Terrifyingly Convincing Portrayals of Real-Life Serial Killers on Film


The Night Stalker airs on Lifetime Sunday, June 12 at 9/8c, starring Lou Diamond Phillips in the role of real-life serial killer Richard Ramirez, who terrorized the Los Angeles and San Francisco area during the 1980s. Ramirez killed 14 people until his capture in 1985. The murderer became a memorable symbol of the Satanic Panic era, after it was discovered he drew a pentagram on some of his victims — and later on his own hand during his first court appearance. Ramirez was in his mid-20s when he was apprehended, while Lou Diamond Phillips is 53 years old today. Whether the actor can pull off the performance remains to be seen. Until then, we give you some of most convincing and terrifying portrayals of real-life serial killers ever put to film.

Charlize Theron in Monster

Hollywood loves a good-looking mug gone ugly. Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster won her the Best Actress Academy Award for her depiction of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who murdered seven men in Florida during the 1990s. She claimed they were acts of self-defense during her time as a sex worker. Theron embodied Wuornos fully, taking her physical manifestation beyond the superficial details.

Brian Dennehy in To Catch a Killer

Brian Dennehy’s Emmy-nominated performance as killer John Wayne Gacy, who raped, assaulted, and murdered over 30 teenage boys and young men during the 1970s in Illinois, is absolutely chilling — in and out of his Gacy clown makeup. (Gacy dressed as a character named Pogo the Clown for charitable children’s events.) Dennehy shows the way Gacy charmed and deceived those around him with ease — and how the mask slipped to reveal the monster within.

Jeremy Renner in Dahmer

Jeremy Renner’s role as “Milwaukee Cannibal” Jeffrey Dahmer captured the attention of Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow, leading to his casting in the award-winning film. But his powerful performance as Dahmer had difficult real-life consequences, as Renner explained to Parade:

After I did the film, playing a guy who was basically a monster, things started getting creepy. My cat was stolen. Then some girl bit me in a bar because I wasn’t paying attention to her anymore and I had to go to the hospital. It kept me single for a while, that’s for sure. Lot of people I wanted to date, but people I probably shouldn’t date.

Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

The events of Henry are fictionalized, but Michael Rooker’s character was inspired by serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas. The film’s brutality and Rooker’s seething menace won the praise of critics like Roger Ebert — who said Rooker “played [the part] with unrelenting power.”

Steve Railsback in Helter Skelter

The 1976 film Helter Skelter follows the investigation and trial of hippie cult leader Charles Manson. The movie is based on the famous book written by real-life Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Railsback’s wild-eyed performance is considered one of the best Manson portrayals. From an interview with the actor on how he prepared for the part:

I love doing research on characters. I did a lot of things for Manson. I read the Helter Skelter book. I studied his speech. I watched him speak. I did that to look for any contradictions. I listened to his music. I thought it was awful by the way…(Laughing) What I did with the closet…Manson had been in several institutions for well over half of his life. He went in at age 11 and he didn’t get out until age 33. I don’t truthfully know if locking myself into a dark closet helped me with the character. I really don’t know. But, I was thinking about how Manson would be put into solitary and have only himself. So I would get into a dark closet for about forty-five minutes and just sit in there and talk to myself. I wanted to see what that feeling of solitary confinement could feel like. I had to try it, because I myself, have never been placed in confinement actually, and I thought it might help me feel something.

Mark Harmon in The Deliberate Stranger

Ted Bundy, killer, kidnapper, rapist, and necrophile of young girls and women, became a bizarre sex symbol during the 1970s. So it made complete sense when filmmakers cast Mark Harmon, voted People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1986, to play the law student turned murderer. Harmon captured Bundy’s smarmy charisma, winning him a Golden Globe nomination.

Scott Wilson in In Cold Blood

Scott Wilson’s tense In Cold Blood performance as Richard Hickock, one half of the two ex-convicts convicted for killing members of the Herbert Clutter family in Kansas, which inspired Truman Capote’s book of the same name, won critical praise. The irony of the film, however, is that co-star Robert Blake, who played Perry Edward Smith, Hickock’s partner in crime, was tried and acquitted of the 2001 murder of his second wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley.

Laura Prepon in Karla

Laura Prepon played Karla Homolka in the 2006 film Karla. Homolka was the wife of killer Paul Bernardo. She helped her husband kidnap, sexually abuse, and murder three young girls. Homolka claimed to be an unwilling accomplice, but video evidence later showed that she was more of a participant than she led investigators to believe. Prepon captures Homolka’s vulnerabilities and the madness of the couple’s crimes.