have former Austin and Ally star and R5 member Ross Lynch as teenage loner Jeffrey Dahmer. Depicting Dahmer as an awkward outcast, we see the beginnings of his fixations bubbling to the surface, with the film leading up to the moment Dahmer kills the first of his 15 victims. It’s a deft performance from Lynch, who has since reverted to his teen show roots in Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2004)

At this stage it feels clichéd to call an actor “unrecognisable” in a role, but few have been as transformative as Theron’s Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’s Monster. With bleached blonde eyebrows, dirty clothes and the glamour the former model was known for stripped away, Theron’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a sex worker who killed seven men in an alleged act of self defence marked her out as an actor to take seriously.

Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer in 'My Friend Dahmer'

John Carroll Lynch as Arthur “Leigh” Allen in Zodiac (2007)

Adding John Carroll Lynch to this list feels dangerous, as the Zodiac Killer’s identity is still unknown in one of the US’s most prolific unsolved cases. David Fincher’s Zodiac puts forward Arthur Leigh Allen (Lynch) as a lead suspect and despite the director asking Lynch to play the role Allen as if he was innocent, there’s something in his demeanour that leaves that door impossible to shut for good. Whether he did it or not, the smooth, measured words, “I'm not the Zodiac. And if I was, I certainly wouldn't tell you" are guaranteed to send a shudder down your spine.

Richard Attenborough as John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971)

John Christie’s story is a truly chilling one. Strangling at least eight women to death in his flat in the 1940s and Fifties, he initially stood as a prosecution witness after another tenant in his building (John Hurt) was arrested for the crime, sending him to his death. As Christie, Attenborough peppers Christie’s unassuming nature with a sinister edge, in what The Independent described as a “memorably creepy performance”. 

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than casting a hunky actor in an unsuspecting role. In serial killer Ted Bundy, a man whose looks were so prolific teenage fangirls reportedly attended his trial, they have the perfect opportunity to do just that. In casting Efron as the man responsible for at least 30 deaths, director Berlinger was accused of glamourising the story and feeding into that story but the former High School Musical star gives an unexpectedly understated performance as Bundy.

This charming man: Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile'

Brian Dennehy as John Wayne Gacy in To Catch a Killer (1992)

Dennehy’s performance as one of the US’s most prolific serial killers in 1992 made-for-TV movie To Catch A Killer is a masterful character study. It seems impossible that the initially cocky Gacy, showboat so confident he would inviting surveillance detectives to drink with him, could deteriorate to turning himself in in paranoia, but Dennehy manages to present that unravelling with subtlety and skill.

Michael Reilly Burke as Ted Bundy in Ted Bundy (2002)

The nature of Bundy’s story - his perceived good looks, the women he targeted, his fanbase - means directors tread a difficult line when it comes to dramatising his story. Matthew Bright’s 2002 film Ted Bundy fell on the wrong side of that line, debuting to a generally poor critical reception with reviewers labelling it “exploitative”. However, the film’s star Burke was praised for his creepy performance of the charming killer, in what would go on to be the only lead role of his career.

Andy Serkis as Ian Brady in Longford (2006)

London-born Serkis may seem like an unusual choice to play the Glaswegian accomplice to Morton’s Hindley, but with his faultless accent and chilling demeanour, we never doubt him for a second. With Hindley professing her remorse to Longford, it is Brady who is painted as the more guilty party in the murder of five children, with Serkis capturing a slimy nastiness sure give you nightmares.

Tony Curtis as convicted serial killer Albert DeSalvo in 'The Boston Strangler'

Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo in The Boston Strangler (1968)

After a strong end to the 1950s which saw Tony Curtis star in Some Like It Hot, The Sweet Smell of Success and The Defiant Ones within the space of two years, the 1960s saw the actor mired in a run of forgettable comedies. To break the rut, he took on the role of Albert DeSalvo, the infamous “Boston Strangler” who murdered 13 women in Massachusetts in the early 1960s. DeSalvo was imprisoned for his crimes in 1967 and stabbed to death six years later; Curtis earned a Golden Globe nod for his chilling portrayal.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960)

Anthony Perkins’ chilling turn as the cross-dressing motel murderer Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho remains one of cinema’s all-time greatest depictions of pure, deadly evil. Bates was in fact loosely based on the real-life killer Ed Gein, sometimes referred to as the “Butcher of Plainfield” or the “Plainfield Ghoul”. Gein, a Wisconsin farm owner, was convicted of two murders and other counts of corpse mutilation, and many reports have focussed on his unhealthy, obsessive relationship with his late mother.

