Believe it or not, the serial killer genre is probably the most popular sub-genre in film today. Think about it. The amount of money made by scaring the shit out of a bunch of teenagers is ridiculous. The remakes of all those classic horror films (most of which featuring a mask wearing psychopath) and the countless regurgitated slasher flicks are all examples of societies sick obsession with serial killers. For something so sick and disturbing, Hollywood has done its best to make it palatable and, dare I say, entertaining. With all of this grisly bloodshed, there had blossomed out of the aftermath some truly tremendous performances that find the right balance of engaging and detestable.
I thought of this while watching ‘The Snowtown Murders’ last week. It is one of the more recent entries in this category, and it finds its strength in the fact that it isn’t yet another carbon copy of the Hollywoodized variations of this genre. This isn’t another slasher flick. No one wears a mask and the body count isn’t littered with hard bodies running for their lives while the killer simply walks up to them and stabs them in the boob. ‘The Snowtown Murders’ is effective because it makes you feel dirty for watching. Unlike ‘Scream’ (which I classify as genre-perfection, so don’t misunderstand me), ‘The Snowtown Murders’ isn’t intent on entertaining you. It doesn’t come up with clever ways to kill off its stars so that you can get some sick excitement from watching some hot young blonde scream for her life. ‘The Snowtown Murders’ is the real deal. You can’t get excited about this because it feels too real, too raw; too honest. The fact that it is based on a true account is even more chilling.
I wanted to throw up.
And so, in the depths of these arch-types, these serious minded ‘serial killer’ films; which performances have chilled you the most? Which performances have stuck out as deserving of your time and attention? Which of these ‘cold blooded killers’ has made you squirm the most?
In compiling this list of names, I really strived to stay away from the glossier productions. There are no teen slasher films here. No ‘Screams’ or ‘I Know What You Did Last Summers’. There is none of the classic Craven’s or Carpenter’s. No ‘Halloween’ or ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. Yes, they are variations of this genre and yet they are not what I’m looking for here. And yes, I know that gangsters are technically serial killers as well, but we’re not talking about them either.
Well, you’ll see.
I went over this list all weekend trying to come up with the right ‘ten’. I debated mentioning Robert Blake and Scott Wilson for their tremendous work in ‘In Cold Blood’, but in going over the film it really doesn’t meet the requirements. I can’t say that a botched robbery turned murder of a family really constitutes as serial killings, because they don’t. I also want to mention that some films may be better than the ones I personally mention and yet, this is about the PERFORMANCES and not the films (for instance, I kind of hated ‘American Psycho’ and yet, Christian Bale is on this list but Funny Games, a film which I loved does not register here because the performances by the killers themselves were not the highlight of the film).
Alright, I’ll just get on with it already.
There are really two ‘effective’ ways to play a serial killer. You can either seethe at the mouth with ferocity and undeniable malice or you could layer the man with human traits that blur the lines and create a questionmark in the minds of the viewer. Either way, there is one facet of the human body that needs to be utilized at all times; the eyes. The strength in these performances can be found in the way that these actors speak volumes with a singular stare. John Carroll Lynch goes past that. He uses his entire body. He has a few short scenes in ‘Zodiac’ and yet he makes the biggest impression because he haunts the viewer. Lynch racks up a Fisti Nomination in Supporting Actor for his brief interrogation scene because of that very fact. That’s also why he lands at the #10 spot on this list. The way he molds his answers around the questions is a stunning piece of work; but that final line reading “I’m not the Zodiac” is just flawlessly delivered. Watch his facial expression as he makes the statement; the way his eyes change shape and focus. You can see the killer in him.
We travel to an entirely different rendering of character at our #9 spot, with Benoit Poelvoorde. Benoit stars as a serial killer being recorded by a film crew in the harrowing black comedy ‘Man Bites Dog’. The way that Benoit completely envelopes his character’s flamboyance and directness is astonishing. It is the polar opposite of how one would assume the character to be played and yet it perfectly captures the depth of message the film was trying to make. Benoit is never devoid of menace, for he is chilling to the bone, but he approaches the scenario with the necessary nonchalance and charisma that makes his character all the more frightening.
