In 1929, Peter Kürten, best known as the “Vampire of Düsseldorf,” went on a murder spree committing a series of brutal killings and sexual assaults in the German city. For years, cinephiles referenced the terrible crimes whenever Fritz Lang’s iconic Peter Lorre thriller M came up, citing that the filmmaker was inspired by the child murderer. Lang denied this over the years, but also claimed he studied the many serial killers stalking Germany at that time — including Kürten, Fritz Haarmann (nicknamed the “Vampire of Hanover”), cannibal Carl Großmann, and Karl Denke. Lang also prepped for M by spending eight days in a mental institution, visiting murder scenes, interviewing prisoners and detectives, and hiring real criminals as extras (many wound up being arrested during the shoot).
The Girl Next Door
Sylvia Likens died a miserable death after being repeatedly tortured, mutilated, and abused while under the care of Indiana mother Gertrude Baniszewski. Likens’ parents were carnival workers and left their daughters with Baniszewski so the girls could stay in school. When the weekly stipend to care for the siblings was late, a furious Baniszewski started to take her anger out on Sylvia — even inviting her own children and the neighborhood kids to participate in the sadistic treatment, which resulted in Likens’ death. It’s hard to believe the horrific 2007 film The Girl Next Door is based on real events, but the shocking drama was inspired by the 1965 Likens murder.
The Pajama Girl Case
Many Italian cinema fans know that Flavio Mogherini’s The Pajama Girl Case is one of the most underrated gialli thrillers to emerge from the 1970s. The film opens with the discovery of a young woman found murdered on a beach. Ray Milland plays the retired detective who sets out to capture the killer. The story is based on a case in Australia that happened in the 1930s, but wasn’t solved until the 1940s. Jazz Age party girl Linda Agostini went missing and her body was discovered on the road, badly burned. She was nicknamed the “Pyjama Girl” before being identified. A decade later, Linda’s husband Tony Agostini admitted he “accidentally” shot her, dumped the body, and set it on fire to destroy evidence, fearing he would be blamed for the crime. The case was a media sensation, but some historians believe police got it all wrong and that the Pyjama Girl’s identity remains a mystery.
Alfred Hitchcock looked to the murder of a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks in 1924 to inspire his 1948 crime classic Rope, starring James Stewart. The killers are best known as Leopold and Loeb — or Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who were students at the University of Chicago at the time. As in Hitch’s film, the young men wanted to prove they could commit the “perfect” murder and get away with it. They spent almost a year planning every detail and selecting a victim. Loeb’s second cousin Bobby, the son of wealthy watch manufacturer Jacob Franks, was the unfortunate chosen one. But the men didn’t get away with the killing as planned. Police found Leopold’s eyeglasses at the scene of the crime and several people close to the boys confirmed their cover-up was a lie. The trial was a media circus and ran over one month long leading to conviction. Historical fun fact: Loeb’s attorney was Clarence Darrow who gave a 12-hour closing argument about the inhumanity of execution, which sparked a shift in how America viewed the death penalty.
We guess there aren’t a lot of professions someone named Jesse James Hollywood can get into that don’t involve running from the law. The Los Angeles-born Jesse James Hollywood started selling drugs right out of high school, shortly before he kidnapped and ordered the murder of 15-year-old Nicholas Markowitz. His death was over a feud with Markowitz’s half-brother, Benjamin, regarding a drug debt. Into the Wild star Emile Hirsch played Hollywood in the 2006 Nick Cassavetes film Alpha Dog, co-starring Justin Timberlake.
Pain & Gain
If you’re like us, you probably hear the words “Michael Bay” and tune the horrible sound from your brain out by any means necessary. But the explosion fetishist made a 2013 movie with nary a robot in sight and an oddball satirical edge that was based on the kidnapping, extortion, torture, and murder committed by the Sun Gym Gang in Miami, Florida during the ’90s. The film is Pain & Gain, starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and company. One of the survivors of the real-life crime (despite being set on fire and run over twice with a car), Marc Schiller, wrote two books about the ordeal, Pain and Gain: The Untold True Story and Pain and Gain: How I Survived and Triumphed. Read about the brutal real-life crimes over here.
Anatomy of a Murder
Before John D. Voelker (aka Robert Traver) penned the book Anatomy of a Murder, which inspired the Otto Preminger-directed film of the same name starring James Stewart (featuring one of Saul Bass’ most iconic title sequences), he was a defense attorney — assigned to the 1952 murder case that the story is based on. One of the first Hollywood pictures to openly address rape (and use words like “slut”) and influencing countless courtroom dramas since its release, Anatomy of a Murder follows the murder trial of a man who claims he suffered temporary insanity after the victim raped his wife.
Famous for its deranged “mad as hell” speech delivered by Peter Finch’s grizzled news anchor Howard Beale, 1976’s Network sets its drama inside a television studio where the ratings have plummeted and the producers will exploit anything to get back on top. That includes striking a deal with a terrorist group that is based on the real-life Symbionese Liberation Army from the ‘70s — most famous for kidnapping media heiress Patty Hearst. Another nod to real-life media controversy in Network occurs when a frustrated Beale tells viewers he will commit suicide live, on-air. Writer Paddy Chayefsky was referencing the on-air suicide of Florida news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself at the anchor desk following her struggle with severe depression.