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From 'Pyscho' To 'Compliance' : Shudder's Top 10 True Crime Horror Films
What is the overlap between horror and true crime? Sam Zimmerman, curator of the horror movie streaming service Shudder, names some of his favorite movies that blur the lines between the two genres.
The line between true crime media and horror entertainment is growing increasingly blurry as movies based on serial killers and real life monsters garner both critical adoration and cult followings. Companies like Netflix and HBO may have sparked the true crime renaissance with hit docuseries like "The Jinx" and "Making a Murderer," but this general fascination with crime has bled into all other mediums, including horror films. The horror-focused streaming service Shudder has mined the depths of cinema for the darkest movies ever made, so Oxygen.com spoke with Shudder curator Sam Zimmerman about the growing similiarites between his genre of choice and true crime.
"I do think there's a relationship between what we get out of true crime and what we get out of horror," Zimmerman said. "We are poking our heads in to see something scary and to see who we are in relation to it."
Zimmerman does still have some reservations about the true crime boom. "I think the way that we very quickly devour and then quickly disregard true crime is disturbing," Zimmerman continued. "We want to hear these stories and touch the void as in horror — but when they are documentary style, are we giving as much attention to the victims whose lives are now augmented forever? I can go listen to six hours of true crime podcasts or watch 'The Keepers' and then move on, but there are people who are re-building their lives forever after something like that. I do think there is a distasteful quality to some of it, but does that mean we should disregard all of it? I don't think so."
With that in mind, Zimmerman has provided us some of greatest true crime movies currently available on Shudder, along with his thoughts on their artistic and aesthetic merits. Check out Zimmerman's list, below.
"Both this and 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' were inspired by Ed Gein. The idea that both of these movies took different aspects of that killer's life as a loose inspiration... it's interesting how different both of them are from each other. 'Psycho' has become such an amazing influence and a classic. It really honed in on his relationship with his mother, who is the only person who he had. That transitions to the way Norman acts as his mother, how he wanted to be his mother. So many of these movies are very loosely inspired rather than being directly biographical."
2. "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"
"What's incredible is what they did with Ed Gein is take a sort of aesthetic — the way he would decorate his home full of things like skulls and skin and make this whole, for lack of a better phrase, interior design out of his violent lifestyle. Leatherface brings the elements of strange otherworldliness that isn't just a man in a mask killing someone. It continues to be one of the most freaky and unsettling movies of all time despite the fact that you never see real gore in the movie. You never see a knife penetrate something."
"'Henry' is about a documented serial killer in a much more faithful way than things like 'Psycho' or 'Texas Chainsaw.' This one is specifically about Henry Lee Lucas. We talk about horror a lot in terms of catharsis but also the idea of touching the void: putting yourself in a situation where you can understand and empathize with that real life danger, but you're still at a safe distance from it … Not only is it just the idea of a fictional killer, but the idea that things like this did really happen — we're really touching the void with this."
4. "Nothing Bad Can Happen"
"What really blows my mind is that this is a bit more situational — the director Katrin Gebbe said it was based on an article she read about a man being held captive by a family. He ultimately chooses to live with the family that abused him. I believe it was more inspired by an actual event rather than closely based on one. Even searching around for what the real life story was is a bit hard, kind of like with 'The Strangers.'
In 'Nothing Bad Can Happen' a young Christian teen who goes to punk shows ends up living with a family and basically martyrs himself. He is being abused and held captive by them, but he stays in that situation. It hits a different beat than real life serial killers do because it is much more about family and trauma and how much someone is willing to take and why. It's a different kind of horror. A lot of people have a hard time sitting through it—it's not even that physically violent—psychologically it just kind of wears you down with sadness. It's a frightening, empathetic film."
"Oh man! 'Angst' is one of my favorite movies, which is a very weird thing to say. It's so, so special. For a long time, it was very unavailable. So many people didn't get to see this for such a long time.
