5 Terrifying Crime Films That Actually Happened

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There are plenty of crime films that straddle some scary territory: Serial killer suspense stories, “realistic” horror and a couple gangster-style stories with eerie elements. But even though Hollywood gets accused of slathering on the ultraviolence with a spatula, that’s often just what we want to believe to protect our nerves.

The facts are, plenty of these scary crime films are based on events that actually happened and that were way worse than what drew an R-rating on nationwide screens. They’re bloodier, creepier and far more random without a screenwriter sweating about “motivation” behind them.

Here are the 5 Terrifying Crime Films That Actually Happened, and the twisted events that never made it to the theaters.

5. The Strangers

The Creepy Fiction

A young couple in love goes to a cabin for a getaway, only to be set upon by a gang of masked nutbags, The Strangers. The masks start off just spooking the guy and gal by doing stuff like banging on the door and running away, but quickly up the ante to assault and battery.

They cut off the house from the outside world by wrecking the car, sabotaging the phone and wandering around, being freaky as crap. They set it up so that our hero kills off his best pal, Dennis from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. At last! And then, finally, they decide to wrap things up by tying up gal and guy and stabbing them to bits. When asked why they did it, our masked monsters reply simply, “Because you were home.”

The creeps then cruise off, vowing to do it again the next time they get bored.

The Creepier Fact

Creator of The Strangers, Bryan Bertino said in an interview with ShockTilYouDrop that the account of the Manson Family killings in true-crime classic, Helter Skelter was the core inspiration for the film. Helter Skelter tells of how an aging hippy with record contract dreams, Charles Manson, took way too many pills and convinced a bunch of teens with daddy issues to give a go at ending civilization by starting a race war. How would they start this race war? By random murder, of course.

Whether you buy into that apocalyptic back story or not, the fact of the Manson crimes is that members of Charlie’s family went on a brief blizzard of senseless butchery: They first broke into the “Tate House,” a home rented by director Roman Polanski and occupied by his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and three of her friends. As in The Strangers, they slaughtered them all with repeated stabbing. But unlike in The Strangers, they didn’t mess around with cutting phone lines or playing at Ding-Dong Ditch just to amp up the fear. No, the Manson kids got right down to it, smashing their way in, tying their random victims up and spending most of the time getting creative with taking them apart. They wrote in blood on the walls and set an LA homicide record with the number of times they could stab these people.

If that doesn’t sound similar enough to The Strangers, the internet agrees with you. Despite Bertino’s interview, commenters have pointed out similarities between the events in The Strangers and the Keddie Cabin killings of 1981. The big similarity is that the movie and the Keddie killings took place in a forested residential area. But beyond that, that’s about it—the Keddie killers went after a woman, her young son and his girlfriend. They used a claw hammer in addition to a steak knife. And, by all indications, they didn’t wear masks or play Ding-Dong Ditch either. They just tortured this woman and her kids to death for ten solid hours.

No, in the real world, the killers are just as random, but don’t give you two whole cinematic acts to run away from them. They just bust in and get to cutting.

 4. Psycho

The Creepy Fiction

In Psycho, Janet Leigh has just boosted a bunch of money from her unsavory employer and decides to stay at the Bates Motel while on the lam. The proprietor, Norman, holds the title of California’s Busiest Taxidermist and Owner of Most Evil Looking House, but he’s nice enough. At least until Janet decides to take a shower, and Norman puts on his mom’s Salvation Army uniform and stabs the bejeesus out of her in one of film history’s most famous scenes. Things go south for Norman from there, but he manages to wedge in the picturesque murder of a private detective before getting sent to the booby hatch.

Our closing scene finds Norman chatting away in his own head, in the voice of his mother who he killed and mummified. The moral of the story seems to be that serial-killing psychopaths can even seem as normal as Anthony Perkins. Which raises the question, if that were true, why have we not identified and locked up all the serial killers by now?

The Creepy Facts

Psycho is straight-up based off the novel, Psycho, by Robert Bloch. It’s a Hell of a read and it, too, was inspired by the unfortunately-not-fictional-at-all killer, Ed Gein.

Ed Gein, like Norman Bates, wasn’t much of a serial killer, having only killed two people. But what notoriety Gein lost in pure numbers, he made up for in style points.