Next we have Martin Sheen and the aforementioned Daniel Henshall who capitalize on something remarkable in their work; manipulation. Sheen shows such introverted scheming in ‘Badlands’, completely overtaking the audience as he slowly unravels details of his persona to us. Henshall goes a bit further by introducing to us a true sense of disturbed lust for killing. The way he manipulates, almost forcefully, is astonishing to watch. You can feel the fire in his eyes and the aggressive nature to this performance is hard to stomach in parts.
In 6th place we have one of the most renowned and respected performances of all time; Sir Anthony Hopkins tremendous take on Cannibal Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’. What is so astonishing about this performance is that Lecter creates a man who is not only physically disturbing but also intellectually. The way that Hopkins tastes every word before releasing it from his mouth is so inspired and he really understood the need to create this character from the ground up. He brought such intensity to every moment. What is also noteworthy is the way he shades his character’s madness by presenting a faux sense of humanity. With this balance, Hopkins never leaves the viewer (which is probably why he’s deemed an unquestionable Lead Actor with barely more than fifteen minutes of screen time).
The next two spots are taken by actors taking a more humanistic approach to this ‘killer’.
First we have Michael Rooker. ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ is probably one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen and contains some of the more shocking and realistic portrayals of murder on screen, and yet there is this odd sense of remorse that floods Rooker’s face as he tackles this man. His portrayal of Henry as a broken and tortured soul is amazing, for he grabs you where it counts, creating a festering, menacing individual who is as tormented as the people he torments. He also manages to capture his character's apathetic attitude towards his actions, without ever losing the manipulated sympathies we are forced to feel for him. When he bares his calculated soul to Becky we are given a glimpse of the misery this man has been through, yet at the same time, as his story changes and his emotions are bore we can see that this man is pure evil.
Then there is Peter Lorre, who plays the lowliest and most despicable of killers in ‘M’; a pedophilic serial killer, and yet the way he shades the man (with mere facial expressions of pain and internalized suffering) is so raw and emotionally riveting. There is a scene where he is staring in the window of a toy store, watching a young girl in a mirror and his face bleeds forth with this wretched pain and confusion; utter torment eating away at his very soul. He makes this man human, which was very gutsy especially at the time. His final breakdown towards the end of the film where he tries to explain his horrible condition, his sickness if you will, is actually quite moving in his dire conviction and commitment to his performance.
Then we have Christian Bale in one of his more critically acclaimed roles; ‘American Psycho’. Bale delivers a tour de force because he actually dissects this man’s complete decent into madness one frame at a time. He is charming, charismatic, disturbing, sadistic, aggressive, pained, tormented, delusional, soulless, vain, calloused; the list goes on and on. The fact that he captures all of those facets to perfection is just beyond remarkable.
In second place is one of the more renowned performances in the genre; Anthony Perkins. This is one of those portrayals that rely on identifying with the emotional and mental stunting of the killer. By burrowing into the childlike immaturity of Norman Bates, Perkins helped us to feel a sense of pity for this sad soul. The mommy issues, the sexual curiosity, the moments of unbridled panic. These are all identifying characteristics of a serial killer and Perkins finds a way to use them without ever once appearing clichéd or unnatural. Instead, he develops a madman, a villain who is not only bone chilling but wholly sympathetic to the viewer.
And you’d think he’d be #1 and yet, there is one performance that ALWAYS comes to my mind when I think of this particular ‘role’ and the one that has yet to be topped:
In a review for the film I once wrote “Kevin Spacey’s final frames are those `hold your breath' frames, where time stops and blood runs cold and everything around you begins to crush inward” and I still feel the same way.
So that is my list. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the genre and the performances found in these films. What do you think of my list? Who would be your number one? Should I watch any particular films? This can be a tough genre to stomach at times and yet I’ve found it truly does deliver some of the more complex and chilling roles for actors to chew to pieces.