When we watch a film that was based on true events, it tends to make it an all-around more impactful movie experience. However, when a film is disturbing due to its graphic nature or tells a downright unbelievable story, to find out that it was originally inspired by true events can be truly shocking. From Zodiac to Black Mass, here’s a list of crime films that you won’t believe are based on real events.
Zodiac was a film screenplay by James Vanderbilt that is based on the 1986 non-fiction novel of the same name by Robert Graysmith. Both the novel as well as the film tell the story of the manhunt for a notorious serial killer that called himself the “Zodiac” and committed several murders around the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960s and 70s. He was known for taunting the police with letters, blood-stained clothing, and ciphers mailed to the newspapers. The culprit was never caught and this has remained one of the United States most infamous unsolved crimes. In order to make the film, the director, writer, and producer spent more than a year researching and investigating the murders. You won’t believe the story that inspired the Texas Chainsaw Massacre!
Alpha Dog (2006)
Alpha Dog was directed by Nick Cassavetes and released as a crime film drama in 2006. The film features actors such as Bruce Willis, Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Olivia Wilde and is based on the true story of the kidnapping and murder of Nicholas Markowitz in 2000. Although the names have been changed, the story focuses on a gang that kidnaps a small-time drug dealer’s younger step-brother as a ransom for a $1,200 debt. Even though the younger brother has been kidnapped, he befriends the kidnappers and feels he has become part of the group until the end when the gang goes past the point of no return. They then drive him to a pre-dug grave where he is shot multiple times and killed.
Wonderland is a 2003 film starring Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Dylan McDermott, Carrie Fisher and more. Co-written and directed by James Cox, it is based on the real-life unsolved “Wonderland Murders” that occurred in Los Angeles in 1981 in which pornographic film star John Holmes and two others were suspected of committing four grisly murders in an apartment on Wonderland Ave in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. The film received mixed reviews with critic Roger Ebert noting that “True crime procedurals can have a certain fascination, but not when they’re jumbled glimpses of what or what might not have happened involving a lot of empty people whose claim to fame is that they’re dead.”
Directed by Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas is an adaptation of the 1986 non-fiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi who also helped Scorcese co-write the script from the film. Goodfellas is regarded as one of the best crime films of the genre because of the acting, storytelling, and it doesn’t hurt that Henry Hill was a real New York City mobster who the protagonist of the film is based on. Henry Hill was associated with the Lucchese crime family from 1955 to 1980 until he became an FBI informant, which led to the conviction of 50 individuals including the mob capo Paul Vario and James Burke.
The Bling Ring (2013)
The Bling Ring is a 2013 satirical crime film written, directed, and produced by Sofia Coppola. The cast included popular actors and actresses such as Emma Watson and Israel Broussard. The film is based on the Variety article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” about the real-life gang Bling Ring. The Bling Ring gang were a group of convicted thieves consisting of eight teenagers and young adults around Calabasas, Ca who robbed the homes of numerous celebrities over the course of the year. They managed to steal over $3 million in cash as well as countless expensive belongings.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a horror film that shocked the world upon its release in 1974. If the gore and realism of the film weren’t scary enough, what’s worse is that it’s based on the crimes of the real-life murderer of Ed Gein. Gein was a murderer and body snatcher in the 20th Century in Plainfield, Wisconsin. He gained notoriety after he was discovered to have taken bodies from graveyards as well as his victims and kept parts as trophies. In his house, it was discovered that he had human skulls for bowls, masks made of flesh, leggings made from human skin, a belt from human nipples and more. He was found to be unfit for trial and died at 77 in a mental health institution. See what film was based on a famous hitman that killed over 100 people without his family ever knowing.
Monster is an autobiographical crime drama written and directed by Patty Jenkins. The film follows the true story of Aileen Carol Wuornos Pralle who was a serial killer who murdered seven men between 1989 and 1990 by shooting them at point-blank range. She claimed that her victims had either raped her or attempted to during her time working as a prostitute and that all murders were done in self-defense. She was convicted and sentenced to death for six of the murders and was executed by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.
Wizard of Lies (2017)
Wizard of Lies is an American television drama film directed by Barry Levinson and written by Sam Levinson and John Burnham Schwartz. Starring Robert DeNiro, the film follows the actions and life of businessman Bernie Madoff, who was the admitted operator of a Ponzi scheme that is considered the largest financial fraud in United States history. Prosecutors estimated that the size of the fraud was around $64.8 billion, based on the accounts of Madoff’s 4,800 clients in 2008. In 2009, Madoff pleaded guilty to 11 federal felonies and was sentenced to 150 years in prison — the maximum allowed.
The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013)
Martin Scorcese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street is technically categorized as an American biographical black comedy and crime film. It is biographical because it is based on the memoir of a man named Jordan Belfort whose nickname was the “wolf of Wall Street.” He was the real person that the same character played by Leonardo DiCaprio was based on. The film focuses on Belfort’s more than a questionable career as a stockbroker in New York City, and how his firm Stratton Oakmont engaged in corruption, which eventually led to his ultimate downfall. The Wolf of Wall Street has been described as being over-the-top but actually manages to follow the events of the true story relatively well.