Norman and Ed shared a similar perverse upbringing, with a mother that hammered home Biblical lore soaked in bloody accounts of death, murder and divine judgment. She picked on him—especially when it came to sex—and so did most of the Wisconsin community where he grew up. Ed’s psyche grew from ground teeming with hatred of women, obsession with loathsome sex and plenty of weird-ass pulp stories. Ed did love his adventure stories, especially when they were chockfull of lurid accounts of sweaty Amazons and ritual murder.

Grow that strange fruit in Ass-Nowhere, WI, and you get one bad apple: Gein started with raiding graves and then moved on to wasting any woman who caught his fancy. Just like Norman, Ed would preserve them, but he wasn’t satisfied with just wearing Ma’s old frock: Ed fashioned heaps of furniture, flatware and apparel from bits of female corpses. What he didn’t put to domestic use, he would just add to the décor, because crucified nude bodies and shrunken heads really help the tone of a room. He even made a full-on woman suit he could dance “naked” in.

Sound familiar? It should. Gein not only inspired Psycho, but Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well. Just goes to show that when it comes to attaining crime legendry, it’s quality, not quantity.

3. American Gangster

The Creepy Fiction

Our American Gangster, Frank Lucas, takes control of Harlem’s crime scene when his mentor, Bumpy Johnson, keels over from a heart attack. Frank then makes the Harlem crime scene as hip as the late-60s demand, raising an empire under a banner of fur hats and oversized jewelry. Soon, even the Five Families of the NYC mafia have to kiss each of his ten rings. In order to keep himself and his mistresses in the ocean of diamond-topped canes they need, Frank bribes the brains out of the NYPD and hauls in a fortune of heroin money from Indochina. That there’s a war going on in Indochina—a little dust-up called “the Vietnam conflict” you might’ve heard of—makes this even easier: Frank dreams up the morbid method of smuggling his heroin into Harlem by way of dead American soldiers’ coffins.

Now that’s patriotism, ladies and gentlemen.

The Creepier Facts

Like Frank Lucas’ skag, most of American Gangster is cut with bullshit. He was, without a doubt, in control of the Big Apple heroin monopoly at the time. And he did, indeed, do more for mink and chinchilla coats than any man before him. But it’s unlikely that he ever overshadowed the mafia in his criminal clout. Lucas had swagger to spare, but the notion of him as a New York City criminal napoleon is giving him too much credit.

What he can take credit for is the eeriest part of American Gangster—smuggling heroin alongside US Army corpses. Yes, the one part that most sounds like an urban legend is the part they didn’t have to exaggerate. Frank really did pack in kilos of horse with our noble fallen, making sure to choose a heavy body, “not a skinny guy,” because he didn’t want the contents sliding around.

And so, campers, tens of thousands of east coast heroin users got high off of slave-labor skag that had spent a week crammed against the dead body of a U.S. soldier wasted in a hopeless war effort. The late-60s were not our country’s proudest era.

2. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

The Creepy Fiction

Michael Rooker—also known as That Guy from Yeah, That Film—stars as the Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer title character, Henry, and in the nightmares of anybody who’s viewed this cult flick. From the opening shot of a naked, dead woman, to the closing sequence of a woman getting killed, Rooker is relentlessly creepy. The film starts off with Henry doing his stalking alone, but then he hooks up with a buddy named Otis and his sister, Becky. They are really, really into being shitty to one another and others, and so bringing Henry into the fold fits like a razor blade into a candy apple.

Henry and Otis then go on to kill people for a whole ton of reasons, some of which seem to be at least slightly logical, many of which are on a whim or to get their rocks off. But, as all such Devil-May-Care lifestyles inevitably end up, Otis rapes and tries to kill his sister, and Henry has to kill him to save her.

Henry then, it is suggested, rapes and kills Otis’ sister.

The Creepier Facts

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of those films were, even though it seems to be trying really damn hard to sicken you, doesn’t come close to how fucking abysmal reality was. So, if you want to be depressed all week, read on. Otherwise, skip to the next one—it’s about a Michael Mann movie.

Okay, so, first off, Michael Rooker is the spitting image of Henry Lee Lucas—the actual “Henry” of the film—or at least of his build and hair. With a drooping eye and a perpetual hobo scruff, Real Henry is like Rooker wearing a mask of expired pork.

The disparities get way worse from there.

Henry Lucas’ life achievements read like a grocery list of devil vomit: Even before he bailed on his abusive mother—after killing her—he had, by his own admission, tortured animals, had sex with animals, and strangled a teen girl. Afraid of taking the fall for killing his mom, Henry Lucas hit the road and learned what Carl Panzram did over years before: It’s hard for them to catch you if you keep moving.

