The human mind is a hive of complex thoughts and mechanisms, and psychopathy, psychosis, dementia, and dissociative identity disorder, among others, are only a few of the disorders it faces, which are often used under the umbrella term “psychopath.” Similarly, serial killer movies are often termed psychopath movies, while it may not always be true. A psychopath can be extremely calm and blended with the environment for all you know, even proving to be harmless in some situations unless triggered otherwise. To sum it up, a psychopath’s primary differentiator is a plain lack of empathy for their actions, however gruesome they may be, mental or physical.
Filmmakers have had a somewhat dangerous affinity towards psychopaths and have churned out numerous movies about them. The following list picks up some of the most memorable psychopath portrayals in movies, where the characters have given us the creeps, the shrieks, and the jitters. Most importantly, they made us believe that they are real. All of it falls under inherently grey areas with a lot of overlaps, but we have tried to (mostly) steer clear of psychological and medical connotations to bring you a list of top movies about psychopaths.
30. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Directed by Robert Aldrich, ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ stars Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, and Lynn Redgrave. The film explores the relationship between two sisters, namely Jane and elder sibling Blanche, both of whom have had their own encounters with fame. In the beginning, Jane is a famous child artist, something that Blanche is jealous of. Then, when the two become adults, Blanche becomes more popular and is the one to pull strings for Jane to be in the spotlight. Then after an accident, Blanche is left crippled and is completely dependent on Jane, the former’s old movies. To stop this from happening, Jane begins to torment and torture Blanche to the point where we start considering when Jane plans to kill her sister. Will she? To find out, you can stream the film here.
29. Orphan (2009)
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, ‘Orphan’ stars Isabelle Fuhrman, Vera Farmiga, and Peter Sarsgaard. When Kate and John lose their third child, they decide to adopt 9-year-old Esther as the elder sister to their son Daniel and daughter Max. While things progress nicely, after a point, Esther’s behavior starts to change. She appears to be hostile and intent on hurting those around her. Things only get worse with time until Kate finds out that Esther is not who she seems to be. Is she a different person? Or is she a different entity altogether? What’s the truth behind her appearance? To know the answers to all the questions, you can watch the movie here.
28. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)
Directed by Curtis Hanson, ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’ stars Rebecca De Mornay, Annabella Sciorra, Julianne Moore, and Matt McCoy. A revenge story, it centers on Peyton Mott, wife of obstetrician Dr. Victor Mott. When Victor commits suicide to avoid getting arrested after being accused of molestation by multiple women, the trauma leads to Peyton’s miscarriage, and she loses her baby. Enraged and bent on revenge, she poses as Peyton Flanders and manages to get hired by Claire Bartel to serve as her newborn’s nanny. Claire was the first woman to accuse Peyton’s husband, which makes her the primary reason for the loss of Peyton’s child. Now, it is time for Claire to lose hers. Will this become a reality? And will Peyton stop at that, or does she plan on more? To know her sinister motives, you can check out ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’ here.
27. M (1931)
Fritz Lang is the director of this German film that centers on Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), who is a serial killer who kidnaps and kills children. Considered a film with one of the best and most authentic portrayals of a psychopathic killer, ‘M’ shows the chaos that a city finds itself in as a result of looking for a killer who is almost invisible. As the public, the police, and even the criminals apply their own ways to find the killer, each of these stands in the way of the other two, thereby allowing the killer to slip away after every crime. Will he ever be caught? You can experience this masterpiece right here.
26. Seven Psychopaths (2012)
‘Seven Psychopaths’ was indeed a welcome break in this list of increasingly violent and disturbing psychopath films. I agree that the septet of oddballs might not be textbook psychopaths and might even be toned-down versions of a lot of psychopaths compared to other films on this list. However, that doesn’t for one second deter ‘Seven Psychopaths’ from being a good film with its sadistic, firebrand kind of dark humor.
