Excess and excessive evil have a way of making us sit up and take notice. Parvathi Nayar on films that give us the shivers

Surely no man can be quite that pitiless — or can he? The character of the serial killer in movies has earned a fascinated following among moviegoers. It is with a mixture of horrified disbelief and terrified belief that we try to make sense of each successive celluloid incarnation of a person who kills repeatedly for no sane purpose. Excess and excessive evil have a way of making us sit up and take notice.

The most recent serial killer stalking our Cineplex screens was an unlikely John Cusack in The Frozen Ground, based, incredibly enough on a true story. Set in Alaska in 1984, a serial killer has been slaying with impunity for 13 years, leaving quite the body count in his wake. Nicholas Cage is the sincere state trooper who is determined to track him down.

Despite the bleak tale of evil — and atmospheric winter landscape — the movie was more a decent enough police procedural than a frightening serial killer saga. It is unlikely to haunt our nightmares — but there are enough candidates who fit that bill.

Without having to yell “spoiler alert!” at the start of every paragraph, here’s our Serial Killer list — rather than “top of the charts” it would be more truthful to say their scare levels are off the charts.

Ghostface in Scream (1996)

Wes Craven’s creation Ghostface took slasher movies and serial killing to a different plane cerebrally and monetarily — apparently the franchise has grossed over $600 million worldwide. The most effective was the very first in the series — it managed the seemingly counterintuitive feat of being both a send up of the genre and very, very scary. Upping the intellectual quotient of the film, the Scream mask of the killer has resonance with the famous painting of the same name by Edvard Munch.

The Killer in Se7en (1995)

David Fincher’s unsettling film is brilliant in how it breaks with serial killing conventions — not least, the manner in which we are introduced to the killer well into the film. As the title suggests, the killer carries out his exterminations based on the biblical sins of gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy and wrath — and goes about them with an eerie commitment that makes him enigmatic and memorable.

Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of The Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter is that rare serial killer who has won an Oscar for his cannibalistic and bloodthirsty excesses. Despite being — safely? — behind bars for a significant portion of the film, there was nothing safe, ever, about the psychopathic psychiatrist. It is a powerful performance that includes a strangely compelling mentor-protégée relationship with the rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling — played by Jodie Foster, who also took home an Oscar.

Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

On the other end of the serial killing scale from Lecter, and diametrically opposite in every way, is masked Leatherface from the original Tobe Hooper film. Forget elegant, Leatherface is barely human. He is the product of an inbred cannibalistic family — a lumbering incarnation of some deeply distorted life force, whose only purpose is to kill for his family whenever he sees a potential victim.

Kit in Badlands (1973)

But, not all films about serial killing fall into the horror category — some can be both chilling and thoughtful as with Terrence Malick’s accomplished debut film. Badlands is loosely based on real life events, i.e. on teenage American killer Charles Starkweather who slayed 11 people over a two month period with his 14-year-old girlfriend.

The film’s protagonists are Martin Sheen’s Kit and Sissy Spacek’s Holly; the story is told as an inner monologue/voiceover from the latter’s viewpoint. Technically Holly doesn’t murder anyone, but neither does she object to Kit’s killing spree. Kit is so disturbing because of the matter-of-factness with which he murders, and the ease with which the veneer of normalcy can be cracked wide open. Malick’s cleverness lies in offering us an up close and personal view of the killers without glamorising the evil that they do — unlike the other sensationalist story of youngsters in love on a killing spree, Natural Born Killers.

Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000)

Before he was a force of good as the Dark Knight, Christian Bale portrayed unadulterated darkness as Patrick Bateman. Though Bale found just the right note of vacuous insanity with which to interpret the Wallstreet banker with a crazy bloodlust, the film overall is an uneven enterprise. Yes, it is dark and bloody. But somehow, it stops short of capturing the full perversity of the material on which it is based, Bret Easton Ellis’s book of the same name, which was heralded as a savage satire on materialism.