An obsessed, tormented renegade detective tracks down a disturbed, lone wolf maniac who kills innocent citizens for pleasure, compulsion and perhaps to agitate his pursuer and deliberately instigate a game of cat and mouse. This is an ages old motif that has permeated the thriller genre of Hollywood and beyond for eons, providing complex villains, self destructive protagonists, keen Agency profilers, blustery police captains, angsty mayors and no shortage of chases and carnage. Here are my personal top ten favourites!
10. Eye See You aka D Tox
This is commonly known as ‘that one shitty Sylvester Stallone film that no one saw, and I’ll be the first to admit it has its issues. However, I still enjoy it greatly, I love putting it on on a lazy rainy weekend day. Stallone plays a distraught big city FBI Agent whose girlfriend (Dina Meyer) was slaughtered by a vicious serial killer. After heading north into the mountains to a remote rehab facility for damaged cops (run by Kris Kristofferson no less) he soon begins to realize that the killer may have followed him there when people begin to turn up dead. This is a slightly cheesy, predictable thing but I really like the snowy Agatha Christie vibe and the cast is absolutely stacked with interesting talent including Tom Berenger, Robert Patrick, Jeffrey Wright, Stephen Lang, Charles Dutton, Sean Patrick Flanery, Robert Prosky, Chris Fulford, Polly Walker and more. But which one is the killer?
9. Scott Walker’s The Frozen Ground
Another snowy one, yay! This fantastic film follows Alaska State trooper Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage) as he hunts down nasty real life killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack, chilling) who abducted and killed countless girls back in the 80’s. This film is overlooked and works as a thriller, stern police procedural and affecting interpersonal drama. An eclectic supporting cast surrounds Cage and Cusack but the heart of the film for me is Vanessa Hudgens in a brilliant performance as a wayward teenage prostitute who winds up in Hansen’s crosshairs and eventually Halcombe’s protection.
8. Bruce Robinson’s Jennifer 8
There’s a killer loose in an eerie Pacific Northwest town and its up to big city detective Andy Garcia and local sheriff Lance Henriksen to stop them. This is one of Uma Thurman’s first roles as a blind girl who may be next on the killer’s list. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s tense, freaky and the rainy setting provides lots of dark groves and ominous alcoves where anyone might be hiding. Also John Malkovich shows up for like five minutes as some weirdo FBI interrogator and chews more scenery than the rest of his collective career combined.
7. E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero
Not one you’d find on many top ten lists, but my aim with these blog posts is to shed light on unfairly maligned films or hidden gems that need a good dose of re-evaluation. Ben Kingsley plays a mysterious serial killer who is praying on other killers for murky reasons that relate to an ages old FBI program that tried to harness the power of clairvoyants. Aaron Eckhart and Carrie Ann Moss pursue him while stylistically fascinating filmmaker Merhige (remember Begotten?) gives an otherwise routine tale some stark, elemental visual horror elements that chill the spine, and Clint Mansell’s nervous score warbles on in the fringes of our awareness.
6. Harold Becker’s Sea Of Love
Al Pacino investigates a series of murders and gets into a sweaty affair with mysterious Ellen Barkin, who may have an involvement in the crimes. The killer here uses unique MO in luring people in via the personals section of the newspaper, which gives Pacino and partner John Goodman some hilarious ‘hands on’ stakeout opportunities. This is sexy stuff but the real danger lurking throughout is never smothered by too many steamy encounters, there’s always balance and when the killer does finally show up in person they’re played by a reliably scary familiar face.
5. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs
This made waves upon release and holds up wonderfully to this day. Anthony Hopkins’s articulate, sophisticated Hannibal Lecter and Ted Levine’s perverse nut-job Buffalo Bill are still one of the most terrifying duo of killers to ever grace the same film with their collective presence. Jodie Foster ultimately steals the show as Agent Clarice Starling though and hers is a performance you get more out of each time you view the film, full of hidden hurt, dutiful observation and a keen survivor’s instinct.
4. David Fincher’s Seven
Kevin Spacey plays maybe the most heinous killer on this list and at least the most prolific and inventive in ways you’ll wish you didn’t see or hear. Weary veteran cop Morgan Freeman and eager rookie Brad Pitt are assigned to track him down, the hellish investigation inevitably leaking over into their personal lives. Atmosphere is key here and although Fincher never specifies where the bleak, rained out and despairingly lived-in city is located, one gets a darkly ardent sense of place all the same. Sheets of rain pour down, body after body is unearthed, each slain in increasingly gruesome ways and the uncanny feeling that the killer is just steps away haunts every scene like the constant darkness in the visual palette.
3. Gregory Hoblit’s Fallen
The killer isn’t quite human in this noir and supernatural tinged horror flick that finds homicide detective Denzel Washington searching for a killer who has resurfaced to strike again after being executed. Or has he? Or is it a copycat? It’s a conundrum that causes Denzel to question everything he knows and begins to wonder if this monster is something from another world. It’s a brilliant piece with burnished, gothic cinematography and lively supporting work from John Goodman, James Gandolfini, Embeth Davidtz, Donald Sutherland and a terrifying Elias Koteas.
2. David Fincher’s Zodiac
Score two for Fincher! Good on him, this is a sprawling, hyper realistic, meticulous examination of the murders that sent cops, journalists and civilians alike into a panic back in 70’s San Francisco. The film is constructed to follow the real life events as closely as possible and, as most already know, they never caught this guy which makes for a an eerie, dread soaked trip into paranoia and unease. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo play the dogged, determined professionals who work tirelessly to snag this monster while Fincher expertly crafts some of the most flat out suspenseful, terrifyingly tense scenes ever put to film.
1. Sean Penn’s The Pledge
Jack Nicholson’s ex cop Jerry Black sits alone at a run down, remote Northwest gas station. There’s a haunted air about him as he rambles on to himself and if you’d just been led on the chase of a lifetime by an extremely elusive killer of young girls and then arrived at the excruciatingly unsatisfying conclusion he has, you might be a might frazzled too. Penn’s discomforting, unearthly film is a haunting meditation on obsession, what it does to a person, their choices and mental state when the ultimate result of a quest like this is essentially failure. Many were frustrated by the narrative but that’s where the real beauty lies for me. Penn beautifully illustrates a dark, oblique tale, Nicholson takes on one of his most challenging roles and wins the day, Hans Zimmer creates moody, atmospheric bliss with his score and the cast is peppered with exceptional talent including Benicio Del Toro, Robin Wright, Aaron Eckhart, Sam Shepard, Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Lois Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Costas Mandylor, Patricia Clarkson, Dale Dickey, Harry Dean Stanton and a sensational cameo from Mickey Rourke in one of his very best roles.
Thanks for reading! Please share your favourites in this interesting genre as well!