American Gangster (2007)
In American Gangster, Denzel Washington depicts the character of Frank Lucas, a criminal mastermind that runs a massive drug ring in Harlem. As it turns out, Frank Lucas and his heroin drug ring actually existed. Lucas made a major profit on the heroin he imported from Southeast Asia, yet having it transported back into the US in the caskets of dead Vietnam soldiers is said to be an embellishment. At the end of the film, Lucas’ character is made out to be a major informer on crooked cops in the city and other drug dealers once he was caught. However, Lucas has denied that this happened as well. But other than that Lucas’ success and ruthlessness are based in reality.
The Black Dahlia (2006)
The Black Dahlia was released in 2006 as a French-American neo-noir film. Although most of the film is fictional, it is based on the true story of the murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947. After her death, Short was later known as “the Black Dahlia” who was an American woman found murdered in Leimert Park in Los Angeles. Her murder became so well-known due to the graphic nature of her slaying which included severe mutilation of her body, which was severed at the waist. It is this murder that is the inspiration for this film although the rest is based essentially entirely on fiction.
The Iceman (2012)
The Iceman is based on the true story of the longtime notorious hitman named Richard Kuklinski. Originally, he was convicted of only murdering five individuals but he later claimed that he had killed over 100 men. During his decades as a contract killer, he managed to keep the secret from his wife and kids up until his capture. Although not always discussed in the true story, the film alludes to his behavior possibly stemming from his abusive childhood on both of his parent’s parts as well as his increasing sloppiness that eventually led to his capture in 1986. In 2006 he died in prison at the age of 70.
Bronson is a 2008 British fictionalized biographical crime film that follows the life of the prisoner Michael Gordon Peterson, who was renamed as Charles Bronson during his time in prison. Although much of the film is fictionalized with some comical and horror aspects, Bronson was a real British prisoner who was known for his violent antics and is who the film was based on and named after. Bronson was originally born into a respectable middle-class family, yet ended up becoming one of the United Kingdom’s most dangerous criminals — spending essentially his entire adult life in solitary confinement.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Catch Me If You Can follows the story of a young man named Frank Abagnale that used his cunning to become a con man that ended up making millions forging checks while also posing as a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. He successfully did this until he was eventually tracked down by a devoted FBI agent and captured. While this movie may seem to be too far-fetched to be possible, it’s based on the story of the real Frank Abagnale who actually did just what the movie portrays. He even ended up becoming an FBI advisor to help stop fraud just like the main character in Catch Me If You Can. Pretty impressive.
Black Mass (2015)
Released in 2015, Black Mass is about a major Irish crime boss named James “Whitey” Bulger who was known for his violent crimes in South Boston during the 1970s. He later then went on to become an FBI informant to take down a rival mafia family that was invading his territory. As it turns out, the film is based on a 2001 book of the same name inspired by the true events of Whitey Bulger, the leader of Boston Winter Hill Game and South Boston’s most infamous violent criminal in history. It is noted that the film sticks close to the facts and embellishes or fictionalizes little to nothing about the true story.
Blue Caprice (2013)
Blue Caprice is a film based on the real crimes of teenager Lee Boyd Malvo and his father figure John Allen Muhammad. The two terrorized the Washington D.C area for a week as they went on a shooting spree known as the Beltway sniper attacks of 2002. Together, the two killed 10 and wounded numerous others. They would drive around in a blue Chevrolet Caprice and shot at random people on the street using a sniper rifle out of the back. After being caught, Malvo is currently serving numerous consecutive life sentences. Muhammad was executed in 2009.
Bully is a psychological crime drama that was based on the book Bully: A Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze. Exactly as the book was, the film is based on the 1993 murder of Bobby Kent. The plot follows the true story of several young adults in South Florida who executed a murder plan against a mutual friend that has emotionally, physically, and sexually abused them for years. Although the film leaves out much of what actually happened, the main premise of Kent’s murder by the friends is based in reality. All seven of the killers were prosecuted and received various sentences based on their participation in the crime.
Bernie is a black comedy film based on the 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Hollandsworth titled “Midnight in the Gardens of East Texas”. The article tells the true story of Bernie Tiede, a simple, loving, and unsuspecting man who murders a much older millionaire-widow after they had befriended each other. After her body is discovered, the townspeople continued to support Bernie even after he confessed to the crime (which happened in reality as well). After the movie was released, Tiede was released from prison after 17 years based on evidence that he’s been abused as a child and the killing was tied to the widow’s controlling and somewhat abusive relationship with him.
Blow tells the story of a young and ambitious drug dealer who managed to establish the original American cocaine market in the 1970s. The film is based on the novel Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellin Cartel and Lost it All which discusses the real-life events of a man named George Jung, as well as Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder Rivas (Diego Delgado in the film) and the Medellin Cartel. It shows Jung’s rise through the ranks in the drug industry until he became one of the major cocaine dealers in the United States during the 1970s and 80s. It also portrays his ultimate downfall.
An American Crime (2007)
Released in 2007, An American Crime focuses on the story of a young girl named Sylvia and her younger sister who are allowed to stay at a new friend’s house while their parents go to work on the carnival circuit. However, in a series of events, the mother who they are staying with ends up locking Sylvia up and allowing the neighborhood kids repeatedly torture Sylvia up until her death. She also participated in Sylvia’s torture and murder. The story is based on the true events of the murder of Sylvia Likens by housewife Gertrude Baniszeski. As if the film isn’t disturbing enough, knowing it was based on actual events makes it even more difficult to watch.