This list of the top serial killer and torture films was one of the more challenging categories to narrow down because most horror films are films about one of these two subjects. In closing the list down, I chose to focus on these two subjects because there is so much crossover. However, I separated the list to allow you, the reader and potential viewer to avoid the descriptions of the more violent stuff if you so choose. So first I will present the serial killer horror films, followed by the gore-heavy torture horror.
In the serial killer section, I focus on fictional tales and omit documentary-style films about historical killers, or movies where there were supernatural elements; I also omitted sequels. The best horror films are the ones that affect us and leave us with a changed view of the world. Scary movies “feed the alligators of the mind” according to Stephen King, and these horror films will definitely provide them with a buffet of maniacs, killers, and madmen, as well as healthy doses of blood, guts, and gore.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Silence of the Lambs tells the story of a young FBI cadet Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) who is forced to face her demons as she works with an incarcerated serial killer named Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) in pursuit of a serial killer who skins his victims. Not only is this film an exceptional example of suspense horror, but it’s also exquisitely shot, directed and acted.
The film deservingly won multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
A shiningly dark example of what a crime drama can be, this horror film directed by David Fincher starred Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman. The story follows a rookie and veteran detective in the pursuit of a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins of the bible as his roadmap of destruction. With great acting, sharp writing, and a gritty, dark film style, as well as one of the most shocking and powerful twist endings on film, Seven is easily one of the best horror movies, and arguably one of the best films of all time.
American Psycho (2000)
Directed by Mary Harron, this stylishly shot film set in 1980s Manhattan features a classic 80s vibe from the shot work to the soundtrack, this satirical horror comedy is fun to watch. The story follows the charming and devious killer next door Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale in the role that set him towards stardom) a Wall Street mogul by day, sociopathic killer by night. The film is a dark, twisted comedy with more than a few subtle political and sociological statements throughout, deftly lampooning narcissism, sexism, and greed with near surgical precision, and a chainsaw.
When they find themselves caught in a storm, ten travelers are trapped together at a strange motel. They soon realize there is a killer among them and they are being killed off one by one.
A solid ensemble cast, an exciting plot with a very unusual take on the standard serial killer trope, and a few very original misdirections and twists result in a profoundly watchable and interesting film that ends up wrapped in a neat little bow of unexpected closure.
Not to be confused with any of the many other movies based on the same unsolved serial murders, Zodiac is directed by David Fincher (who also directed Fight Club and Seven) and features an incredibly talented cast, Including Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr.
The Zodiac Killer is one of the most disturbing characters in recent history primarily because to this day the killer has never been caught. This film follows the story of several men obsessed for a variety of reasons with the pursuit of the mysterious clue dropping killer, capturing him and unmasking him. The film is long at just over 2 and a half hours but is well paced and engaging.
Though serial killers make for more of a mental scare, the torture aspects often creep into films about them. Some of these movies focus on the mind of the killer, and others focus on the acts of violence themselves. Be warned that many of these films show graphic violence, and are much more alternative than mainstream.
American horror was reasonably clean in the 70s, slasher films like Last House on the Left, and I Spit On Your Grave found a spot in the box office, with a fair amount of success, but they were kept from the mainstream and held to the outskirts of cult classics.
Entering the 80s we got a stream of supernatural killers and supervillains that would generally spend most of their time on scream pursing the victims, not causing their suffering through physical means.
If the type of horror you seek includes exploitative type films, nude or scantily clad men and women, bound, tied, chained, and then destroyed via some horrible means, this category is right up your alley. Torture porn type films are known for generating a series of sequels or spin-offs as well, but as with the other lists only the original movies are mentioned. These films are all a bit more disturbing due to their violent and sadistic nature.
In an article about the sub-genre published by The Guardian, Benjamin Lee writes “Torture porn was one of the least accessible horror subgenres, the casual cinemagoer less open to watching a woman’s insides fill with acid over, say, a ghost knock over a kitchen cabinet,” he comments on the limitations of the genre to produce sequels that remain compelling. In a portion specifically referencing Saw, he says “Each film would need to be crueler than the last, each punishment even nastier than before,” Lee continues, “and eventually this became tiresome and also impossible.” the series of sequels’ progressively more extreme and graphic representations of violence eventually become too gruesome at some point for even the most hardcore horror fans.
