A Review of the Top Psychopathic Killer Movies (Notes from the Diary of a Literary Rebel)

I posted this almost two years ago on MySpace.  While there are two MySpace posts more recent than this one still to post on this blog, this one is more appropriate to the season that the other two.  Because of this, however, I have stopped numbering these entries.  To know its source is enough.
October 30, 2008 – Thursday
A Review of the Top Psychopathic Killer Movies
Current mood:  busy
Category: Movies, TV, Celebrities
In keeping with the spirit of Halloween, I thought I’d post some reviews of the top psychopathic killer movies, using a scale of 0 to 10 (10 being a masterpiece).  Notice I did not say slasher movies, because that would exclude great movies like Psycho and Halloween, which are good not because of a high body count or lots of nudity and sex, but rather because they are well constructed stories and are often scary as crap. One thing I’d like to point out is that older horror movies (before 1970) tend to have better storylines and plots, but aim for creepy rather than scary, whereas later horror movies try to scare the crap out of you, with the lesser of them having no plot of which to speak.  Also, stay away from the sequels for these films, as different people were often involved with them versus the originals, and in all cases, they aren’t as good as the originals.  But I digress.  On with the movies!
Psycho (1960)

Though this is widely considered to be one of Hitchcock’s best movies, I felt that he built up the suspense better in other movies that he directed (specifically, I’m thinking of the assassination attempt in The Man Who Knew Too Much).  That being said, the red herrings that Hitchcock throws at the viewer in the beginning of the movie would have left him or her unprepared for the famous shower scene. [Spoiler alert!] I mean, what other movie can you think of that kills off one of its main characters in the first half of the film?  And it is this event that puts into motion the real story, that of Norman Bates (a fantastic Anthony Perkins–no one’s played charming AND creepy like him before or since) and his strange relationship with his mother.  Shockingly enough, he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar!  Janet Leigh was, but did not win.

I have only seen this movie complete once, and that was when I was very young, though I’ve seen parts of the movie since.  As such, I can’t give it a number-rating, but I will say that this is the movie that started the trend of psychopaths in movies, and as a great film–no matter where it’s put in Hitchcock’s output–a must see, especially for Perkins’s performance.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Some fans worship Tobe Hooper’s macabre and deeply disturbing 1974 cult classic as belonging up there with Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street as the best of the modern crop of psychopathic killer movies (Friday the 13th is a pure slasher movie, and nowhere near as good).  I would disagree.  Once is probably as many times as you want to see this movie, and trust me, you could see a better horror movie instead.

Not that the movie is all bad.  It actually has a plot, and Hooper goes for creepiness over terror, which creates a sense of unease over the entire first part of the film, up through the first appearance of Leatherface.  After that, however, I found the pacing to be off.  The deaths happen too close together, with very little in the way of explanation (not that Leatherface is the talkative type, though he does make some noises).  Then the brakes are put on for the final victim, who is female (as will be the case in psychopathic killer movies and slasher movies to come).  Jamie Lee Curtis might have become famous as the “scream queen,” but she has nothing on Marilyn Burns, who plays Sally Hardesty.  I think she screams through most of the second half of the movie.

The reviewers on imdb are right; you do get a sense of fear amongst the disturbing images of bones, meat hooks, hammerblows to the head (off-camera), and (my favorite) the sound of a generator, but only for the first half of the movie.  Then, it just gets weird, including extreme closeups of Burns’s eyes.  Probably preferable to the remake, which I’ve heard is a lot bloodier (one thing Hooper does right is to not show most of the blood) and which Ebert famously gave zero stars to (read it for a good laugh at his website), but there are better psychopathic killer movies out there, including the next one.  Still, it does set three trends: a female heroine versus a sadistic killer, a sadistic killer who doesn’t speak, and a sadistic killer who wears a mask.

