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With the recent release of Hannibal Rising and this week's Zodiac — David Fincher's ode to the men who became obsessed with identifying San Francisco's Zodiac killer in the '60s and '70s — we thought it would be a good time to evaluate what the motion pictures have taught us about serial killers. Though we've learned quite a bit about these psychopaths, the clichés have become so numerous and so abused that one wonders why filmmakers even bother to try to surprise us anymore.

Serial killers always devise elaborate plots to murder their victims.

If we're to believe Hollywood, serial killers never intend to get away with their crimes and in fact seem to relish their inevitable "curses, foiled again" moments. They never act surprised when authorities come for them and are always prepared with nifty things like night-vision goggles to hunt these authorities in their own homes (The Silence of the Lambs). On occasion, movie murderers even surrender themselves to further their own demise (Se7en) since, after all, suicidal flameout seemed to be their reason for setting off on a killing spree in the first place. This is achieved in several ways, but primarily through either the depositing of complex clues at murder scenes, like moths (Lambs) or bones (The Bone Collector) intended to lure authorities closer, or through the psychologically revealing crimes themselves (Se7en, the underrated Copycat). Furthermore, these films almost always include a detective saying something akin to, "Hmm, he's trying to tell us something."

Serial killers are either charismatic and sophisticated (Ted Bundy) or crazed and delusional (Charles Manson). In other words, there are no everyday, "normal" serial killers.

The abysmal Red Dragon, a remake of the much-better Manhunter, perfectly evidences this, as it contrasts the refined and elegant Hannibal Lecter with the mumbling, sexually perverse Francis Dolarhyde. In the earlier-made "sequel" The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter is again juxtaposed — against the brutal Buffalo Bill, who flays his victims and wears their skins. In this way, we are led to like Lecter because he seems to disdain such barbarism, but of course, he's a homicidal maniac too. Other "sophisticated" murderers have popped up in Taking Lives and Kiss the Girls. The unhinged brutalizers that feature in Psycho, Ed Gein, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer are the flipped-out flipside of that coin. Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers are their own category.

Serial killers are effeminate, maybe-British types with confusing sexualities.

Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, Ralph Fiennes' Francis Dolarhyde, Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates and Kevin Spacey's John Doe all fit this bill, and for very good reason. Serial killers tap into something carnal in the human condition, which is why we're fascinated with them. There's a freedom and a madness that, although incomprehensible, is no less attractive. That sort of violence always walks hand-in-hand with sexuality, which is scariest and at its most seductive when it's uninhibited.

Serial killers like to develop tête-à-tête relationships with their hunters, based on a mutual respect for each other's profession.

The three Anthony Hopkins—as—Hannibal Lecter movies provide all the proof you need, since each tackles the way in which detectives set out to capture the baddie, and end up developing close relationships with him. The Bone Collector does this also, as does Se7en, where Kevin Spacey's madman enjoys the rivalry with his two detectives so much so that he makes it very, very personal in the shocking finale in order to teach a very, very special lesson to Brad Pitt: Don't date Gwyneth Paltrow.

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More by Cole Haddon


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