40 of the Best True Crime Movies That Made Us Cringe

Samantha Sutton | Feb 28, 2019 Movies
40 of the Best True Crime Movies That Made Us Cringe

Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling in All Good Things
Magnolia Pictures

The sign of a truly great movie? Well, if ya ask us, it's something that we end up forgetting is actually a movie -- where we can picture ourselves in the main character's shoes, and feel all of that raw emotion radiating off the screen.

Take Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born, for instance: If that whole are-they-or-aren't-they relationship drama has taught us anything, it's many people want to believe that what they're watching could possibly happen in real life. And while we're talking about love stories here, it's definitely not limited to that. We enjoy the suspense of a good action flick as well, and, on days when we want to be scared, we're looking for a horror film that will make us jump.

There have been a ton of films that are a little too realistic -- mainly, the ones based on events that really did occur. This time, in place of a big, spooky monster that may or may not keep us up at night, there's an evil, cold-blooded killer who could be out there right now, serving his (or her) prison sentence for the viscous crimes he (or she) committed.

(Just thinking about that fact makes us cringe.)

However, it's not just the bloody true-crime movies that we find disturbing -- yet, completely fascinating -- to watch. There are plenty of films about con artists, forgers, or thieves that are able to keep us on edge until the end, too, later make us wonder if what we watched really did go down.

Well, it did. 

And now, we're rounding up a list of 40 movies, based on actual events, that truly made our heads spin.

  • 'All Good Things'

    1

    Rated: R

    Those who've watched the docu-series The Jinx or know the story of accused murderer Robert Durst will likely find this film somewhat familiar. It's loosely based on one of the murder mysteries surrounding the real estate heir, where a man in a similar career and financial situation has a rocky relationship with his wife ... right before she disappears.

  • 'Changeling'

    2

    Rated: R

    The fact that single mother Christine Collins's son is missing is enough of a horror story on its own. Sadly, it gets worse when she's told he's been found. When she's reunited with a little boy, she knows that it's not her son, but the police try to convince her otherwise. 

    Surprisingly, Christine Collins is a real person.

  • 'Donnie Brasco'

    3

    Rated: R

    There are a ton of mafia movies out there, but it's important to remember that many of them are based on real people and known murderers. For instance, the Bannano crime family from this movie really did exist, and really was infiltrated by a former FBI agent, Joseph D. Pistone -- aka, Donnie Brasco, who's played by Johnny Depp -- to find out exactly what they were up to.

  • 'The Untouchables'

    4

    Rated: R

    Set during Prohibition, this movie focuses on another mob-related story: that of Al Capone. A federal agent by the name of Eliot Ness is on a mission to take him down, but he can't do it alone and is having trouble recruiting reliable help.

    ... that is, until he meets a veteran patrolman and puts together his own small team.

  • 'Bully'

    5

    Rating: R

    The title of this movie alone gives away a big hint about what to expect, but it's actually the bully that ends up becoming the victim. It tells the story of a group of teens who decided to murder their friend, Bobby Kent, after they became tired of him tormenting them.

  • 'Reversal of Fortune'

    6

    Rating: R

    Based on a book written by the lawyer from this case, Reversal of Fortune is about a husband who's accused of attempting to murder his wife, a wealthy billionaire named Sunny von Bulow. Glen Close plays Sunny, who slips into a coma after an insulin overdose.

  • 'Devil's Knot'

    7

    Rated: NR

    When three small town children are brutally murdered, it's a big mystery as to who did it. The police point the finger at three teens, who may have killed these kids as part of a Satanic ritual. But a mother, played by Reese Witherspoon, and an investigator, played by Colin Firth, are on a mission to uncover the truth.

  • 'Alpha Dog'

    8

    Rated: R

    The cast is full of major stars -- Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Bruce Willis, Emile Hirsch, and so many more -- but it's actually a pretty dark tale about drug dealers who end up holding someone's brother for ransom until they pay their debt. When they realize there could be legal repercussions for kidnapping, they decide to kill him.

  • 'The Wrong Man'

    9

    Rated: PG

    Sadly, things like this really do happen. Someone is falsely accused of committing a crime they didn't commit. (Needless to say, the situation ruins his whole life.) While this movie (and the case that it's based on) dates all the way back to 1950s, it's still as relevant as ever. In this particular film, a musician is said to have robbed an insurance company, but he is actually innocent.

  • 'American Hustle'

    10

    Rated: R

    Nominated for a ton of awards, and even winning a few Golden Globes, American Hustle was inspired by the FBI's Abscam case that took place in the '70s. The movie version has Amy Adams and Christian Bale (stars who love acting together) playing con artists who go undercover, helping to take down a corrupt New Jersey mayor.