The Wizard of Gore (1970)
The modern hardcore gore film saw it’s genesis in a long string of blood-soaked cinema by director Herschell Gordon Lewis in the late ’60s and early ’70s. His movies were packed the most outlandish gore possible, pushing the boundaries of legality and breaking the rules of good taste. Films like The Wizard of Gore (one of his best), would become cult classics and carve out the path for future slasher films, and creation of torture gore horror. The general plotline follows a madman who tortures, carves up, and mutilates his hypnotized victims on stage for the enjoyment of the bloodthirsty crowd. A few misdirections and twists aside the vision is fairly brutal and straightforward.
Cannibal Holocaust (1979)
The makers of Cannibal Holocaust were responsible for creating the found-footage horror sub-genre when they made a film about a group of film students who venture into the darkest jungle looking for cannibals, which they immediately regret finding. The production value is low and grimy and feels disturbingly real. Cannibal Holocaust was banned in several countries and can shock even the most jaded audiences. This violent film is one of the weirdest and most disturbing torture gore films ever, especially for its time.
Guinea Pig (1985)
Modern torture porn still doesn’t surpass the graphic nature of this extreme and brutal underground film series from Japan. This series of six short but very controversial Japanese horror films started out storyless, just a series of connected images of various acts of torture and mutilation and evolved by the final movie into (still grotesque) comedic themed works. The effects are disgusting (in all the right ways if it’s what you’re into), and so brutal you get the impression that someone is actually being killed, in fact, there were allegedly several court cases where the directors and producers had to prove no-one was injured or killed. Guinea Pig is a series of bold, gruesome, and exploitive films that push the boundaries in ways that only foreign horror can. In short the films are very worth watching for their vile goriness and effects if you can find a copy and stomach the experience.
Honestly one of my favorite franchises, this film, and the sequels are a great mix of gore, violence, and the human condition. Saw is as much a morality play as it is a horror film. A well-crafted bit of drama, filled with “I can’t watch, but peek through my fingers” type moments. The simple camerawork, robust character development and general mind-twisting combine to make an excellent modern horror film. Though the first film is more of a torture based horror film, the subsequent movies reveal the serial killer behind the screen. The overreaching brilliance of the series is that the victims are forced to torture themselves to survive, facing their demons in the process.
The Saw franchise brought American made torture porn to the mainstream when it became Hollywood’s primary Halloween money machine. The seven movie series raked in nearly a Billion dollars in worldwide box office. With most of the gore horror movies in subsequent years trying to copycat its gruesome formula. Movies like Hostel, as well as remakes of Wes Craven classics (The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, both of which are discussed in other blogs in the Education in Horror series), tried to capitalize on moviegoers growing lust for blood.
Filled beyond the point of overflowing with sex, gore, torture, nudity, and gore. One of the first American films in the torture-porn style of some Italian, Japenese, and Spanish films, this movie pushes the boundaries and limits of the viewers. The story is set in a world where in which people who can afford it have the opportunity to torture and murder other people for a price, something like the stories told as long ago as The Most Dangerous Game (find out more on the dawn of horror). By playing on the naivete and entitlement of Americans who travel abroad, director Eli Roth manages to include a bit of social commentary.
I Saw The Devil (2011)
This Korean horror film is one of the more interesting and unique on the serial killer list. I Saw The Devil follows a special agent Dae-hoon (Byung-Hun Lee) who’s pregnant fiancée becomes the latest victim of a vicious serial killer Kyung-Chul (Min-Sik Choi) blurs the line between justice and vengeance in his pursuit of revenge. The result feels like a combination of Seven and Saw, or Taken if it was done as a graphic and visceral horror film. Beautifully filmed despite the extremely gory content, the director does an excellent job of crafting a relentless cat and mouse horror film.