Murder mysteries are a perennial favorite because not only is murder an unspeakable crime, not receiving closure by having the killer face justice can compound the horror. Plus, there’s a thrill in trying to piece together a coherent motive and suspect from mere scraps of evidence. From Agatha Christie novels—where everyone is so weird that everyone is a murder suspect—to James Ellroy’s murder mysteries set in noir-era Los Angeles, everyone enjoys the thrill of finding out whodunit.
What follows is a list of outstanding murder mysteries going all the way back to the Silent Era. Some may not be technically classified as horror, but the very act of murder is horrifying enough that we’ve included them.
Reprising his role as Detective Virgil Tibbs from the 1967 film classic In the Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier now finds himself working for the San Francisco police on a case involving a murdered prostitute. It soon becomes evident that the most likely suspect is a street preacher and local political activist named Reverend Logan Sharpe, who is agitating the local city council to provide funds for an urban renewal project. Although Sharpe admits to being with the prostitute shortly before her murder, he insists it was only in his role as a spiritual counselor. Other suspects soon emerge, but all the evidence points toward the preacher, who finds a unique way to escape prosecution right before the crucial local election.
In high school, Ginny Wainwright was a shy girl who desperately wanted to belong to an exclusive clique known as the “Top Ten” but who was traumatized after all the people she invited to a birthday party wound up going to a more popular girl’s party instead. Enraged by this, Ginny’s mother confronted the other girl’s parents but died in a car crash on the way home. Now, ten years later and after experiencing an experimental brain surgery, Ginny finds herself one of the cool kids in the “Top Ten”—but she’s perplexed as to why they keep dying. This is possibly the only horror movie you’ll ever see where someone gets murdered with a kebab skewer being shoved down their throat.
In the first of what would become a movie franchise, a shy girl named Angela goes to summer camp along with her cousin. In what becomes too common to be a coincidence, anyone who disrespects Angela winds up dead. One man gets trapped in a bathroom stall and has an entire beehive dropped on him. Someone else gets stabbed to death while taking a shower. A woman gets raped and murdered with a hot curling iron. But the only thing that makes Sleepaway Camp different from the scores of other camper/slasher movies of the 1980s is its shocking, gender-bending ending. The film was highly profitable, making back over 30 times its production costs.
In one of three horror movies made in 1986 that took place on April Fool’s Day—the other two were Slaughter High and Killer Party—a rich debutante named Muffy invites a group of friends to enjoy spring break at her island mansion. At first it seems as if she’s playing some innocent pranks on the partygoers—a whoopee cushion here, an exploding cigar there—suddenly people start going missing. And suddenly the survivors realize that they can’t contact the mainland and are stuck on the island for the weekend. And is that actually Muffy who’s hosting the party, or is it her crazy sister Buffy?
This is not only the third film in history to win all top five Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay—it is also the only horror film ever to win Best Picture. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is an FBI trainee seeking to solve the case of an autogynephilic serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” who removes the skin of his young female victims in what is thought to be an attempt to make a “woman suit.” Starling seeks the help of an imprisoned cannibal killer named Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), a former psychiatrist and expert in criminal profiling. The story was based on the real-life relationship between Ted Bundy and a profile named Robert Keppel, who sought Bundy’s help in trying to solve the Green River Killer case.
A New York psychiatrist (Bruce Willis) becomes depressed and starts to doubt his career path after a patient jumps from his office window and commits suicide during a session. Upon viewing his victim’s bloody green dress, he suddenly develops psychosomatic color blindness and is no longer able to see the color red. He travels to LA and stays with a friend, who is soon murdered. After his friend’s death, he assumes command of a therapy group whose eccentricities—one is a nymphomaniac, one has OCD, one is a PTSD-addled ex-cop, one paints gory images, and one is a drug addict—makes them all likely murder suspects. He also starts to realize that someone is trying to kill him, too.
A massacre onboard a ship docked in San Pedro Bay, CA left 27 people dead and two survivors: a Hungarian mobster and a a palsied con artist named Verbal Kint. A US Customs agent flies to California to interview the con artist, who recalls the events leading up to the massacre via flashback. Or is he making it all up, and is this Verbal Kint’s latest con? Kevin Spacey won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for playing Verbal Kint, a role that was written with him in mind. The Washington Post called the film “deliciously intricate,” adding that “this thriller is like a game of life-and-death chess, with quick double-crosses and wild gambits.”