  • '10 Rillington Place'

    11

    Rated: PG

    We don't know what's more horrifying: the fact that the film's main character, John Reginald Christie, murdered a whole bunch of people in the 1940s, or the fact that one half of a couple -- who mistakenly decided to trust him -- was later convicted and hung for a murder he didn't commit.

  • 'The Boston Strangler'

    12

    Rated: R

    Women in the Boston area keep turning up dead, having been raped and murdered by an unknown serial killer. Officer John Bottomly (Henry Fonda) is on a mission to catch them. All signs end up pointing to schizophrenic Albert DeSalvo, who, at first, denies he knows anything about the crimes. He later confesses after being put under hypnosis and interrogated.

  • 'Black Mass'

    13

    Rated: R

    Despite his brother being a state senator, Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) lives a life of crime. In the 1970s, the Boston-based Irishman is approached by the FBI to help fight and take down the mob. It ends up becoming an issue when the partnership leads to the criminal gaining even more power, and leads to him to become one of the most ruthless gangsters in history.

  • 'Dahmer'

    14

    Rated: R

    While the movie itself is fictional, the main character and the types of crimes he committed are not. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is played by Jeremy Renner, and we see how his past -- mainly a troubled childhood, a religious dad, and his homosexuality -- contributed to his current, murderous situation.

  • 'My Friend Dahmer'

    15

    Rated: R

    Yes, that's the same guy from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and in this case, he's definitely not Harvey Kinkle. Instead, Ross Lynch  plays Jeffrey Dahmer, only this time, we get a better look at the serial killer's awkward teenage years and all the signs that pointed to what he was about to become.

  • 'The Bling Ring'

    16

    Rated: R

    In many cases, the most cringe-inducing movies aren't even about murder and violent crimes. Rather, it's suspense and waiting for someone to get caught for a crime the audience knew was ill-fated from the very beginning. So is the case of The Bling Ring, where teens who are obsessed with the lives of the rich and famous decide to rob those same people.

  • 'Spotlight'

    17

    Rated: R

    Well, it didn't win best picture and best original screenplay at the 2016 Academy Awards for nothing. Spotlight was the true story of how a team of journalists from the Boston Globe investigated allegations against a priest who had been accused of child molestation, only to uncover a whole cover-up scandal within the Catholic Church.

  • 'Badlands'

    18

    Rated: PG

    A young Sissy Spacek playing a teen who falls for the bad boy? And the bad boy is being played by a young Martin Sheen? Yep, in 1973 this happened -- and it was dark. Things take a turn for this rebellious couple after they shoot the girl's father, and then end up on a killing spree.

  • 'Summer of Sam'

    19

    Rated: R

    In the summer of 1977, a New York City serial killer -- dubbed "Son of Sam" by the media -- was on the loose. In the movie, the crimes start to affect an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, so the mafia decides to get involved and catch the guy. It leads to suspicions about an aspiring punk rocker, played by Adrien Brody.

  • 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

    20

    Rated: R

    A more recent true crime movie, and, thankfully, this one is more of a dark comedy starring Melissa McCarthy. The Oscar-nominated actress plays a former best-selling celebrity biographer who begins forging letters from deceased public figures after she falls upon hard times.

  • 'Dog Day Afternoon'

    21

    Rated: R

    Al Pacino plays a guy who thinks it's a good idea to rob a bank in order to play for an operation for his lover. Unfortunately for him, things don't go as planned. For starters, the bank he chose doesn't have a lot of money, and soon, things spiral out of control.

    The whole thing turns into a hostage situation involving the media.

  • 'American Gangster'

    22

    Rated: R

    After he takes over as one of the city's leading crime bosses, Harlem's Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is smart enough to find himself ruling the inner-city drug trade and becomes a pretty powerful figure. But an outcast cop, who realizes that something is up, makes it his mission to bring him down.

  • 'Catch Me If You Can'

    23

    Rated: PG-13

    This Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks film is a classic, and while some parts seem unbelievable, it really did happen. Leo plays a conman -- err, teen -- and forger who managed to trick people into thinking he's actually a trained doctor, a lawyer, and an airline co-pilot. Tom is the FBI agent who's trying to catch him in the act.

  • 'Public Enemies'

    24

    Rated: R

    Sure, there were some parts that were made solely for the movie, but there actually was a wave of crime in the 1930s, as well as a bank-robbing gangster by the name of John Dillinger. He's played by Johnny Depp, while Christian Bale is the FBI agent who's assigned as the leader in trying to catch him once and for all.

  • 'Heavenly Creatures'

    25

    Rated: R

    Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet) are two teenage girls who become best friends after finding out that they enjoy many of the same things. This leads to them creating a fantasy world, Borovnia, which they pretend to live in and frequently talk about. However, their parents are concerned that things are getting too intense, and ultimately decide to separate the girls -- which has deadly consequences.

