The psychopath is the perfect villain for any horror, slasher, superhero or action movie. But of course, in the tradition that is the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, sometimes what is shown as psychopathic on film is often a dramatic, embellished and inaccurate definition. In reality, psychopathy is a personality disorder with many variations and different defining terms but there are some common, basic traits both psychologists and Hollywood agree on. A psychopath typically shows signs of antisocial behaviour and manifests little empathy or remorse, and is prone to bold behaviors. Some movies are more accurate in depicting a psychopath but others are quite a bit less reliable.
Bold behaviors with very little regard for empathy? Sounds like some of the most classic and iconic characters in cinema history. This personality type has created a gold mine of unpredictable, fascinating and sometimes terrifying stories to unfold on screen. What have been the most successful psychopath movies to hit the big screen? These 10 are the highest grossing of the sub-genre; a few of these films have even been watched by experts in the psychological and psychiatric field who have diagnosed the characters in question.
The films are ranked by their grossing according to Boxofficemojo and be warned; there are some disturbing depictions and spoilers ahead…
10. American Psycho (2000) – $15,070,285
For this movie, the chamaeleon that is Christian Bale was able to transform his body into a physique that most male models could only envy. In a memorable performance, the method actor became the white collar Wall Street hotshot named Patrick Bateman (a play on the name of Norman Bates, from the original Psycho movie) who is a handsomely terrifying psychopath. One of the most disturbing features of this psychopath movie is the scene in which Bale violent attacks a victim, unflinching, while dancing to “Hip To Be Square”. The movie, adapted from the book written by Bret Easton Ellis, has even inspired a musical adaptation.
9. Mr. Brooks (2007) – $28,549,298
In Mr. Brooks, Kevin Costner plays a successful businessman with a bloodthirsty alter ego named Marshall, an aspect of his personality which he had been managing to control through a 12-step program. But the urge to kill returns during the movie and while remaining normal by day, Mr. Brooks is the serial killer known as “The Thumbprint Killer”. The movie features Dane Cook as a man attempting to blackmail Brooks, who ends up taking the rap for Brooks’ murders posthumously.
8. One Hour Photo (2002) – $31,597,131
When the comic Robin Williams took on a role outside of his comedic comfort zone, it proved a popular move. The dark ‘One Hour Photo’ grossed highly and showed another side to Williams’ formidable acting talents. Showing signs of psychopathy early on in the film with a solitary life, Williams played the painfully shy photo clinic employee named Sy who obsesses over a family’s seemingly perfect life. He develops duplicates of the family’s photos and hangs them in his home, collage-like, but he eventually cracks when he finds out the husband is having an affair. Without showing any sort of apathy or remorse, he forces the husband and his lover to pose nude for photos before they’re caught.
7. Psycho (1960) – $32 Million
Even though the title of the film bears the name “Psycho”, forensic psychiatrist Samuel Leistedt disagrees. Based on the real life serial killer Ed Gein, Norman Bates’ behavior is attributed not only to psychopathy but also psychosis, meaning he was out of touch with reality. Ed Gein committed heinous acts, also depicted in Hitchcock’s Psycho. But given his social awkwardness and apparent inability to feel emotional at all while committing his murders, there’s a reason why Norman Bates has remained to be one of cinema’s most feared and iconic psychopaths.
6. The Shining (1980) – $44,360,123
“Here’s Johnny!” If Jack Nicholson’s deranged face through the broken wood doesn’t send shivers down your spine, you may be immune to horror. Playing the role of writer Jack Torrance in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, Nicholson showed the author’s decline into madness throughout the film with the explosive ending in which he wields an axe and destroys anything and anyone in his path while spirits (in the hotel, or in his mind?) plague his psyche and encourage him on the heinous rampage.
5. The Good Son (1993) – $44,789,789
Did you think Macaulay Culkin as a child was adorable in movies such as “Home Alone”? Well, this just might change your mind. ‘The Good Son’ goes to show you that you don’t have to be an adult to exhibit psychopathic behavior. Culkin’s character, Henry, has apparently no consideration for the value of human life. What makes it all the more terrifying is that the innocent-looking Henry seems to be the type to kill merely because he feels like it, not for any express purpose or goal.
4. No Country For Old Men (2007) – $74,283,625
Samuel Leistedt and his assistant Paul Linkowski agree that Anton Chigurh is the most accurately portrayed psychopath in the genre. What makes Chigurh the most terrifying psychopath? It might be the fact that he has absolutely no problem with what he’s doing, whether he is shooting outdoors or shooting people in the head. He can sleep soundly at night, and seems like a normal and happy man despite all the he’s done that would leave any normal person feel guilt-ridden.
3. Cape Fear (1991) – $79,091,969
Robert de Niro plays a convicted rapist named Max Cady, who was sent to prison for fourteen years for the rape of a sixteen-year old girl. His own lawyer could have gotten him an acquittal had he revealed information regarding the girl’s promiscuity but didn’t, because he knew his client was guilty. Fourteen years later, Cady finds out and goes on a revenge rampage. Once he’s released from prison, he begins a murderous rampage targeting the lawyer and his family without showing a shred of humanity in the process.
2. Silence of the Lambs (1991) – $130,742,922
Anthony Hopkins‘ portrayal of Hannibal Lecter was probably one of the most terrifying performances to hit Hollywood at its time. With superhuman intelligence and exquisite taste and manners, Dr. Lecter is an incongruous bloodthirsty serial killer who dines on his victims. The fact that he can fool even the most nosey detectives and blend in with the general population makes Lecter one of the most silently, profoundly disturbing – and most popular – psychos on film.
1. Fatal Attraction (1987) – $156,645,693
We’ve likely all fallen in love and been rejected by a crush once or twice in our lives. When that rejection happens, we may mourn the loss, cry about over a pint of Ben & Jerry’s… but we’ll all eventually move on. But not Alex Forrest, played by Glenn Close. When Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas) breaks off his affair with Alex, she snaps and reveals herself as a psychopath who unflinchingly boils the family’s pet bunny. In a vengeful rage, she doesn’t seem to feel guilty for the terror she’s imposing on Dan and his family, which makes this psychopathic character all the more terrifying. The movie has become a worldwide hit and indeed, the phrase ‘bunny boiler’ is now commonly used derogatively to describe women who are slightly over-invested in an uninterested object of their affections.