The degree to which crime stories saturate our cultural (re)productions, especially in North America, is alternately fascinating and troubling. As writers and directors adapt from real-life tragedy, what do their films lose or gain in eliciting fear and revulsion in their viewers? What are the ethics of this complex process? Christopher Berry-Dee’s Serial Killers at the Movies: My Intimate Talks with Mass Murderers who Became Stars of the Big Screen (Ad Lib Publishers 2021) investigates the fraught relationship real-life killers and their crimes have with Hollywood and popular culture.
Films about serial murder/heinous killers are, historically, major blockbusters. They have the ability to generate cult followings and large international audiences. These films can even, in the case of a film like The Silence of the Lambs (1991), win coveted awards. However, where did the ideas or inspirations behind such iconic movie villains come from? Christopher Berry-Dee, an accomplished true crime researcher who has had an extensive film, television, and writing career in part through interviewing serial murderers, argues that we can trace the sources for these films back to the real world. Berry-Dee talks the reader through some of history’s most iconic cinematic products. He recounts the ethical and stylistic aspects of each film at the same time that he details the real crimes that inspired them.
Although short, Berry-Dee’s book packs a punch. While I am not a horror fan, I truly think there is a story for everyone in this book. Hearing the stories behind so many of these films was truly fascinating, and I particularly enjoyed reading about The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho (1960), The Amityville Horror (1979), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). However, Berry-Dee also discusses films that are directly based in real life, such as Monster (2003) or Zodiac (2007).Many of the films Berry-Dee discusses are hugely influential horror films that changed the genre, and this book is a fresh take on how these films interact with the culture they were produced in. Not only is this book about the intersection between cinematic crime and real crime, but it is also about how these films were made, and the often-stunning series of events behind why we have the masterpieces we do today. There is something very comprehensive about Berry-Dee’s writing that serves as both true crime, film criticism, and downright interesting storytelling.
I was most intrigued by Berry-Dee’s discussion of ethics. He points out that the troubling world of film often abandons moral obligation or teachable moments in favour of the scare image of a slasher film. I was particularly interested in this discussion in relation to The Amityville murders and Ted Bundy. Both sets of crimes have, as Berry-Dee points out, evolved into their own cinematic industries. The story of Amityville has degenerated, becoming less about a cowardly family annihilator and more about a haunting that does not exist. The mythology around Bundy, Berry-Dee argues, has developed into what he calls ‘Bundy Land,’ a cinematic universe in which various iterations of Ted Bundy exist and evolve in ways that are problematic rather than productive. The industries that profit off of mythologized killers are themselves responsible for the mythology, and this cultural feedback loop generates into the Bundy/Amityville industries of the horror genre.
Berry-Dee also fascinatingly discusses a subgenre of serial murderers in movies by addressing certain films that dramatize criminal environments, such as a mafia film or even a film set in the American prison system. Although he argues that some of these films do better than others, I was intrigued by this aspect of Berry-Dee’s book because it is a different take on the ethics question—if we know the prison system to be a deeply flawed one, how are we then representing it on the screen, and who is that representation serving? All of these questions are debated in Berry-Dee’s book.
While I found this book very entertaining, I would point out that it is not for the faint of heart. In his ambition to showcase the links between real-life criminals and their on-screen counterparts, Berry-Dee recounts the crimes of these killers in explicit detail. While I knew many of the details already, I did not relish in reading them again. I’m not sure a book like this could be written without many of these kinds of facts, and certainly Berry-Dee’s firsthand experience with these murderers plays into many of these accounts but be forewarned: this book is dark. That said, I did learn about several serial offenders I had not encountered before, so I want to avoid giving the impression that Berry-Dee is covering well-trodden ground. If he repeats anything, it appears to be mostly necessary for the book’s analysis.
Overall, I felt that this book was an interesting intervention into the true crime genre and reexamining the serial murderer in the context of film is a worthwhile endeavor. I recommend this book for any horror film buff looking for more insight into the origin of films and the details of the crimes that inspired them.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies and is forthcoming from Crime Studies Journal and Edinburgh University Press. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from Ad Lib Publishers in exchange for an honest review.