Before the Texas cops nailed Henry Lee Lucas for unlawful firearm possession, he had been on a decades-long killing spree. They officially convicted him—and executed him—for 11 murders. He “cleared” 213 for law enforcement, meaning he’s been deemed officially responsible. He is believed, by the Task Force he helped close his many cases, to be responsible for 350. And the amount Henry himself claims is a record-smashing 600 victims.

As with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Lucas hooked up with a man who did for ugly what Einstein did for physics—Ottis Toole. But again, the film was gentle. The real Toole looks like a mask Tom Savini would throw out as too unrealistically vile. Better not to get started on Ottis’ many fucked up qualities: IQ of 75, seizures, incest, serial arson, sexual enslavement of his retarded cousin—the “Becky” in the film—are just a piece of the batshit pie.

Toole himself tragically inspired a shift in the course of crime TV, by killing Adam Walsh and leading Adam’s father, John Walsh to create America’s Most Wanted, launching modern true crime TV.

1. Heat

The Creepy Fiction

In Heat, a bunch of professional high-end bank robbers tire of their six-figure lifestyle and decide to go for The One Big Score. They form a team that’s better armed than your average Robotech squad, bristling with machineguns and body armor and Val Kilmer. Unfortunately, they forgot to include Tom Sizemore, and so things end in a bloody shootout that marches automatic weapons fire up and down the streets of Los Angeles. The main characters escape, but Al Pacino is on their trail. He plays a cop whose drinking, irascibility and broken marriage haunts him. So, naturally, law and order wins out and the lead bank robber dies in a visually stunning style at LAX.

But no need to fear, right? Bank robbers make up half of the entries in The Darwin Awards. They don’t really wield high-tech assault weaponry and heavy body armor.

The Creepy Facts

They do, actually. And in the case of Larry Philips, Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu, they brought it to LA’s streets in a way that was a hundred times more violent and deranged than Michael Mann dreamt up for Heat.

Philips and Mătăsăreanu’s doubling-down on Heat could be due to the movie coming out before they went on their G.I. Joe-style attack on Los Angeles banks. For a pair of down-and-out gym heads from Venice Beach—no split-level mountainside houses for these two, unlike DeNiro in Heat—they put a lot of thought and money into their plans. But to their credit for originality, Mătăsăreanu and Philips had already begun using radio scanners, IEDs and boatloads of rifle ammunition in their robberies a full two years before the film came out.

The big show in their career was in 1997, and Philips and Mătăsăreanu pulled out all the stops: They bought, modified and loaded their five assault rifles with no less than 3,300 rounds of ammo in box and drum magazines. They put on 40-pound full-body suits of armor that they’d personally reinforced with metal trauma plates over vital organs. And lastly, because they were veterans and had already been through the nerve-wracking shit of an armed robbery—and perhaps because neither wanted to flip out and thereby end up like Tom Sizemore—they took a load of Phenobarbital to settle their nerves.

Chemically induced cool, invincibility suits and major post-Soviet arsenal at the ready, Philips and Mătăsăreanu stormed the Bank of America in my old hometown of North Hollywood.

Say what you will about the LAPD, they were swarming the North Hollywood B of A within eight minutes—and without the aid of being tipped off by a plot-twist like in Heat. But did the two dozen squad cars and tactical helicopter support bother Philips and Mătăsăreanu? Hell no. Not chilling within a phenobarb groove and homemade power armor.

They just strolled out and blasted away. The firefight put about 650 rounds at the robbers, who returned over 1,100 at the law. Their getaway car didn’t survive nearly as long as they did, so they just hoofed it down the street, blazing away. The footage is a lot more alarming than Heat, with Philips and Mătăsăreanu ambling through the suburbs like kill-bots, until finally they toppled over from having more lead in their veins than blood: Philips was blasted so badly through both hands that he used his remaining fingers to blow his own head off. Mătăsăreanu was hit in the only place there were gaps in his armor—his shins—no less than 29 times, and bled out.

So the next time you drop by your local bank branch, don’t expect the worst that can happen is Val Kilmer with a slick suit and matching M16. The robber you have to face will probably be half as good looking, twice as high and ten times as well armed.

– originally published 11/1/2011

+Matthew Funk is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is the editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily and Full Stop. Winner of the Spinetingler award for Best Short Story on the Web 2010, M. C. Funk has been published at numerous sites online, indexed at his Web site, and in print with Needle Magazine, Howl, 6S and Crime Factory. He is represented by Stacia J. N. Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.