The film boasts of bringing together a stellar ensemble cast including Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken, all of whom, especially Rockwell, appear to be having a blast, and that adds a lot of levity to the plot and the outlandish violence that is often characteristic and accompanying of a dark comedy of this nature. The ludicrous plot of the film should be reason enough to invest your time in this, but if you have seen the rather excellent ‘In Bruges’ (2008) by the same director, Martin McDonagh, you will get it and love it for what it is. You can watch the film here.
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25. Basic Instinct (1992)
The only film on this list with a primary female psychopath holding the reins, ‘Basic Instinct,’ is also Sharon Stone’s claim to international fame for playing the murderous femme fatale, Catherine Tramell. The film is often remembered only for its famous interrogation scene that declared Sharon Stone as a symbol of sexuality the world over. Her character’s mental traits are often glanced over in favor of the physical ones. She is bold, confident, often apathetic to no cause, and cold and manipulative as ice.
While we do not necessarily see her undergoing an overtly psychopathic violent outbreak in the film as many of the characters in this list do, it is her calm, calculating nature that really puts her there among the best movie psychopaths, albeit a strong and sultry one. The only thing that puts me off about her character is the one cliché that writers often employ for a female psychopathic character, and that is her inherent use of sex as an object of leverage. Apart from that, there is much to enjoy in this guilty pleasure of a film and Sharon Stone’s scene-stealing act. You may watch the film here.
24. Wall Street (1987)
Gordon Gekko is the kind of psychopath you most probably come in contact with in your daily life and have a higher chance of encountering personally among all the ones listed here, although god help us if we encounter any. He is not the murderous, violent kind. Perhaps a nice dial-back from the serial killer genre that the psychopath films find a fair overlap with, Gordon Gekko is a suave, successful Wall Street guy whose innate psychopathic characteristics unveil themselves as the film progresses. He is shown consumed by greed accompanied by a lack of empathy and responsibility for the actions he takes in his pursuit to get it. This consequentially reflects the capitalistic nature of the corporate world we live in. His “greed is good’ speech, while putting Michael Douglas’ great showmanship on display, is also something that immediately establishes his character as an antagonist.
Voted as one of the most real and most plausible depictions of a psychopath on film on multiple platforms, Gordon Gekko’s cunning, manipulative, and even dangerously narcissistic act is a perfectly underplayed, uncanny ploy, which gives us the jitters. Feel free to check out the film here.
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23. Misery (1990)
Based on Stephen King‘s novel of the same name, it tells about a fan who abducts her favorite author for killing a character from the novel. ‘Misery’ brought Kathy Bates an Oscar for her portrayal of a cunning and vicious Annie Wilkes. Her character is the textbook description of a psychopath, perfectly sane and rational, while torturing her captive. You can check out the film here.
22. Funny Games (1997)
A wealthy Austrian family is taken hostage by their innocuous-looking neighbors at their countryside holiday home. A sadistic game of cruelty starts with the bet that the captives will not be able to sustain themselves by the next morning. The movie is famous for its ‘breaking the fourth wall’ concept, where the perpetrators keep talking to the audience. The film has one of the most unexpected endings, thus breaking all types of formulaic modes of storytelling. You can watch ‘Funny Games’ here.
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21. There Will Be Blood (2007)
That Daniel Day-Lewis is among the greatest living actors today, and his performance in ‘There Will Be Blood’ was one of his absolute bests is a statement now recorded enough times to be engraved on a plaque. Several critics have raved about the psychopathic nature of Daniel Plainview’s character, the numerous layers to his character that pierce through to the conniving man of commerce that he was, and how Day-Lewis has portrayed it to eerie, utmost perfection.
Everything he did to beat his rivals and to expand his business, including his calm, cold mannerisms, and ruthless business tactics until his final implosion towards the end of the film, to his using his adopted son HW to present a fake front to prospectors and his apathetic relationship with him, to his final confrontation with Eli whose head he mercilessly bashed in, everything ticks off essential pointers in the textbook of psychopaths for Plainview, who was also a highly functioning and intelligent one at that. You may watch the film here.
