If you’re like most movie fans, you can immediately name a few films that made you think twice about going to sleep at night or camping in the woods. Cape Fear, Seven, The Blair Witch Project, Psycho and Rear Window are among the many classics that left a lasting impression on generations of film-goers.
Yet, it’s a bit easier to close your eyes when you come to grips with the fact that a blood-curdling movie is fictional.
Unless, of course, it’s not.
Here are 5 movies in which producers imitated real life—drawing factual information from criminal events that horrified communities throughout the United States.
This film produced by David Fincher is considered a masterpiece for brilliantly capturing the real crimes that haunted families and law enforcement officials in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story is based on the manhunt that followed the July 5, 1969 attack of a young couple in Vallejo, Calif. While 22-year-old Darlene Ferrin died from five gunshot wounds, 19-year-old Mike Mageau survived his four gunshot wounds. There were no witnesses to the 12:10 a.m. shooting at a well-known lover’s lane.
The mysterious circumstances of the brutal attack intensified a month later when the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper received a letter from a person who claimed to be the killer. He called himself “Zodiac,” and threatened to kill more people unless a coded message was deciphered. Although he was never captured and claimed to have murdered 37 victims, investigators conclusively tied the serial killer to eight victims. Zodiac would go on to send letters to newspapers, pieces of clothing of his victims, and codes meant to be deciphered.
The movie has received acclaim for being historically accurate, sticking closely to the details outlined in a book written by Robert Graysmith, a journalist who became obsessed with analyzing the letters, coded messages and other evidence in an attempt to solve the case. In the movie, Graysmith’s character is played by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal. According to numerous accounts, the filmmakers and writers were exhaustive in capturing details of the case, poring over case files and conducting interviews with those involved in investigating the real life crime, including Zodiac survivor Bryan Hartnell and investigators.
As one of the most publicized serial killers in U.S. history, the Zodiac Killer, continues to make headlines today as investigators and crime sleuths try to dissect the details of the unsolved crimes and the killer’s identity.
Researchers are trying to tie unsolved crimes to the serial killing spree, including the 1966 fatal stabbing of Cheri Jo Bates, a Riverside, Calif., college freshman. Investigators are hopeful that advanced DNA technology will lend more clues to Bates’ murder and, consequently, to the identity of the Zodiac Killer.
Also, as recently as 2020, three codebreakers deciphered one of the remaining Zodiac codes — more than 50 years after the cipher was sent to a newspaper, according to the FBI.
The first one had quickly been cracked by a local couple who deciphered a message in which the Zodiac said he liked killing “because it is so much fun.” The latest cipher to be solved, which contained 340 characters sent to the San Francisco Chronicle in November 1969, had a similar message. One of the most recent code breakers said he had spent 14 years trying to break the code.
The Texas Killing Fields (2011)
The Texas Killing Fields, which came out in 2011, is another movie based on a serial killing that still remains unsolved. The film is directed by Ami Canaan Mann and stars Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as detectives working on a case involving young women who start disappearing along an Interstate 45 corridor in Texas.
The action-packed movie, which follows the detectives as they race to track down the killer before another victim is claimed, is based on actual events that took place, starting in the 1970s. The bodies of more than 30 victims, all girls and young women, mostly ranging in age from 12 to 34, were dumped alongside a desolate highway near oil fields stretching from Houston to Galveston.
According to a federal agent interviewed by CBS, a bridge in the area featured a sign that said “You are now entering the cruel world.” He described the Interstate where the murders happened as a “perfect place for killing somebody and getting away with it.”
As recently as two years ago, the FBI gave an update that the advanced technology of today could provide more clues into the cold cases dating back to the ‘70s and ‘80s. Although League City and federal detectives were able to identify the bodies of Heidi Fye, a young bartender, and Laura Miller, 16, the bodies of two other victims later found in the same area — Jane Doe and Janet Doe, remained unidentified until 2019. The FBI identified them as Audrey Lee Cook, the Jane Doe whose remains were found in 1986, and Donna Gonsoulin Prudhomme, the Janet Doe who was found in 1991.
In an appeal to the public for more clues, FBI Special Agent Richard Rennison, said, “It’s important for the public to know that we have not given up. It may be labeled a cold case, but that doesn’t mean it’s sitting on a shelf and isn’t being worked.” Rennison had been working on the case for more than a decade at the time of his statement.