Rating: 6

Halloween (1978)

Released right before Halloween in 1978, this is the granddaddy of all the slasher movie clones that followed.  You have a silent killer who kills for no reason (Michael Myers), a female heroine (Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis), teenage victims, nudity, and sex (though neither of the last two as gratuitous as they would be in later slasher films).  The opening and closing scenes are perfect, and like Hitchcock, John Carpenter relies on suspense to scare his audience shitless.  The body count is not high, which gives way to Myers stalking his first victim (Annie Brackett, played by Nancy Loomis–now known as Nancy Kyes), and to a memorable end for her in a car, with a car horn playing a key role.

So many good things about this movie, in fact, that I only wish it had been a little longer.  Still, Carpenter uses the creepiness of Halloween night to great atmospheric effect in making this a deserved classic.  It’s impossible to compare it to Psycho, which is a very different film, but compared to other psychopathic killer movies, and especially to recent slasher movies, this is the best of the modern era.

Rating: 9

Friday the 13th (1980)

The first true slasher film.  Having said that, the fight scene at the end of the movie has to be one of the worst ever filmed.  I mean, you have a bloodthirsty killer deciding to “slap around” the last survivor (who–need I mention it?–is a woman). [Spoiler alert] The only big surprise that this movie has is that the killer is also a woman: Jason Vorhees’s mother!

This is also one of the few series that I would recommend skipping the first movie, unless you’re a huge Kevin Bacon fan (yep, he’s in this movie).  Well, you could see it for the ending, since it sets up Part 2 (my personal favorite, and the first appearance of Jason Vorhees), though that ending is replayed at the beginning of Part 2.  Part 3 is also not bad, and is the movie where Jason gets his hockey mask (in the second movie, he’s wearing a bag on his head).  Still, this series is inferior to any of the other series mentioned in this list (except perhaps theTexas Chain Saw Massacre series after the first one).  For those who watch these kinds of movies for high body counts, lots of nudity, and lots of sex, though, see Part Two.

Rating: 4

A Nightmare on Elm Street(1984)

This movie broke the mold of psychopathic killers up to that point.  While Friday the 13th, Part Two introduced the dead killer come back to life to exact revenge, he didn’t have the personality of Freddy Kreuger, nor did he have the ability to get inside of his victims’ dreams.  I always thought that the third and fourth movies in the series were pretty good (I haven’t seen the fifth one, and two and six were crap), but the first one is the best by far.  Even Wes Craven’s other contribution to the series, New Nightmare, which is also worth seeing, is not as good as the first Nightmare on Elm Street.  You get more imaginative death scenes than in other movies with psychopaths in them, plus a real sense of the fear of these teenagers, since the only way to not get killed is to never sleep.  Again, you have a female heroine (aren’t all heroines female, haha), but Robert Englund (as Freddie) gets to talk, giving him the lasting fame that no other actor playing a psychopathic killer–since Anthony Perkins–has received (well, unless you count No Country for Old Men, but that’s a film that features a killer, not one about a killer, which is a difference).  Not scary in the sense of Halloween, but possibly the most creative psychopathic killer movie made to date.

Rating: 7

Scream (1996)

Another Wes Craven movie, though I would put this movie slightly below A Nightmare on Elm Street.  I should point out, though, that this one was written by Kevin Williamson, the same guy behind “Dawson’s Creek,” and directed by Craven, whereas Craven wrote AND directed A Nightmare on Elm Street.

The main thing this movie has going for it is a great opening scene with Drew Barrymore being killed.  Also, in this movie, the victims seemed to know that they are in a horror movie.  Besides borrowing horror movie cliches, in this one, the victims fight back a lot more than in previous horror movies, particularly the women.  Neve Campbell (as Sidney Prescott) gets to be the main heroine, where she gets to face not one, but two psychopaths.  After the opening sequence, the most memorable (and stomach-turning scene) is where the two killers stab each other with a knife.  Ick.

Rating: 7

Of course, there are many other great horror movies to see.  I enjoy watching the old horror classics, as I love well-scripted creepy movies more than ones just intended to shock.  But, if you’re in the mood for psychopaths, check out one of the movies above.

Happy Halloween!!