In this massively successful sendup of horror-movie tropes, the twist is that the murderer kills people who can’t answer questions about horror movies correctly. He first targets a high-school student named Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) by calling her only a year after her mother was murdered, telling her that he’s kidnapped her boyfriend and will kill him if she gets any answers to his horror-movie questions wrong. When she gets one wrong, he kills her boyfriend. When she refuses to keep answering any more questions, a mysterious killer appears out of nowhere and kills her. The tropes that the film exploited were the one where you will get killed in a horror movie if you have sex, drink, or do drugs; you will also never return if you say, “I’ll be right back.”
A DC-based detective named Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) visits North Carolina after his niece is reported missing. He soon learns that she is only one of many girls in the area who’ve gone missing. The kidnapper is a man who calls himself Casanova and keeps several women chained in his house. The film was banned in central Virginia at the time of its release because the case in the movie resembled a real-life case of a serial murderer of young girls who was actively terrorizing the area at the time of the film’s release. SFGATE praised Morgan Freeman’s performance, adding, “The film is atmospherically disturbing, with much of the key action set in deep woods where shadows come alive. A kind of paranoia is added through the use of hand-held cameras during chase sequences. The blur adds cheap thrills of a disconcerting kind.”
A serial killer preys on university students using a unique method—every one of his murders resembles what people normally associate with urban legends. A couple are parked in a remote area kissing but are interrupted by strange noises. After the boyfriend gets out to investigate, he is murdered and hanged from a tree above the car, where his feet begin making scratching noises against the car. Two girls attempt to invoke “Bloody Mary,” with disastrous results. Gangs drive around with their headlights off and kill the first person who flashes their headlights at them. A woman gets decapitated by a murderer who’d been hiding in the backseat, etc. One enterprising college student begins to investigate after realizing that all of the slayings are patterned after famous urban legends.
A Vermont housewife’s husband, a university scientist, is skeptical that his wife Claire is having supernatural experiences as she claims. She says her bathtub suddenly filled with hot water and the words “YOU KNOW” were scrawled on the mirror after she conducted a seance. Claire says her computer keeps typing the initials “MEF” on her keyboard—then she finds a picture of a woman named Madison Elizabeth Frank (initials “MEF”) who is her doppelgänger. Claire begins to suspect that her own husband—the alleged skeptic—may be not only be behind all this supernatural activity, but he may be a murderer.
In the midst of an atypically vicious rainstorm in the Nevada desert, ten strangers find themselves stranded together in a remote motel. Both ends of the road are entirely flooded, so they are stuck together. And then they start getting killed, one by one. But is this what’s actually happening, or does a convicted killer who suffers from multiple personality disorder have an overactive imagination? Roger Ebert praised the film: “I’ve seen a lot of movies that are intriguing for the first two acts and then go on autopilot with a formula ending. Identity is a rarity, a movie that seems to be on autopilot for the first two acts and then reveals that it was not, with a third act that causes us to rethink everything that has gone before.”
Directed by Clint Eastwood and set in a working-class Irish area of Boston, Mystic River stars Sean Penn in an Academy Award-winning performance as Jimmy Marcus, an ex-con whose daughter is murdered. One of his childhood friends (Kevin Bacon) is leading the murder investigation, while another (Tim Robbins) gradually becomes the prime suspect, at least in Jimmy’s eyes. Roger Ebert praised the film, calling it “a dark, ominous brooding about a crime in the present that is emotionally linked to a crime in the past.”
Reporter Rowena Price (Halle Berry) is investigating a homophobic senator (Bruce Willis) on suspicion of having sex with his male interns. In the course of her investigation, she begins to suspect that the senator also killed her childhood friend. Perfect Stranger was filmed with three different endings, each with a different killer. Although this marked the first time Bruce Willis and Halle Berry had starred in a film together since 1991’s The Last Boy Scout, NPR panned the film, calling it “deeply imperfect.”