The Iceman 2012
Capturing a cold-blooded killer is at the heart of the thriller The Iceman. This film features Michael Shannon as real-life serial killer Richard Kuklinski, who had claimed the lives of more than 100 victims before he was caught by detectives in 1986. The movie captures the paradox of Kuklinski, who juggled his roles as a devoted husband and suburban family man (albeit with some major flaws) and as a hitman for the Polish mafia in New York and New Jersey.
With the movie imitating his real life between 1964 and 1986, Kuklinski would kill those who crossed him just as quickly as he would carry out a hit for the mob. The cast of characters are rounded out by leading actors, including Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, Winona Ryder, James Franco and David Schwimmer.
The murders were gruesome — ranging from dismembering a body with a chainsaw and stuffing it in an oil drum to watching a victim die from a burger laced with cyanide, according to undercover agent Dominick Polifrone, who pretended to be a “bad guy” during an 18-month period to gain Kuklinski’s trust.
“I’ve met hundreds of bad guys, but Kuklinski was a totally different type of individual,” Polifrone told the New York Post of his encounters with the serial killer in 1985 and 1986. “He was cold-hearted — ice-cold like the devil. He had no remorse about anything.”
Kuklinski’s murders didn’t have a specific pattern — he would kill his victims with handguns, crossbows, knives, crossbows, blunt objects or cyanide administered through food, injection, or as an aerosol spray. He also tried to confuse investigators by putting his victims in freezers for years before dumping them, making it difficult for forensic analysts to determine the time of death.
Although law enforcement officials suspected Kuklinski of numerous murders, including that of a mobster whose body was found two years after he disappeared, they couldn’t build a solid case against him. Evidence was largely circumstantial.
It wasn’t until Dec. 17, 1986, that law officials arrested Kuklinski after he tried to purchase what he thought was cyanide in an undercover deal. Polifrone’s testimony also helped put the serial killer behind bars.
A jury sentenced him to consecutive life sentences for five murders. At the time, his wife (played in The Iceman by Winona Ryder) said she wasn’t aware that her husband and the father of their three children was capable of killing anyone. Kuklinski died in 2006 after serving 18 years of his sentence in a Trenton, N.J., jail.
The Girl Next Door (2007)
Another incredibly disturbing film came out in 2007, shocking audiences who came to realize that it was based on real events. The Girl Next Door was based on the torture and beating death of Sylvia Likens, a 16-year-old who was left in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski of Indianapolis, Ind.
Sylvia and her younger sister, Jenny, while their parents took on an odd assortment of jobs, including as traveling carnival workers. The parents paid Baniszewski, whom family members had met at church, $20 a week to care for the girls.
Over the three months that she and her sister were in the home of Baniszewski, who had seven children of her own, Sylvia was tortured through neglect, beatings, starvation, taunting, dehydration and sexual acts — not only by Baniszewski but her children and some of the neighborhood children.
During the trial, which would lead to the murder conviction of Baniszewski, the deputy prosecutor described the case as “the most diabolical case to ever come before a court or jury.” Baniszewski’s oldest daughter, Paula, was found guilty of second-degree murder, and her son, John, and two neighborhood boys, were found guilty on manslaughter charges.
The film, which was adapted by a Jack Ketchum book of the same name, was directed by Gregory Wilson and featured William Atherton, Blythe Auffarth and Blanche Baker. The book as well as another movie, An American Crime, also were based on the real-life torturing of Sylvia Likens.
The film Monster, which earned actress Charlize Theron an Academy Award, is based on Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute turned serial killer who was accused of murdering seven men before she was arrested and convicted. Christina Ricci plays the role of Wuornos’ girlfriend, who becomes increasingly suspicious that Wuornos is behind the murders of men whose bodies are found in Florida.
As depicted in the movie, the police encouraged the girlfriend (Tyria Moore in real life) to become an informant after Wuornos arrest as a suspect in the slayings, which started with the 1989 shooting death of 51-year-old Richard Mallory, the manager of an electronics store. His body was found in the woods with several gunshot wounds.
Wuornos would later testify that she acted in self-defense after Mallory raped, beat and sodomized her. Yet, the prosecutor said that Wuornos was cold-blooded, a “predatory prostitute” who sought out her victims and killed them. It was later disclosed that Mallory had served time for sexual assault with the intent to rape.
However, the jurors who convicted her and gave her the death penalty did not hear about Mallory’s history.
The other victims in the murder spree, which Wuornos confessed to, included David Spears, who was shot six times and stripped naked, Charles Carskaddon, who was shot nine times and abandoned on the side of the road, and Peter Siems. Witnesses, however, said they saw two women matching Wuornos and Moore’s description driving Siems’ car. Wuornos said she had dumped his body in Georgia. Yet, his body has not been found.
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