7 thoughts on “A Review of the Top Psychopathic Killer Movies (Notes from the Diary of a Literary Rebel)

  1. Let me first express my envy of your fluid expression, which I partly attribute to your being born to English before you bred into it. I notice the imagery of crap occurring thrice in aforesaid which is appropriate to the genre under review, but you are using it to express extremities of the effects produced. I’ve seen the first three but not the last three and find myself helplessly facing the unavoidable prospect of viewing them some time in my remainder, just as I got talked into watching TCM1. You have I’m afraid left out the No 1 of the genre, which in it’s sophistication and realistic gruesomeness of horror beats even Psycho sans crap. I’m referring to The Silence of the Lambs. And of course there is Monster in a category of it’s own. I’m waiting to see your last three with feelings of mixed repulsion and attraction.

    • You’re right, I did forget The Silence of the Lambs, though that movie has a much different feel to it than the films described above.

      Also, I’d skip Friday the 13th, as it’s even worse than TCM (or, if you’re going to see it, see Part Two immediately afterwards). Of the last two, I would recommend A Nightmare on Elm Street over Scream, though both are good horror movies.

      As to your other point, I think fluidity in English can be learned, and has less to do with my being surrounded by it than by how many books I’ve read. To prove my point, Grace is originally from China, Joseph Conrad was from Poland, and Vladimir Nabokov was from Russia, and yet all three write (or wrote) in a highly fluid English style. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it’s my first language, but there are many native speakers of English who are crappy writers, and as I’ve shown, there are some non-native speakers who write exceedingly well, and naturally.

  2. Remind me not to watch any of these movies. 😛
    (What can I say? I’m sensitive – I can barely handle “Milo and Otis”. 😉 )

    LD: 🙂

  3. Nice column. However, like just about every other critic on the planet, you completely swing and miss when it comes to “Halloween.” I’m guessing that’s because you’ve never seen the movie it shamelessly rips off, Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas.” Nearly all of the elements you cite as groundbreaking in Carpenter’s film appeared first — four years earlier — in Clark’s eerie masterpiece: the (almost) silent killer who kills for no apparent reason; the young, mostly female, victims; the classic opening shots. I don’t want to take much away from “Halloween,” because it is skillfully made and entertaining as hell, but it’s depressing that Carpenter gets so much credit for ideas and techniques that obviously originated with Clark. Don’t believe me? Watch “Black Christmas.”

    LD: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll be sure to check it out.

    • [WARNING: Some slight spoilers follow for both films discussed here]

      Having now seen Black Christmas, I would say a few things: 1.) While it uses some of the same techniques as Black Christmas (first person killer camera technique), Halloween adds some twists that aren’t in Black Christmas (like the age of the killer in the opening sequence), and is much better at creating a suspenseful mood, not just due to lighting, but due to Halloween (and autumn) being plain scarier than Christmas, and due to its wonderful soundtrack; 2.) there are no obscene phone calls in Halloween, nor is there a seemingly indestructible killer in Black Christmas; 3.) the role of the police plays a much larger role in Black Christmas than it does in Halloween; and 4.) Carpenter shows the killer in Halloween, whereas the killer in Black Christmas is never shown.

      I’m sure that Carpenter saw Black Christmas and used some of the same techniques (including filming through windows), but beyond the victims being young women (sorority girls in Black Christmas, high school girls in Halloween), the killer being unseen and in the house, and the aforementioned camera techniques (though Carpenter only really uses them at the beginning of his film), these are two very different films, both in quality and scare factor.

      This is the reason that critics (and filmmakers) consider Halloween to be the template for the slasher movies that followed (though they learned all the wrong lessons), not Black Christmas (Halloween also introduces the idea of sexual teenagers getting killed, whereas the virgin survives, an aspect that is missing from Black Christmas). Just as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is remembered for first using a choral movement, whereas the other symphonies (and composers) who used it before the Ninth are forgotten, so Halloween is remembered for being the granddaddy of all slasher movie clones, while Black Christmas is not.

      It is not enough to be first. You must be masterful in your treatment, as well.

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