In what is essentially a slasher-movie take on the film Groundhog Day, a college student finds herself stuck in a “time loop” where she keeps waking up with a hangover on the morning of her birthday in the bed of a boy named Carter. But at the end of each day, she keeps getting murdered. Even after barricading herself in her dorm room to avoid another repeat, she finds that the killer is already inside, and he kills her again. She is told that if she successfully identifies the killer during the next loop, she will break free of the cycle and return to life. South China Morning Post says, “Some shocks, some wild fights and some effective twists make this ripping fun.”
A wealthy octogenarian crime novelist named Harlan Thrombey invites family members to his mansion for his birthday party, only for him to wind up dead the next morning. Although it was originally ruled a suicide, the uncomfortable fact is that his relationships with his relatives were toxic, and several of them had a reasonable motive to kill him: There’s the son-in-law who’s cheating on Harlan’s daughter; the son whom he fired from his book company; the daughter-in-law whose allowance he terminated after he caught her stealing; and the grandson with whom he recently clashed physically. Or maybe it was an innocent but fatal accident made by his nurse?
Technically more of a psychological thriller revolving around infidelity and high-priced jewels, this film is often classified as a murder mystery… spoiler ahead…. because two of the main characters get murdered in the end. The only real “mystery” is whether those who wind up getting murdered would have thought it was all worth it in the end. Uncut Gems appeared on many “Best Of” lists for 2019, and lead actor Adam Sandler, known mostly for goofy comedies received special praise for his adept handling of a complex dramatic role.
More murder mystery movies:
- Chamber of Horrors (1940) was originally released in England as The Door with Seven Locks and revolves around a murder plot involving hidden jewels.
- The Night Has Eyes (1942) a woman looking to solve her friend’s murder unwittingly takes up residence with the man who may be the killer.
- Green for Danger (1946) was a man’s death during an operation accidental or intentional?
- The House in the Woods (1957) a man writing a murder mystery accidentally stumbles upon a real-life murder.
- Death is a Woman (1966) a drug-smuggling investigation turns into a murder investigation.
- The Carey Treatment (1972) a doctor winds up investigating a murder case at his own hospital.
- Black Christmas (1974) a mysterious stranger stalks sorority girls during their Christmas break.
- The Devil’s Eye (1975) a mysterious killer has a penchant for plucking out his victim’s eyeballs.
- The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1977) a killer terrorizes an Arkansas town.
- Prom Night (1980) teenagers at a prom are stalked by a masked killer.
- My Bloody Valentine (1981) a killer warns townsfolk to never throw a Valentine’s party again; they throw it anyway.
- Still of the Night (1982) is a murder mystery that’s set among the world of New York’s antique brokers.
- I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) four friends cover up a murder, only to realize someone knows their secret.
- The Faculty (1998) aliens are suspected when teachers and students start disappearing at a local high school.
- The Bone Collector (1999) a paralyzed ex-detective helps track down a New York City serial killer.
- Cherry Falls (1999) a murderer is killing virgins in a small town.
- Valentine (2001) someone is stalking women as they get ready to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
- Cry Wolf (2005) pranks get out of hand among a group of high-school seniors at a boarding school.
- Zodiac (2007) a cartoonist attempts to find San Francisco’s infamous Zodiac Killer.
- Sorority Row (2009) sorority sisters who attempt to cover up an accidental death find themselves stalked by a killer.
- Detention (2012) a killer stalks a high school, but it may not be human.
- The Awakening (2012) a skeptic attempts to debunk rumors of a ghost haunting, only to find far more than she’d bargained for.
- I, Anna (2012) a man is clubbed to death, and mystery ensues.
- You’re Next (2013) a hail of crossbow arrows interrupts a rural family reunion.
- Murder on the Orient Express (2017) a detective who is en route London to solve a murder case is confronted with a murder on the train he’s taking.
- Knife+Heart (2018) this murder mystery with a soundtrack from M83 deals with a murder mystery on a gay porno shoot.
- I See You (2019) is a little boy’s disappearance linked to a previous string of abductions?
- Murder Mystery (2019) this Netflix original movie is by no means a horror movie, but it is a whimsical take on murder mysteries with a lot of action.