Fritz Lang’s classic “M Killer” remains among the top serial killer films. Its plot is based on the case of the maniac Peter Kürten from Düsseldorf. It is impossible to forget the fishy gaze of an ingratiating pedophile performed by Peter Lorre, as well as one of the most unusual chases on the trail of a monster. There is no hero here, but there is the maddening world of the corrupt Weimar republic before the Nazis came. 

The investigation stalls, digging through the evidence, the police are using the method of mass raids. The whole police mechanics has already been shown, from collecting small evidence to interrogating constantly mistaken witnesses (only a blind person is given to identify a criminal). 

As a result, the leaders of organized crime, who are fed up with the commotion, decided to catch the child killer themselves. The maniac here is put in opposition to both the normal and the marginal world – and turns out to be a kind of darling of the art of cinema.

The sixties

It is no coincidence that more than thirty years later, it was Hitchcock who showed the first great Hollywood maniac on the screen. His image was copied from the necrophile and corpse kidnapper Ed Gein. Beyond the first serious attempt to penetrate the soul of this kind of criminal, Psycho has given us one of the most memorable twists in film history. 

The denouement, which today, perhaps, would not have seemed so unexpected, then only a psychiatrist could explain. It is he who appears with the final monologue at the end, telling the detectives and the audience what they faced in the person of Norman Bates.

The main one is no longer a killer

However, a lot has changed after a few years. The focus shifted from the killer to his antagonist when Dirty Harry Callahan led the hunt for the maniac. The hero of Clint Eastwood in Don Siegel’s film did not feel the need for reflection and did not want to penetrate the mind of the criminal nicknamed Scorpio. 

By the way, Scorpio clearly referred to the real Zodiac, which then continued to kill in the United States, but in the end, was never caught. Dirty Harry had an answer to why the villain was not found – the police were acting too softly. 

Eastwood’s character tortured, lied, and killed in the name of his own justice. The cowardly Scorpio would not have left him if it were not for the obstacles from the society, which has softened in the era of hippies.

Since then, the figure of the conservative policeman has become common in mainstream cinema, but the serial killer has turned out to be a marginal element. His place remained for a long time in class B films.

At the same time, in reality, the 1970-1980s were a real era of serial killers – almost all legendary maniacs, not excluding Chikatilo, came from these decades. While the secret services of the whole world were chasing monsters, science was enriched with knowledge about them. 

Everything could no longer be reduced to a semi-mythical splitting of the personality, as in Hitchcock and Fleischer. A sociopathic maniac, immortalized by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector from The Silence of the Lambs, entered the scene.

Who is good here?

In the cinema of the following years, the impossibility of separating good and evil will become commonplace. Indeed, is it not a certainantisociality, a tendency to violence, a feeling of being an instrument of justice understood in their own way, do not policemen and notorious criminals have in common? 

In the remake of the Norwegian thriller “Insomnia” by Christopher Nolan, the killer (Robin Williams) and the detective (Al Pacino) collaborate directly. More precisely, a maniac – also a writer (also an asocial profession) – gets into the soul of investigator Pacino and blackmails him. The detective no longer knows whether he is on the side of good or evil, while for the antihero-maniac these categories do not exist at all.

And we do not see unconditional good in the battle with the fiend of hell when we watch “Memories of Murder”BongJoon-ho. The Korean Zodiac was in operation from 1986 to 1991, on account of its at least 14 victims. 

The murders of women in Hwaseong are investigated by as many as four detectives – an unfriendly team of drinking, nervous and aggressive campaigners. The genius of psychology or the superhero is not among them. Everyone is honestly trying to find a villain, but a corrupt system in an era of political instability lacks resources. 

Like decades ago with Lang, the police prefer to go wild and grab everyone. Serial killers are a maddened cog in the machinery of the state that chaotically destroys other cogs in the system. 

After its breakdown, there is not even hope, only memory. However, the real killer in real life was still caught, much later than the release of the film – when Bong Joon-ho had already received an Oscar for Parasite.

Fincher and his maniacs

Finally, if in the middle of the last century Hitchcock adored the image of a maniac in cinema, today David Fincher specializes in him. In 1995 he directed the moralizing parable “Seven”. In it, an intellectual killer of a lecturer type performed by Kevin Spacey, imagining himself to be an instrument of God, punishing people for their mortal sins. 

The young detective turned out to be a figure in the killer’s game and, in fact, his last victim. Ten years ago, Fincher filmed Stieg Larsson’s Swedish bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The antisocial heroine paired with a desperate journalist (Daniel Craig) to unravel the case of a whole dynasty of Nazi-minded assassins.

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