10 Movies Based on Real Murders: Living in Dangerous Times

Some films make us wonder how writers and directors come up with those twisted storylines. There are others that give us a chill because we know they are based on real events. No matter the case, however, there is something about these movies that keep us coming back for more.

Sometimes, watching a good thriller or two is the best way to spend a weekend. From crime thrillers that have us rooting for the good guys to win, to films based on real-life criminals that only make them more exciting. Let’s face it; what’s a movie without spine-tingling moments that leave our hair standing on its end?

We have a list of 10 movies based on real murders, and are guaranteed to give you chills.

1) Monster

Release Year: January 9, 2004

Director: Patty Jenkins

Cast: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern, Lee Tergesen

Monster is a biographical crime drama based on the life of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute who was convicted of killing at least six men in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Wuornos is played by Charlize Theron, who put on weight, had dentures, bleached and shaved her eyebrows, and frayed her hair to look like the real-life serial killer.

Wuornos kills several men who she believes are trying to rape her, as the police are hot on her trail following reports of a string of murders in Florida. Even though Monster is about the degradation of a woman treated callously and cruelly by men, it is also a tender love story of two women. Wuornos’ relationship with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) is based on her real-life girlfriend, Tyria Moore.

Monster received critical acclaim and box-office success for its realistic and sensitive portrayal of a woman who suffered relentless sexual abuse at the hands of men, including family members, from a young age.

Did You Know? Though it is a tough watch, nobody was surprised when Theron won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2004.    

Monster movie

Photo: Wikimedia

2) Boys Don’t Cry

Release Year: October 22, 1999

Director: Kimberly Peirce

Cast: Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III, Alison Folland, Alicia Goranson, Matt McGrath

Boys Don’t Cry is a biographical film based on the real-life story of a transgender man named Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank). Though born female, he tried to understand himself, and sought love in Nebraska before he was brutally raped and murdered by two male acquaintances. 

After receiving death threats for who he is, Brandon heads over to Falls City, Nebraska to start a new life. There, he meets a group of young people, and soon befriends them. He develops a relationship with Lana Tisdel (Chloe Savigny), but does not receive the same acceptance from the rest of the group. 

Boys Don’t Cry was well received, and won universal critical acclaim from critics and viewers alike. One critic described it as a “romantic tragedy” that was akin to “Romeo and Juliet set in a Nebraska trailer park.”

Did You Know? Hilary Swank won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2000 for her sensitive portrayal of Brandon Teena.

Boys Don't Cry

Photo: Wikimedia

3) Badlands

Release Year: October 15, 1973

Director: Terrence Malick

Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Ramon Bieri, Warren Oates

Badlands is a crime film that was written and directed by the brilliant and reclusive Terrence Malick. It is loosely based on the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather, and his girlfriend Carin Ann Fugate in 1958. Starkweather was a teenager who murdered 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming within two months, before he was arrested on January 29, 1958.

Badlands is set in 1959 and follows the twisted yet loving relationship between 25-year-old garbage collector, Kit Carruthers  (Martin Sheen), and a 15-year-old girl named Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek). The couple run away from their dead-end town of Fort Dupree in South Dakota, and make their way to the badlands of Montana. 

The film is a study of those who commit extreme violence almost casually, and is now considered a classic.

Did You Know? Badlands is one of several movies inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate killings. Other films include The Sadist (1963), Kalifornia (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), and The Frighteners (1996).   

Badlands movie poster

Photo: Wikimedia

4) In Cold Blood

Release Year: December 14, 1967

Director: Richard Brooks

Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart

In Cold Blood is based on Truman Capote’s book of the same name, about the brutal 1959 murder of Herbert Clutter’s family in Holcomb, Kansas. The film follows Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Richard “Dick” Hickock (Scott Wilson) as they break into the Clutter’s home, kill all four members of the family, and go on the run.   

The two believe that Herbert (John McLiam) has a pile of cash in his home, but find out that he does his business in checks. Thwarted in their quest, but determined to not have witnesses, they murder the family, including two teenage children, and escape.     

Did You Know? Several scenes of the film, like the Clutter house and Kansas State Penitentiary, were shot at the real-life locations.

In cold blood

Photo: Wikimedia  

5) The Black Dahlia

Release Year: September 15, 2006

Director: Brian De Palma

Cast: Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Mia Kirshner, Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw

The Black Dahlia is a crime thriller film based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy. Both were inspired by the real-life sensational murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, known after her murder as the Black Dahlia. She was found murdered in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Her murder became highly sensational after her body was discovered mutilated, and severed at the waist.

The film follows two LAPD detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) as they attempt to solve the graphic and brutal murder of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kershner). The film tackles the complex issues of identity, ambition, and sex. It also shows how inviting and alluring Hollywood can be for even those who aspire to make it big.

Did You Know? The film was in development for a long time before actual production commenced. It was only after the big-screen adaptation and success of another of James Ellroy’s books, L.A. Confidential in 1997 that The Black Dahlia got the green light.    

