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Too Evil to Be True-- and That's a Good Thing

Movies* With real crime rampant, why do fans line up for movies like 'Red Dragon'? In part, it's a way to escape grim reality.


Question: Which of the following is not the plot of a movie in production or development?

(a) A female investigator hunts a serial killer whose victims are her past boyfriends.

(b) An FBI agent hunts a serial killer who may be his colleague.

(c) An FBI agent hunts a serial killer who may be his identical twin.

(d) A student interviews a serial killer to help him get into Harvard's psychology program.

(e) An FBI Internet crimes investigator hunts a serial killer who posts his murder scenes on the Web.

Answer: Trick question; they're all real.

How about the one in which a hypnotist reads a detective's mind and finds clues about a serial killer seeking immortality? Or the one in which an investigator cracks the case of a serial poisoner in a California medical center?

Yup. Yup.

Would you believe a serial killer sticking mirror shards into his female victims' eye sockets so they can "watch" him gradually transform into a supernatural being? That movie, "Red Dragon," broke October box office records last weekend with a take of $36.5 million.

At a time when you can't turn on the news without seeing reports about abducted kids and terrorist cells, those in the entertainment community figure we still want to spend our leisure time with murderous creeps. They may be right.

Some movie fans might reasonably have viewed "Red Dragon," the presumed last Hannibal Lecter thriller, as a sign that the serial-killer tank is just about empty. This is, after all, a "prequel" that's really a remake of a 16-year-old movie ("Manhunter") based on Thomas Harris' first novel in the series (which continued with "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal"). But, no, just as in the movies themselves, these serial killers won't die.

"They never cease," marveled filmmaker John McNaughton, who helped get this current ball rolling with his chilling 1986 cult film "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." "I just read one script where a serial killer comes back from the past or the future or some place, and is back in the habit of carving sevens on the eyeballs of his victims."

Serial killers certainly exist in our society, but they're not the raging epidemic that media coverage and entertainment portrayals might have you believe. FBI Special Agent Chase Foster called them "statistically insignificant," noting that last year about 18,000 homicides were committed in the U.S., while the FBI investigated 43 possible serial killers.

At this point, serial killer movies must be considered their own genre, one that follows a particular set of rules: Some terribly nasty person is killing not-quite-random victims according to a mysterious pattern, and the investigator must get inside the murderer's head and nab the suspect before the next victim is offered up for slaughter.

Serial killer movies aren't new: More than 20 variations on the Jack the Ripper story have been filmed, from Alfred Hitchcock's 1926 silent "The Lodger" to the Hughes brothers' "From Hell" last year. What's changed, aside from such films' frequency, is their stature.

"It used to be these types of movies were the B movies," said Mike Zam, who runs New York University's screenwriting program. "In 1944, Barbara Stanwyck was reluctant to play a killer in 'Double Indemnity.' These are the A movies now."

"The Silence of the Lambs," from 1991, bestowed respectability on the genre with its Oscars for best picture, actor (Hopkins), actress (Jodie Foster) and director (Jonathan Demme). David Fincher's darkly stylish "Seven" (1995) was another milestone, a dread-drenched thriller that lured $100 million from North Americans who watched Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt try to nab Kevin Spacey before he could complete a killing cycle based on the deadly sins.

This year, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in "Blood Work" (serial killer murders potential heart donors to aid ailing FBI agent and thus renew rivalry), Bill Paxton directed himself and Matthew McConaughey in "Frailty" (serial killer as byproduct of abusive father) and "feardotcom" went the more traditional exploitation-film route (victims log onto serial-killing Web site).

Denzel Washington has starred in two serial killer movies ("The Bone Collector" with Angelina Jolie, "Virtuosity" with Russell Crowe), as have Freeman and his "Kiss the Girls" co-star Ashley Judd, who currently is filming "Blackout" (the ex-boyfriend killer) with venerable director Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff").

Meanwhile, Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner are producing "Suspect Zero," starring Aaron Eckhart, Carrie-Anne Moss and Ben Kingsley in the story of an FBI agent suspicious of his colleague. And Goran Visnjic of "ER" will be the hypnotist of "Hypnotic."

"They're showy parts often, so they attract big stars, and big stars attract audiences," Zam said.

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