There was a time when serial killers ruled the movie theatres.
Movies like Kiss the Girls, Se7en and Silence of the Lambs were big hits and law enforcement types like Alex Cross and Clarice Starling were big draws. Now those stories have moved to the small screen and television shows like CSI and Criminal Minds track down the kinds of killers their big screen counterparts used to stalk.
This weekend serial killers return to the movies in the form of The Snowman, a Michael Fassbender film based on a novel by Jo Nesbø.
Fassbender plays Harry Hole, leader of an elite special victims unit charged with investigating a grisly murder on the first snow of winter. He believes it is the work of serial killer known as The Snowman.
Teaming with Katrine Bratt (Mission: Impossible’s Rebecca Ferguson) he is determined to catch the killer before the next snowfall.
Scott Bonn, criminology professor at Drew University, says audiences are drawn to serial killer movies in much the same way they are attracted to car accidents.
“The actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold,” he wrote in the book Why We Love Serial Killers, “but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines a serial killing as “a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone.”
Hollywood defines them by the box office they draw, and has never been shy about portraying serial killers or the police who track them down.
One of the first movies to take advantage of the fascination with serial killers was 1931’s M. Moon-faced actor Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a serial killer who lures children with candy and companionship. “I can’t help myself,” he moans. “I haven’t any control over the evil that’s inside me! The fire! The voices! The torment!”
For a serial killer movie, M is remarkably free of graphic violence or bloodshed. That doesn’t mean it’s not harrowing. A scene in which the gnome-like Beckert lures a young girl with a balloon is spare — there’s virtually no dialogue — but it packs an emotional punch.
Just as important as the killer in the movies are the cops who bring the baddies to justice. In The Calling, Susan Sarandon creates a memorable serial killer hunter. She’s pill-popping Det. Hazel Micallef, a world-weary small town Canadian cop just a drunken whisper away from unemployment. The sleepy little town of Fort Dundas doesn’t offer up much in the way of major cases until a string of grisly murders — slit throats and organ removals — forces Micallef to dust off her detecting skills and track down a killer driven by fanatical religious fervour.
First time director Jason Stone ratchets the bleak atmosphere up to Creep Factor Five in this eerie character-driven mystery. There’s a little bit of Fargo in the mix, with some dark humor — “I just found the guy’s stomach!” — and disquieting imagery, but the real draw is watching the characters navigate through the film’s unsettled but strangely familiar world.
Bonn says movies like Psycho and Summer of Sam allow people to play armchair detective. “We may feel a bit guilty about indulging in them,” he writes, “(but) we simply cannot stop.”