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Catching the Real Killers

There are the serial killers whose three-part names are instantly notorious nationwide. They even go by three names before they get caught, Green River Killer, BTK, Golden State Killer, those are the ones that tend to have a notoriety, while some killers go without having their string of murders connected for decades, whether it’s because they are moving around, changing their M.O. or attacking overlooked and unprotected members of minority groups. Sometimes the killer is seemingly asking to be caught, intentionally leaving clues for the public or investigators to more easily catch them as they either feel they are so smart they won’t get caught anyway, or they are trying to get caught. They always return to the scene of the crime, or so we are taught by lazy TV writers.

I initially intended on just pairing two serial killer movies here, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and David Fincher’s Zodiac, but the similarities between Zodiac and Memories of Murder (2003) inspired me to include the thriller from Bong Joon-ho as well. The plan to watch these movies came out well before the tabloid claim that the real Zodiac Killer was identified, not based on DNA evidence but some pretty questionable leaps of reasoning. This suspect does bring up the possibility of an eerie parallel with Memories of Murder where the South Korean serial killer was identified after the movie came out and many wondered if he had sat in a movie theater either critiquing the portrayal of his crime scenes or grinning that he was the only one in the house knowing the true answer to the mystery.

While the other movies tell the stories of real life serial killers that had not been caught by the time of their movies’ release, Shadow of a Doubt is about the capture of a serial killer based on a real killer who had been on the run. Here, Joseph Cotton plays a mysterious uncle unexpectedly visiting his sister’s admiring family. The family, especially the teenage daughter, admire the adventure of his travels through the country and his many successes in business. In today’s terms, this tells the story of an entrepreneur relative who gradually exposes that he is aggressively libertarian, a militant men’s rights activist and ultimately a serial killer with simmering white male rage. The family gradually finds that he is not someone to protect, but someone who is a real danger to others, ultimately cooperating with the investigators who were hot on his tail. There is a mystery of whether he is the killer or a second man in the northeast who fits the description of a killer of older women, but as it becomes apparent that Cotton’s character is the guy they are looking for, he is given a little leeway on his apprehension. It’s a mind-boggling move by the investigators with a white male subject that seems a bit too familiar in the present day.

While viewing this I thought I saw some parallels to the real life story of H.H. Holmes, perhaps the first major serial killer in in modern US history, the man with a murder hotel in Chicago during the Columbian World’s Fair in the late 19th Century. The tenants of his hotel would be young women traveling alone for the World’s Fair who would stay in the disorienting upper floor, dark with confusing hallways, and a chute that went to the basement and the incinerator below. The later chapters of Devil and the White City tell of his life on the run moving from town to town along the train line, working as a doctor as investigators hunted him down after a series of name changes. It turns out, he wasn’t the real life subject of this serial killer story, it was actually the supposed first sexually motivated serial killer in North America, Earle Nelson, whose terror spree encompassed the 1920’s.

Nelson might have also been one of the first of a long line of notorious killers to come out of the Bay Area/Sacramento Region of California. Having moved to Sacramento three years ago and living in Davis the last couple of years, the locations in Zodiac and landmarks in the documentary on the Golden State Killer are suddenly surprisingly familiar from day trips or even driving around the neighborhood. Earle travelled all over the country and ultimately into Canada sexually assaulting, murdering and mutilating landladies and not always a series of offenses that were always committed in the same order each time. Shadow of a Doubt kind of glosses over the heinousness of the crimes, seeming to focus more on the trophies that were taken while only alluding to the darker aspects of his crimes. The ugliness of the man comes out in a simmering monologue at the family dining table where he voices his displeasure for “greedy” woman having profited off the earnings of their deceased husbands and his belief that they don’t deserve to exist.

Zodiac and Memories of Murder

The other pair of movies focus much more on the pursuers of real life serial killers than the killers on the run. In fact, neither of the killers in question had been captured by the time of both films’ release. It is the very flawed investigators and sometimes their flawed techniques that are the themes of these movies. In the case of Memories of Murder, it is much more of a case of the investigators trusting flawed techniques like the belief that they can spot a killer by looking them in the eye. However, Zodiac is more of a case where the murders crossed jurisdictions, possible copycat murders, and people taking credit for things they couldn’t have done.

Zodiac was hardly director David Fincher’s only swing at a serial killer movie, Seven was a bit of a turning point in the directing style for him and his Netflix series Mindhunter which was a bit of a history of psychological profiling in the FBI and a few notable serial killers of the era. Many of his projects give the feel of being about serial killers or men with secret lives: Fight Club, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl all tread these lines and I believe House of Cards may have had a long series of murders that coincided with the political thriller.

Seven was Fincher’s first huge hit, earning more than $300 million world-wide, a mark his movies reached two other times with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Gone Girl. While Zodiac might have been the peak achievement of his interests, bit it was the only movie in his filmography released to theaters to make less than $100 million. Mank was only released on Netflix and didn’t show in any theaters due to the Covid-19 pandemic and relaxing of the Academy Awards qualifications to allow for streaming and releases into 2021, ultimately winning two Oscars from ten nominations.

The pieced together story of the Zodiac killer is as much of a puzzle as the cryptics he sent to newspapers and that is why this movie works so well. The concentration on the investigation creates so much more mystery as we never get more information than the journalists and investigators who were still unable to definitively slam the door shut on the case. The movie still brings us to believe that we have met the killer’s character within the movie. We don’t quite get that kind of partial resolution to Memories of Murder. We get pieces of clues, a body in a water runoff, a song request during every murder when it rains, and some suspects that look good for the crime, until they don’t. We seem to go further away from a resolution as the movie goes on and the film ends with one of the investigators years later having a missed connection with another man who had mysteriously visited the first crime scene and he looks into the camera searching the audience for the killer who was still at large.

While the Zodiac killer was never caught and it is seeming more and more through time that leads have been unreliable, the Memories of of Murder killer was caught in 2019. The DNA evidence of the Zodiac killer might have only muddled the leads, but this kind of evidence lead to a man who was already in prison for life for rape and murder. His DNA also lead to four more unsolved murders and the subsequent confession for the murders was accompanied with more than 30 more attacks in South Korea.

Movies of the Month

Letterboxd Review of Shadow of a Doubt

Letterboxd Review of Memories of Murder

Letterboxd Review of Zodiac


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