20. Saw (2004)
The first in the series of consecutive bad movies as it got made, ‘Saw’ was by far the best of them all. Two men awaken in a room, chained to their feet with two hacksaws and a corpse for company. The catch? One has to escape the room, while the other has to kill him in exchange for his family. Flashbacks detail the backstory while the captives ponder looking at the hacksaw – to cut off the feet tied to the chain. It was a bizarre yet successful attempt by debutant director James Wan to mix the slasher genre into horror, where the world of Freddy Krueger and Jason got a new entrant: Jigsaw. You may watch ‘Saw’ here.
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19. Bronson (2008)
The film ‘Bronson’ is based on the controversial life of Michael Peterson, better known as Charles Bronson, and infamously the most notorious prisoner in Britain. The film’s closing line states that Bronson has spent 34 years in prison (that was 2008), out of which 30 were in solitary confinement, accounting for most of his adult life. Despite being sent to prison for only armed robbery, what fetches him this notoriety is his continuous violent run-ins with inmates and guards and a bunch of kidnapping instances within the prison to his name.
The film is semi-biographical and has Tom Hardy playing the eponymous character with easing conviction, with added touches of humor and a very stylistic treatment at the hands of the director for a film this grim. Because of that, I agree that ‘Bronson’ is one of the most fun films on this list to watch despite the subject matter being the life of a disturbingly violent and non-complacent prisoner. The film’s final scene showing Charles Bronson caged up in solitary confinement, beaten up and bloody, is the stuff of claustrophobic nightmares. Today, he is a self-styled artist, regularly engaging in even writing with quite a few books to his credit. He even runs a charitable organization to help the less fortunate with opportunities in art and was also a bare-knuckle fighter once, which is where he got the name ‘Charles Bronson.’ You can stream the film here.
18. Natural Born Killers (1994)
If you look closely enough, you can spot the word controversy hidden in the title of this film. ‘Natural Born Killers’ instantly runs into trouble because of its plot of a murderous couple going on killing sprees that are violent, graphic, and even gut-churning in an instance or two, and their sensationalization by the media owing to its obsession with a crime as easily marketable material. Therefore, the film works as a satire, a crime-fueled saga, or even a romance with murder as the backdrop, if you may, while benefiting strongly from arresting performances by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis.
It all starts to make a whole lot of sense when you learn that the script and screenplay were written by the man Tarantino himself and was toned down (!) by the director of this film, making me wonder what horrors the original script housed. Also infamous for inspiring a series of truly horrendous copy-cat crimes, ‘Natural Born Killers’ showcases two psychopaths turned serial killers in the truest sense, showing no signs of remorse, and it remains one of the most divisive films with respect to personal choice, yet one of the most definitive ones on the subject matter of psychopathy. You can stream ‘Natural Born Killers’ here.
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17. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
If it isn’t all in the name of the film, take this for a fact. ‘Henry’ and ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover’ were among the two movies responsible for having the MPAA revise its X rating to NC-17, implying non-pornographic but adult-only films. Even years after its release, it is unsurprisingly cited by many as the most realistic depiction, if not the best, of a real psychopath. That very notion is up for debate every time it is discussed, yet ‘Henry’ unequivocally manages to numb every muscle and sense in the body. Moreover, knowing that the two main characters in the movie, the killers, are based on actual people sends shivers down my spine.
The film doesn’t provide any commentary on the nature of the killings, doesn’t encourage them or condemn them, and doesn’t even attempt to deconstruct what leads Henry to commit those murders. It just shows them from the perspective of an omniscient, non-visible bystander, and you become that when watching the film. A mere bystander witness to the horrid happenings.
This is not a horror movie, but the scene of the video recording as Henry and Otis slaughter a hapless family is gut-sickening and horrifying. To add to it, the murderous duo watches the tape later, and I don’t feel that the confining medicalization of psychological terms can ever truly encompass what this behavior can be classified as. You can stream the movie here.
16. Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Although this is a story set in a 17th-century pre-French revolution era, Catherine Merteuil excels in all departments of viciousness, malice, and debauchery of all times. Glenn Close got herself nominated for best actor for portraying the character of Catherine, which was later played again by Sarah Michelle Geller in the ‘Cruel Intentions.’ Watch both portrayals to witness the sinister dames on the top of their games. You can check out the movie here.