Black dahlia

Photo: Wikimedia

6) Wolf Creek

Release Year: December 25, 2005

Director: Greg McLean

Cast: John Jarratt, Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi

Wolf Creek is a horror film about three backpackers who are taken captive, and hunted by a deranged killer named Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) in the Australian outback. It was inspired by the real-life murders of tourists by Ivan Milat in the 1990s, and Bradley Murdoch in 2001. Milat was convicted of murdering seven young adults in New South Wales, Australia between 1989 and 1993. He was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, as well as 18 years without parole. Murdoch is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of one backpacker, and will be eligible for parole in 2032.

Wolf Creek focuses on three backpackers, two female British tourists and their male Australian friend, as they are trapped by a man who initially pretends to help them. The film was noted for its realistic and continuous depiction of extreme violence, which turned off some critics and viewers, but effectively conveyed the scary nature of random violence.

Did You Know? Several scenes were cut from the final version of the film because they were deemed too graphic for viewers. However, the gruesome violence only underscored the dangers depicted in the film.

Wolf Creek

Photo: @WolfCreekMovie/Facebook.com

7) Dahmer

Release Year: June 21, 2002

Director: David Jacobson

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Bruce Davison, Artel Kayaru, Matt Newton

Dahmer is a biographical horror film about serial killer Jefferey Dahmer, who killed at least 17 people before he was finally arrested. Jeremy Renner plays the serial killer who lures attractive young men to his home, where he conducts experiments on his victims.

Dahmer was a socially awkward factory worker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was troubled by an uneven childhood, and his religious father’s denial of Dahmer’s homosexuality. In the film, as in real-life, he is shown having a troubled relationship with his father, and increasingly becomes an alcoholic. Even though the film was criticized for rationalizing the gruesome murders for which Dahmer was responsible, it conveys the loneliness and isolation the serial killer felt.

Also Read: Jeffrey Dahmer: The Milwaukee Cannibal Who Murdered 17

Did You Know? Jeremy Renner gave a fantastic performance as the lurid Jefferey Dahmer, and Kathryn Bigelow said that it was his performance in Dahmer that convinced her to give him the lead role in her Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker.  


Photo: Wikimedia

8) Karla

Release Year: January 20, 2006

Director: Joel Bender

Cast: Laura Prepon, Misha Collins, Tess Harper, Leonard Kelly-Young, Alex Boyd, Anthony Denison

Karla is a psychological thriller based on the crimes of Canadian serial killers Paul Bernardo (Misha Collins) and Karla Homolka (Laura Prepon). Bernardo is responsible for several rapes in the Scarborough area of eastern Toronto area between 1987 and 1990. He was later sentenced to life in jail without parole for at least 25 years. Homolka is responsible for the rape and murder of three minors. After striking a deal, she was given a 12-year sentence, and was released in 2005. 

Karla details the couple’s lives as they begin committing the rapes and murders of young girls. It also portrays Homolka in a relatively sympathetic light, as many scenes are depicted through her flashbacks. Though the film was not appreciated by many critics, it does a competent job of showcasing the acts committed by Bernardo and Homolka.

Did You Know? The film was initially named Deadly, but the name was changed just before its release. The script was based on interviews, court transcriptions, and videos shot by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.      


Photo: Wikimedia

9) Zero Day

Release Year: September 3, 2003

Director: Ben Coccio

Cast: Andre Keuck, Cal Robertson

Zero Day is about a school shooting, and was inspired by the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, when seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students, and a teacher. They exchanged gunfire with police officers, and committed suicide before they could be apprehended.

In the film, two students decide to carry out a mass shooting in their high school. They call their plan “Zero Day,” and thoroughly prepare for the attack, which involved keeping a video diary of their preparations. The film recreates the Columbine High School shooting, with the attack being seen from the viewpoint of security cameras in the school.

Also Read: A Timeline of the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School Shooting

Did You Know? Both Andre Keuck and Cal Robertson, who played the killers, had little acting experience when they auditioned for their roles, which is one of the main reasons Ben Coccio ultimately decided to cast them. The boys previously acted in Shakespeare productions in Stratford, Connecticut.

Zero Day film

Photo: Wikimedia

10) Ted Bundy

Release Year: November 22, 2002

Director: Matthew Bright

Cast: Michael Reilly Burke, Boti Bliss

Ted Bundy is a biographical film that details the crimes of serial rapist and killer Ted Bundy, who assaulted and murdered young women during the 1970s. Before his execution, Bundy confessed to the homicides of 30 women in seven states between 1974 and 1978. Police suspect that the actual victim count could be much higher.

The film stars Michael Reilly Burke in the titular role, who effectively portrays that, underneath the friendly boy next door façade, was an evil person who derived sadistic pleasure by brutally torturing and killing his victims. The film covers the start of Bundy’s college career, to his murders, and execution. 

Did You Know? Though the film takes certain liberties from the sequence of real-life events, it conveys what a morally depraved man Ted Bundy was.

Ted Bundy

Photo: Wikimedia