Robert Jackman

Serial killers on screen: from Nilsen to The Night Stalker

Serial killers on screen: from Nilsen to The Night Stalker
David Tennant plays Dennis Nilsen in ITV dramatisation Des (Image: ITV)
Text settings

As the success of The Serpent and The Pembrokeshire Murders shows, many of us remain oddly fascinated by serial killers. But for all its popularity, the serial killer format can be tricky to get right - with many coming across as distasteful, clichéd or overly sensationalised. Here are eight recent shows - both dramas and documentaries - that strike the right balance: 

Des,  ITV Player 

ITV’s gripping portrayal of the cold and calculating Dennis Nilsen (known in the red top press as the Muswell Hill Murderer) flips the format on its head by starting with the last thing you’d expect: a confession. But as David Tennant’s ‘Des’ recounts his killing spree with impeccable politeness, detectives suspect they may instead be dealing with a deranged fantasist. Daniel Mays plays the police officer determined to prove otherwise, identify Nilsen’s numerous victims, and bring the madman to justice. 

The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Netflix 

As the second instalment of American Crime Story (the first being the superb retelling of the OJ Simpson murders), this high-budget drama does exactly what it says on the tin: recounting the steps that led to the murder of the Italian fashion icon by eccentric fantasist Andrew Cunanan. The young killer, who believed he’d been jilted by Versace after meeting in a gay nightclub, also killed four others in the run up to the deed. This stylish drama captures his descent into madness in 1990s Miami - having a tasteful and appropriate dose of fun along the way. 

Mindhunter, Netflix 

London-based screenwriter Joe Penhall has won praise for this snazzy American drama based on the memoirs of an FBI agent who pioneered the technique of psychological profiling. And you can see why. In less-skilled hands, the Mindhunter premise - in which a crack team of agents interview a convicted killer in the hope of gaining insights into an ongoing and unsolved case - could have easily descended into unconvincing melodrama. As it is, this intelligent effort delivers the goods - and plenty of chills - with ease. 

The Night Stalker, Netflix

Netflix’s latest binge-worthy true crime offering tells the bloodcurdling tale of Richard Ramirez. the so-called night stalker who terrorised 1980s Los Angeles. As detectives testify in their interviews, Ramirez was unique: a killer who slayed indiscriminately; picking his victims purely on who happened to leave their door open at the wrong time. In response, the citizens of LA take to buying attack dogs, and bolting shut their windows, as the city reels in fear of an unknown killer. A fascinating - and sadly rather relevant - portrait of a community living in terror. 

Four Lives, BBC One (upcoming) 

Sheridan Smith stars in the new BBC 1 drama (BBC)

The news that crime-writing duo Jeff Pope and Neil McKay would be penning a new drama about the horrific Grindr killing (in which at least four young men were lured to their death on gay dating websites) would have been welcomed by fans of hard-hitting ‘issues-based’ dramas. The pair previously collaborated - to superb effect - on the BBC’s acclaimed dramatisation of the Shannon Matthews disappearance, showing a real knack for teasing out the social issues behind the headlines. Hopefully this one will be just as powerful when it lands later this year. 

The Fall, Britbox/Netflix

Fictional serial killer dramas don’t come much better than this joint Anglo-Irish effort which captivated viewers when it premiered back in spring 2013. Northern Irish hunk Jamie Dornan (best known for his lucrative turn as the similarly creepy Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey) plays Peter Spector, an apparent family man with an extremely dark hobby. That Spector’s murderous appetite focuses exclusively on confident, professional women gives this well-written drama an extra edge. Gillian Anderson, meanwhile, is the no-nonsense detective on his tail. 

Appropriate Adult, Britbox 

That ITV continues to greenlight serial killer dramatisations probably owes a lot to the success of this groundbreaking effort in 2011, in which Neil McKay retold the chilling story of the Moors Murderers themselves, Fred and Rosemary West. The Wire’s Dominic West and Monica Dolan take on the role of the notorious killers, while Emily Watson shines as the titular appropriate adult: the legal volunteer assigned to Fred West, in order to ensure he would be unable to claim he had not understood the proceedings. All three bagged BAFTAs for their efforts. 

Murder Mountain, Netflix 

If you prefer your serial killer documentaries unsolved, then you'll love Murder Mountain - a gripping mystery set in the heart of California’s semi-lawless cannabis industry. Humboldt County is booming with thousands of weed farms, but what could explain the mysterious disappearance of dozens of ‘trimmigrants’ - the casual workers (largely young Americans) who travel to Humboldt in search of seasonal work? When the body of a former surfer turns up in a shallow grave, it looks like residents might be right to suspect the worst...