Based on a True Story: Famed Killers and the Directors That Could Bring Them to Life on the Silver Screen

Based on a True Story is a column that explores the reality on which our favorite horror movies, shows and icons are based on. Sometimes, the truth is scarier than the fiction.

For decades we’ve been obsessed with the darkest parts of our society and had a morbid curiosity about the process in which killers have been made, from films like The Zodiac Killer to looser interpretations such as Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre taking aspects of real-life killer Ed Gein. Now one of the most prolific names in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino, is tackling one of the most notorious serial killers of all time, Charles Manson. Most of these movies will deal with very hardcore material that can be hard to watch, especially knowing that they are indeed atrocities that have happened. These types of movies take filmmakers that deliver an insight into the criminal mind and what creates them. Here are some notorious killers that could get the cinematic treatment and the directors I think that could craft that experience.

Fede Alvarez and Pedro Rodriguez Filho

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Most of the killers on my list are either straight killers or psychologically troubled people. One of my favorite films depicting murderers is The Devil’s Rejects. While House of 1000 Corpses brought us the insanity of the Firefly family, it was Rejects made us care about the worst human beings on the planet, giving us an insight into their family dynamic and creating a clan of horror antiheroes for us to root for by the end of the film. Hailing from Brazil is Pedro Rodriguez Filho, otherwise known as Pedrinho Matador (Killer Petey) who could be considered a horror antihero as well. Unlike the Firefly clan he justifies himself by killing those who wrong him or those he loves. Filho was born with an injured skull due to beatings taken in the womb by his father and showed a tendency toward violence since the age of thirteen, having almost killed his cousin in a fight. His first true murder was committed at the age of fourteen when his father was fired from his job as security guard after being blamed for stealing. Filho murdered the man he thought framed his father and fled to Sao Paulo leaving the bodies of gangsters and drug dealers in his wake. By 1973 after his arrest he had claimed the lives of 71 people including his father whom had murdered his mother with a machete. Even while incarcerated he continued promising the murder of other criminals and did so by murdering his fellow inmates. The guy reads like a serial killing Robin Hood and even promised the murder of Brazil’s other notorious serial killer, Francisco de Assis Pereira aka The Park Killer. 

This film would require someone who could truly understand the culture of Latin America as well as show the basest of brutality and sheer rage that would emit from Filho as he goes on his self righteous killing spree. Fede Alvarez could easily tackle this subject matter. His remake of Evil Dead showed us the intensity he could deliver in a scene and his love of the extreme would shine through in any death scene, but would also give the audience a counterbalance within the narrative itself as the violence exhibited on screen would be toward those of vicious ilk. His knack for gore I think would be applauded in this type of killer giving him more freedom as Filho is a killer we can kind of cheer for. 

What really makes me think Alvarez could pull this off is his masterclass in suspense and cinematography, Don’t Breathe. A film mired in silence having to show more than say is a technique that could be brought into developing Filho’s character through his body language. Alvarez’s use of blocking and character movement spoke volumes for the characters in Don’t Breathe. Of course I could also see certain liberties being taken with the source material where we see an actual showdown between Killer Petey and The Park killer reminiscent of the final showdown in Evil Dead between Mia and her demonic self. Pure malice vs. misplaced justice as Alvarez’s crimson red lighting fills the screen setting the tone for these two to take each other out. If Tarantino can kill Hitler, Alvarez can kill Pereira. 

William Lustig and the Son of Sam

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When I think of the greatest of sleazy eighties NYC slasher cinema two movies come to mind: Maniac and Maniac Cop, both examples of Grindhouse excellence from William Lustig. This past decade already saw the remake of Maniac from Franck Khalfoun and there is an impending remake from Marvel Comics own Ed Brubaker of Maniac Cop in the works. Lustig’s last directorial effort was 1996’s Uncle Sam, but with this wave of artistic directors remaking these Grindhouse films as grandiose art house pictures I think it’s time one of the masters comes back for another in your face streets-savvy slasher film and I think It’s time Lustig tackles the Son of Sam story. Son of Sam is a pretty notorious serial killer also known as the .44 Killer, his weapon of choice, but he’s never had a film directly about him. While Maniac Cop has a more supernatural and at times goofy feel to it, Maniac itself is an intense and thought-provoking character piece that shows off Lustig’s ingenuity with small budgets and his ability to get on the dirtiest levels to enhance the scenes, making for a scarier narrative using actual locations in NYC. Son of Sam terrorized NYC with his letters depicting his killings with riddles and taunts to the police causing utter panic through the media. This same terror is seen in Maniac Cop as paranoia grips NYC causing mistrust with cops and violent outbursts. 

Internally, David Berkowitz, or the Son of Sam, had many problems deriving from his lack of a true father figure, very much like Spinell’s characters’ mental problems deriving from his maternal relationship. He blamed his actions on the commands of a demonic spirit named Harvey that manifested into a dog owned by his neighbor, Sam. If you read the letters he makes a lot of references to his deeds in strange allegories of names given to him by the press and his own personal demons recounting his life in a sick type of poem. This could lend itself to some really interesting nightmarish sequences as we could see the world through his eyes much like that of Spinell’s Maniac character’s inner turmoil or the chilling finale of the film where all of his Mannequins slaughter him. This type of film adaptation seems tailor-made for someone of Lustig’s prestige and I would love to see that low budget style of filmmaking brought back in this day and age. 

Julia Ducournau Richard Chase, Vampire Of Sacramento

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Raw is perhaps one of the greatest psychologically disturbing thrillers I’ve seen in a long time. Garance Marillier as Justine excellently showcases a driving intensity questioning her life and her place as a vegetarian who is hazed into a wanton desire for meat at veterinary school. It’s amazingly shot with vibrant lighting that gives off an ominous light reminiscent of blood and raw meat that evocates a strange seminal and sexual awakening in her life. Her progression throughout the film from nubile youth to confused and tormented young woman is an amazing and horrifying thing to behold. Julia Decournau has crafted a film that will be talked about for ages. She is the perfect candidate to show us the descent into madness that is the story of Richard Chase, the Vampire of Sacramento.

Chase’s mental anguish started as he grew older and became a hypochondriac complaining that his heart would stop amongst many other random health issue worries. He would hold oranges to his head hoping the vitamin C would diffuse into his brain and make him healthier. Chase eventually became a recluse where he would slaughter animals and mix their entrails with Coca-Cola and other various foods thinking that devouring the animals would stop his heart from shrinking. Decournau could construct another psychological character piece as we watch Richard’s hypochondria grow through the years going from young normal child into animal killer, relationship between Richard and his mother torn as he uses psychotropics to escape himself and the “poisons” his mother fed him.

It’s a narrative similar to Rob Zombie’s Halloween but on a more sadistic and psychotic scale that Ducournau has proven she does not shy away from. Half the film being a setup for Richard becoming the Vampire of Sacramento with the latter half being his killing spree where he entered unlocked houses thinking it an invitation and skipping locked houses, which earned him his name. The culmination of the film being his incarceration and final decent into true insanity as reveals all his secrets to journalist, Robert Ressler in a confrontational shot set up very much like the scenes between Justine and her sister wherein their horrors are revealed to one another with chilling and beautiful cinematography.