  • 'Savage Grace'

    26

    Rated: NR

    Julianne Moore plays Barbara Daly, a beautiful woman who marries a wealthy heir named Brooks Baekeland and has a son with him. Over the course of the film (and real life), the two experience marriage trouble, and their son struggles with mental illness and his sexual identity. There's an incestuous mother-son relationship, and the whole thing ends in murder.

  • 'An American Crime'

    27

    Rated: R

    The same year that we were all laughing with Ellen Page in Juno, the actress also took on a role that was ... well ... the exact opposite of that. In An American Crime, she plays a teenage girl who's held captive in the basement of the suburban wife who was supposed to be taking care of her. It was there that she was tortured and ultimately murdered.

  • 'Bronson'

    28

    Rated: R

    When his attempt to rob a post office results in a seven-year prison sentence, Michael Peterson begins attacking fellow inmates and guards while locked up, resulting in even more time behind bars -- including solitary confinement. He later becomes a bare-knuckle boxer and takes on the name "Charles Bronson" as an alter ego. 

    Surprisingly, there is some humor included here and there!

  • 'In Cold Blood'

    29

    Rated: R

    Based off Truman Capote's nonfiction novel of the same name, this movie is about two men, who were ex-convicts, who end up brutally murdering a family of four that they had intended on robbing. Now, they're on the run from police and have to come to terms with what they did.

  • 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

    30

    Rated: R

    Of course, one part of this film is Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill partying it up on Wall Street in the '80s, with a bunch of drugs and women. The other part is the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy stockbroker with his own firm that deceived people out of millions of dollars.

  • 'Bonnie and Clyde'

    31
    Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde photo
    Fotos International/Courtesy Getty Images

    Rated: R

    People may love dressing like these "characters" for Halloween, but let's not forget that Bonnie and Clyde were an actual couple, as well as actual criminals. In the movie version, Faye Dunaway plays Bonnie, a woman who gets mixed up with ex-con Clyde (Warren Beatty). The two set off on a crime spree that ranges from petty theft to full-on bank robberies -- and it ends in blood.

  • 'Lizzie'

    32

    Rated: R

    It flew a bit under-the-radar, but in 2018, Chloe Sevigny played Lizzie Borden, who was accused of being an ax murderer and killing her father and stepmother in 1892. The movie is meant to show her life in the days leading up to this horrific event, as well as her relationship with housemaid Bridget Sullivan, played by Kristen Stewart.

  • 'Goodfellas'

    33

    Rated: R

    It's one of the more famous mob movies out there and stars Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci. But in actuality, it's the on-screen adaption of a book called Wiseguy, which tells the story life of a real criminal Henry Hill, who was associated with the Lucchese crime family and later became an FBI informant.

  • 'Foxcatcher'

    34

    Rated: R

    A multimillionaire recruits two US Olympic wrestling champions for his own "Team Foxcatcher," where they'll live on his estate and train for the 1988 Olympic Games taking place in Seoul, South Korea. But things begin spiraling out of control, leading to drug use and self-destruction.

    And by the end of the movie -- and the true story -- one of them ends up dead.

  • 'I, Tonya'

    35

    Rated: R

    Another film about how the intensity of sports and Olympic training can lead to criminal acts. Here, we get into the back story of ice skater Tonya Harding, who would later make headlines and history by being connected to an attack on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan.

  • 'Love You to Death'

    36

    Rated: TV-14

    People are fascinated with the real-life story this Lifetime movie is based on, which is that of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother who, for years, pretended her daughter was sick. It later resulted in Gypsy killing her mom. 

    Hulu has also made a show on the story called The Act.

  • 'Monster'

    37

    Rated: R

    It's still hard to connect red-carpet-glam Charlize Theron with this role of a murderous prostitute named Aileen Wuornos. But we guess it proves how talented she is. After an altercation with a client (Aileen murders him), her life of killing doesn't end there. She goes on to murder even more men.

  • 'Party Monster'

    38

    Rated: R

    From Home Alone and Richie Rich to a party kid who turns deadly -- that's the range that Macaulay Culkin has had in his career. In Party Monster, he plays Michael Alig, a drug-addicted club promoter from NYC, who ultimately ends up killing his friend, bragging about it, and (unsurprisingly) going to prison.

  • 'The Frozen Ground'

    39

    Rated: R

    A serial killer has been attacking young women for 13 years, and now, an Alaska State Trooper (Nicolas Cage) is out to catch him before he's able to claim the life of yet another victim. Thankfully, a 17-year-old (played by Vanessa Hudgens) has managed to survive and escape the clutches of this madman. She provides key information to help the case.

  • 'Zodiac'

    40

    Rated: R

    One of the most famous serial killers in history, the Zodiac Killer terrorized the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and 1970s. Investigators and journalists are determined to get to the bottom of this, but even with all of the messages this evil mystery person left them -- in the form of cyphers and phone calls -- it remains unsolved to this day.

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