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15. Prisoners (2013)
I have seen a number of films on this topic, but none previously had the kind of impact on me that ‘Prisoners’ did. All of these films have a trademark feeling of uneasiness that hits home with the viewers, but with ‘Prisoners,’ it felt eerily personal. Perhaps it was the setting, the ‘family next door’ characters, the arresting performances, the quaint, uncanny setting in a small suburban town, or the mind-blowing climax. I haven’t squarely been able to land a finger on it yet, but what made ‘Prisoners’ work for me more than anything is the morally ambiguous core that the film houses.
All of that and more make ‘Prisoners’ a great film, but the murderer-abductors in the film, when finally revealed in the climactic act, [SPOILER] the Joneses, were terrifying psychopaths, to say the least, waging their own “war on god” as revenge for the death of their first son. The very act and their own twisted logic made them kidnap and murder sixteen kids with absolutely no remorse. Bone-chilling stuff. You may watch the film here.
14. Nightcrawler (2014)
What if the news that you’re seeing on the TV or internet is found to be tampered with? What if someone makes the news rather than getting it? ‘Nightcrawler’ is one of the few such dark noir movies that looks into the bizarreness of the human psyche, which concocts the need rather than fulfilling it. It’s also a satirical piece on the growing media invasion in today’s world. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a manipulative man who thrives on the growing need for video footage of news. His constant urge makes him a dangerous man who will go to any extent to feed his craving. You can watch the movie here.
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13. Joker (2019)
Directed by Todd Phillips, ‘Joker’ is based on the world-famous Batman villain Joker, the psychopathic clown. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Glenn Fleshler, and Robert De Niro, it centers on failed comedian Arthur Fleck, who slowly transforms into a psychopath after facing continuous bullying and ignorance from society all his life while struggling to find his identity. All these things, accompanied by his isolation, ultimately turn him insane and send him down the pothole of crime wherein his laughing fits, caused by a neurological disorder, earn him the name “Joker.” A scary portrayal, Phoenix received the Best Actor Oscar for the role while the audience got a much-awaited film about one of the most beloved villains in pop culture. You can stream it here.
12. Primal Fear (1996)
A young Ed Norton and a seasoned Richard Gere come face to face in this courtroom drama where a priest is brutally killed by a stuttering teenager having a split personality disorder. Ed Norton burst into the limelight through his portrayal of Aaron Stampler/Roy, a seemingly innocent teenager and a cunning and vicious murderer. Watch out for that last scene in the mental hospital, pure class! Feel free to check out the movie here.
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11. Gone Girl (2013)
Based on the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn, the movie talks about the shocking dynamics of the oldest relationship in the world, i.e., between a husband and his wife. Told from a first-person perspective, ‘Gone Girl’ is about a woman speculating about her husband’s cruelty and her fear of him killing her. Or was it the other way? Well, they said it right – Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned! The movie starts with these opening lines: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? You can check out the film here.
10. Cape Fear (1991)
What would you do if a crazy psychopath crossed your path? Robert De Niro as the despicable Max Cady became everyone’s nightmare. ‘Cape Fear’ is one of the most memorable appearances of De Niro, where his act of a psychopath rapist driven by hatred towards Nick Nolte became a force to reckon with. Watch one of the greatest actors unfurl one of his memorable acts. After all, he’s the “Do-Right Man,” isn’t he? You can watch ‘Cape Fear’ here.
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9. Taxi Driver (1976)
There is a particularly interesting argument that may be incited when one begins to discuss whether Travis Bickle was indeed a victim of psychosis or only a vigilante in Scorcese’s 1976 masterpiece of a film. It doesn’t offer any clear answers upon multiple viewings. But through the notes in his diary, one begins to steadily deconstruct Bickle’s character and understand why he became a ‘madman.’ With that said, his steady descent into psychosis becomes somewhat gaugeable. We all grew immensely fond of Bickle as a character, even though more than half of what he did in the film was illegal. That goes on to show an even deeper aspect of psychosis that stemmed in the form of vigilantism in the film, and it is for this intense character development and breakdown of the city’s sleaze and mirk that it remains one of the best and most significant films ever made. You may watch it here.
