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Friday, January 29, 2021

10 Great Horror Movies Based on True Crime Horrors

Netflix’s latest true-crime series, Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, chronicles the heinous crimes and search for Richard Ramirez, a serial killer who terrorized Los Angeles in the mid-80s. Between his horrific acts and his claims as a Satanist, the Night Stalker inspired numerous fictionalized retellings in film and television, even appearing in two seasons of American Horror Story.

Ramirez is hardly the first serial killer to inspire horror, of course. 

There’s a lot of overlap between horror and true crime. Both genres tend to evoke revulsion and fear, and both offer a safe space to explore those feelings. That’s led to a long-running relationship between the two; horror’s history is filled with movies inspired by true crime. Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre both infamously and loosely borrowed from Ed Gein’s crimes, for example. And the more the true-crime trend grows, the more the lines between true crime and horror blur.

These ten horror movies bring visceral terror, but their true-crime origins mean they’re often not for the faint of heart.


Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets puts an aging horror star (Boris Karloff) on a collision path with a war veteran-turned-murderous sniper (Tim O’Kelly) when he agrees to make an appearance at a drive-in theater. The killer’s character and subsequent actions are inspired by Charles Whitman, the gunman behind the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966. Karloff’s character was modeled after the actor himself, though with a fictionalized narrative. It marked his last appearance in a major American feature. The convergent dual storylines merged old-school horror with startling realism, making it one of the best films ever produced by Roger Corman.


The penultimate feature by Alfred Hitchcock delivers the nail-biting tension you’d expect from the suspense master. The plot sees a serial killer that prefers to strangle women to death with a necktie after assaulting them. The police close in on a suspect, not realizing they have the wrong guy. Frenzy‘s actual killer is an amalgam of multiple real crime cases, one of which is referenced in an opening scene; John Reginald Halliday Christie’s gruesome spree resulted in a false conviction for neighbor Timothy Evans. Actor Barry Foster reported that Hitchcock had him read books on Neville Heath and the Hammersmith Nude Murders to prepare for his role. 

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Much like he did with The Legend of Boggy Creek, director Charles B. Pierce gives this film a documentary quality. The voice-over narration combined with the police procedural elements makes The Town That Dreaded Sundown an outlier among slashers, let alone horror movies in general. It borrowed from 1946’s still unsolved Texarkana Moonlight Murders, attributed to the unidentified Phantom Killer. While the film played loose with the facts, it was still too close for comfort for many; a victim’s family member took Pierce to court for their likeness in the movie.


A troubled and unnamed man gets released from prison and immediately sets out to indulge his sadistic fantasies. He comes across a secluded house and spends the evening tormenting the family that lives there. Artfully directed by Gerald Kargl, this Austrian horror film only refers to its villain as K., The Psychopath (Erwin Leder), but he’s loosely based on mass murderer Werner Kniesek. The movie’s extreme violence resulted in a ban all over Europe, which helped relegate Angst to obscure status. 

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Much like Angst, this loose telling of real-life murderers Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole proved too dark for many to handle and as a result it struggled to find distribution; and, subsequently, an audience. Director John McNaughton’s psychological horror film stars Michael Rooker in the eponymous role. Rooker delivers a bone-chilling performance as the stone-cold killer that drifts in and out of lives, killing with careless ease. It’s a profile of a killer meant to shock and disturb, and Henry more than succeeds. 


The Kevin Williamson penned and Wes Craven directed slasher may have massively reinvigorated the slasher subgenre, but it also drew from real-life crimes. Teen Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) finds herself targeted by a masked killer one year after the murder of her mother. The killer(s) tended to target and slay victims in their own homes, beginning with Casey’s (Drew Barrymore) shocking demise. Both the Gainesville Ripper and the murder of babysitter Janet Christman served as a loose basis for Scream’s Ghostface.

Wolf Creek

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A trio of backpackers find themselves stranded at the Wolf Creek National Park, so they accept a tow from stranger Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). They don’t realize until far too late that he’s a psychopath with homicidal plans. Filmmaker Greg McLean’s disturbing and heartbreaking feature debut draws inspiration from killers Ivan Milat and Bradley Murdoch, who murdered backpackers in Australia. Of course, Mick Taylor would soon evolve into a horror icon removed from his true-crime beginnings.

Hounds of Love

Writer/Director Ben Young’s debut is a tough, tough watch. Ashleigh Cummings stars as Vicki Maloney, a teen acting out after her parents’ recent split. It results in her abduction by a disturbed couple with a penchant for kidnapping, assaulting, and murdering young women. Vicki realizes she’ll have to find a way to drive the couple apart if she hopes to survive. Based on David and Catherine Birnie’s crimes, Hounds of Love is an absolute gut-punch of a psychological horror movie.

My Friend Dahmer

My Friend Dahmer blends horror, drama, and true crime to create something very atypical and unique. Based on the 2012 graphic novel by cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf, who’d been friends with Jeffrey Dahmer in high school, the film chronicles Dahmer’s attempts to fit in while struggling with emerging dark impulses. It’s a true-crime biopic before the actual crimes take place. That doesn’t make it any less unnerving and often touching. Ross Lynch’s portrayal of Dahmer is captivating.

The Golden Glove

Filmmaker Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove is deeply polarizing. On the one hand, it’s beautifully crafted, but on the other, it’s a skin-crawling depiction of serial killer Fritz Honka’s grisly crimes. Honka infamously murdered women between 1970-1975, dismembered them, then hid their body parts in his apartment. The film adapts Heinz Strunk’s novel and is named after the bar where the killer met his victims. When many seek out true crime to better understand the motives behind the heinous acts committed, The Golden Glove dares to say that there is no reason for pure evil.

It simply exists.


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