Kathy Bates as Madame Delphine LaLaurie in American Horror Story (2013-14)

LaLaurie, born in 1787, was a New Orleans socialite who tortured and murdered slaves in her Louisiana home. After rescuers attending to a fire in her mansion in 1834 discovered evidence of her atrocities, her property was attacked by an angry mob and she fled to France. Kathy Bates, known for playing Stephen King’s fictional psychopath in Misery, embodies LaLaurie well in the Coven season of American Horror Story.

Anthony Perkins' (left) famous 'Psycho' character was inspired by real-life killer Ed Gein

Maxine Peake as Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders (2006)

Samantha Morton isn’t the only actor to have convincingly played notorious Manchester murderer Myra Hindley. Peake won acclaim for her disturbing portrayal of the felon in the two-part ITV series See No Evil, which also starred Mission: Impossible’s Sean Harris as Hindley’s partner in crime, Ian Brady. True crime dramas often run the risk of poor taste, but See No Evil was made after years of research, with approval from Hindley’s victims’ families.

Oliver Cooper as David Berkowitz in Mindhunter (2019)

Mindhunter featured several great serial killer performances across its two-season run; Oliver Cooper’s was up there with the best. Dave Berkowitz, known to most as the “Son of Sam”, committed eight shootings between the summer of 1976 and 1977. His crimes made him something of a celebrity - not least due to his sensational confessions, in which he alleged he had been convinced to carry out the murders on the order of a demon that had taken the form of his neighbour “Sam”’s dog.

Dominic West as Fred West in Appropriate Adult (2011)

West may still be best known as the dysfunctional Baltimore police detective Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, but in 2011 he thrived in this role on the other side of the law. As Fred West, the killer who claimed the lives of at least 12 young women in Gloucester between 1967 and 1987, he was unnerving and convincing; Monica Dolan was similarly compelling in the role of West’s infamous wife and co-killer, Rose.

Sheen (right) played the temperamental spree killer Kit, based on Charles Starkweather, in 'Badlands'

Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers in Badlands (1973)

Terrence Malick’s masterful debut film Badlands was inspired by the real-life story of spree killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. As Starkweather - reworked into the character of Kit Carruthers - Sheen is blisteringly good, a volatile, dangerous rogue with a kind of dark charisma. Across his long and varied career, Sheen wouldn’t often play villains, but as Badlands shows, he had one hell of a knack for it.

Michael Rooker as Henry Lee Lucas in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

The man who inspired the 1986 film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Henry Lee Lucas, confessed to killing hundreds of murders, claiming he had committed around one a week from 1975 to 1983. Investigators disproved the majority of these claims, but convicted him of 11. The film was scandalous in its time, but Rooker’s turn as the murderous drifter remains haunting and potent to this day.

John Cusack as Robert Hansen in The Frozen Ground (2013)

The 2013 thriller The Frozen Ground was dismissed by many critics upon its release, but its two lead performances - from Nicolas Cage, as State Trooper Jack Halcombe, and John Cusack, as real-life killer Robert Hansen - are a definite high point. The real Hansen, known as the “Butcher Baker”, abducted, raped and murdered 17 women in Alaska between 1971 and 1983. After his arrest in 1983, Hansen was sentenced to 461 years in prison.

Ice cold: John Cusack as Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen in 'The Frozen Ground'

Sonny Valicenti as Dennis Rader in Mindhunter (2017)

Another Mindhunter guest star, this time Sonny Valicenti, who excelled in the role of Dennis Rader, known as the BTK killer. Another US-based criminal, Rader ritualistically killed 10 people in Kansas before his apprehension in 2005. The moniker “BTK” was self-coined - an acronym for “blind, torture, kill” - and before his capture, Rader would send taunting letters to police and newspapers outlining the details of his crimes.

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