8. Se7en (1995)
‘Se7en’, as if its premise wasn’t interesting enough, had a finale so devastating and shocking that it drained one as a viewer. John Doe was the textbook definition of a psychopath turned serial killer, but the dreadfulness of his actions transcended either. If you’ve seen the film, you’d know that the MO of the murders were the seven cardinal sins. Why he’d commit those murders and choose that as his MO in the first place is what defines the extent of his psychopathy. Kevin Spacey, in the role of John Doe, delivers a chilling performance that is only complemented by the eerie, calm, straight face he holds before confessing to the murders in the end. You may watch ‘Se7en’ here.
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7. Psycho (1960)
No list of psychopaths can be complete without the eponymous Norman Bates. A seemingly normal young owner of a motel meets a pretty girl on the run. Sparks fly between the two, or so the guy seems to think. But the ‘Mother’ disapproves of his son’s affinity towards another woman and kills her. Or was it the son? Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ brought alive the creepiest inner demons of the human self. It brought Mr. Hitchcock countless laurels and, for us, a new name and face for psychos – Norman Bates. While it can be strongly argued that the cause of Norman Bates actually being psychopathic is developing a distinct delusional personality due to previous trauma, the film remains a benchmark for psychopath movies to date, offering up a facet of the human mind that was, till then, unexplored on film. You can stream the film here.
6. American Psycho (2000)
Christian Bale plays a narcissist, ego-centric Patrick Bateman who has everything but still lacks something to boost his inner demons. He showcases every trait of a psychopath, i.e., self-obsession, insecurity, and measuring people with the level of vanities they possess. This movie ran into trouble with the MPAA because of its depiction of increasingly graphic sexual violence. The brilliance of this film rises to its peak with an absolutely cracking climax. You can stream ‘American Psycho’ here.
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5. Oldboy (2003)
This Korean film took the world by storm with its violent and vicious take on a revenge saga. I still get shudders when I think about the big revelation. Praised by critics and audiences alike for its graphic imagery, ‘Oldboy’ is a tale about a man who is kept locked in a room with wantons for food for 15 years and is suddenly let out to look for his captor. On his course to the truth, it becomes evident that vengeance can be absolutely cruel and perhaps a little poetic. You can stream the movie here.
4. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers‘ masterpiece gave us one hell of a bad guy, Anton Chigurh. He’s the ultimate badass of all time. In the book, Anton is described as a cold-blooded, heartless creature, but Javier Bardem gives him another dimension. Those deadpan eyes void of any emotions, along with the pale complexion of his skin, told the viewer that this was a remorseless creature from another world. No points for guessing who won the Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA that year. You can check out the movie here.
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3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
This movie is about two psychopaths: Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter. Although Anthony Hopkins took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for being Hannibal Lecter, which was on screen for exactly 19 minutes, it was Buffalo Bill who matched him evenly with his antics and horrors. Jodie Foster also won the Best Actor award in the female category for her acute portrayal of an FBI officer. This movie remains only the 3rd in the history of Academy Awards to have won the Big 5. You can watch it here.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece about a dystopian future and its criminals is nothing short of a dark work of art. Malcolm McDowell plays Alex DeLarge, a loathsome criminal who goes on rampages, rapes women, and exhibits disturbing traits before the government decides to ‘cure’ him using the Ludovico technique. Apart from ‘Caligula,’ this remains his best work to date. This movie is synonymous with what Voltaire once said – a society gets the criminal it deserves. You may watch it here.
1. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film is first psychological and then scary. Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers, the film shows how the horrors of a man facing writer’s block and his son’s scary visions meet and result in the former’s unraveling that turns him into a psychotic maniac bent on killing his son and wife. All this takes place not in their house but in a secluded hotel with a dark past where they have come for the winter. To find out what secrets the hotel holds and what is the cause of the visions and the unraveling, you can stream this masterpiece right here.
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