It's a movie that feels like no one is control. Over the years, the director Gerald Kargl wanted to edit it and take things out. Even he couldn't get a handle on how intense this movie is. He lost the reins. And I love it! It has really groundbreaking cinematography by Zbigniew Rybczyński.
The movie documents a killing that happens while a killer is on parole, loosely based on the case of Werner Kniesek. It's not in real time, but you almost feel it is. You feel chained to him. It starts with him getting out of prison and he immediately goes to a house and terrorizes a family. If home invasion is one of someone's pressure points, I think this movie is the hallmark of it."
6. "The Sacrament"
“'The Sacrament' is a little underrated because it's from director Ti West, who directed 'House of the Devil' and 'The Innkeepers' — what's crazy about 'Sacrament' is that it's him switching gears in a big way. 'House of the Devil' is a stylized pastiche of a Satanic tale, 'The Innkeepers' is a horror comedy that does get scary. But 'The Sacrament' is a bit more realistic and grounded because it's actually a fictional re-telling of Jonestown. It's found footage through the eyes of modern reporting — they actually got to use the Vice name in the movie, so it's about fictional Vice reporters who are going to a commune overseas, and what they find is very akin to the Jim Jones situation.
There's a great mid-section that's just a live interview with the leader — they go back and forth. I think this is another case of looking at something that really did happen and wanting to understand it while also creating a horror movie out of it. It's a fictional story with strong ties to real events — it's both a horror movie and a psychological exploration of the people who would go to Jonestown, why they would put their faith in something like this."
"This one is incredibly tough. The physical violence isn't there but it's another one that's really hard to sit through because of how unbelievable it is despite the fact that it happened: A man posed as a cop, called a fast food restaurant, and said, 'One of your employees is stealing from you and I need you to interrogate her for me before I can get there.' He walked a manager through horrifically degrading someone. The movie has really intense performances and shows some really frightening lengths of manipulation. Ann Dowd (who is already so incredible) is playing the manager who is a sort of intermediary that takes on a position of power and continues to abuse it despite how many lines she's crossing."
8. "Tenderness of the Wolves"
"This one is along the lines of 'Angst' and 'Henry' in that it has a basis on a real life serial killer. This one is based on the Butcher of Hanover aka the Wolfman. The original 'M' by Fritz Lang is also based on him; this one is a '70s adaptation. It's directed by Ulli Lommel — who, without being mean, is not the greatest horror director. He has a cult classic from the '80s called 'Bogeyman”' which is about a haunted mirror. He's directed a lot of direct-to-video serial killer movies. But there's something here... Like the best serial killer movies, it really just pushes your buttons. It makes you feel really upset that this is happening, that someone could do this. It sort of documents this killer who was truly a horrible person, preying on young boys in the early 1920s in Germany."
"This is in 'The Strangers' camp where you're like, 'I heard this happened!' But they still say it's based on 'actual events' — in that it could have happened! It's a home invasion, like 'The Strangers.' When 'Them” came out, there was a lot of debate that 'The Strangers' ripped it off — that's not actually the case. They were being made concurrently, and they have very different ethos, tones, and aesthetics. 'Them' is just as intense. It's about a French couple in their country home being terrorized by killers in hoods. There's ultimately a sort of cynical twist at the end. But the movie is incredibly tense, incredibly frightening, and it's stuck with me for a very long time. It's a great recommendation for someone looking for something freaky on a Friday night."
"This one's fun because it's a bit more classical, straight-up true crime. A lot of what we have avaialble is in the serial killer realm, whereas this one is a very classical rise-and-fall story of a murderer and a bank robber. It's big, it's glamorous, it's intense. It hits a lot of those slick, thriller buttons even though it's about a criminal. It lets you live vicariously through the protagonist. Even though he's a horrible person he lives an intense, very elevated life. There is a dark pleasure in it even though he gets his comeuppance."
[Photo: Getty Images]