A harrowing real-life story can hit harder than any blood-soaked murder scene – we explore the most troubling accounts on film
Sometimes the “based on true events” splash at the beginning of a second-rate slasher film should be taken with a pinch of salt – or maybe a bucket. Other times, it's cutting uncomfortably close to the bone with stories you can barely believe are real.
July sees the UK-wide release of True Story, a harrowing film starring James Franco as Christian Longo, a seemingly ‘normal’ American man convicted of killing his wife and children. Before his arrest, he was tracked to Mexico where he was using the alias of Michael Finkel, a New York Times journalist who was booted from his job for fabricating interviews in a lead story. The forged identity brought the pair together and led to multiple visits, from which Finkel wrote his eponymous memoir.
It’s a warped, horrifying story of murder, lies and deceit, only made more shocking by the fact it’s all real. So, we’ve put together some of the most jaw-droppingly true-life films.
HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (2015)
This is a junkie love story that charts two young dope-eyed lovers, with Harley never looking any further than her next fix or validation from an apathetic boyfriend. In our feature last month, we learned that Arielle Holmes, who plays Harley, was found by director Josh Safdie when she was asking people on New York Diamond District’s streets for change. Her story of relationship struggles, shooting up and getting out intertwines – sometimes very painfully – with the film's protagonist.
THE BLING RING (2013)
“Let’s go to Paris’. I wanna rob,” pouts Nicki, a cigarette-toting Valley Girl with a circle of friends who have a penchant for burglarising the homes of the rich and famous. Sofia Coppola articulates the unmotivated lives of Calabasas teens who seek out what they want but can’t have from the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom, sometimes multiple times. The infamous Bling Ring, which included Pretty Wild TV star Alexis Neiers (or Nicki, in the film), was convicted for the theft of up to $3 million of stuff IRL.
THE BASKETBALL DIARIES (1995)
A muddy slide from potential basketball star to the depths of heroin addiction and prostitution, The Basketball Diaries is the stark retelling of poet Jim Carroll’s teenage diaries. Played by a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, Jim chronicles the trauma of a friend’s leukemia, drug-tainted teenage angst, the exploitation of teens by their basketball coach and a faraway dream of being a sports star.
ED WOOD (1994)
The usually brilliant and ghoulish collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp doesn’t disappoint in this black and white biopic of the cult filmmaker Ed Wood. Wood is the director behind teeth-sucking box office bombs like cross-dressing, cringey docudrama Glen or Glenda and sci-fi horror flop Bride of the Monster. On screen, Depp explores the filmmaker’s dips into cross-dressing, his infatuation with angora, relationships with Dolores Fuller and Kathy O’Hara, and the failing films he believed he “will be remembered for”. Unfortunately for Wood, they’re remembered for the wrong reasons.
CITY OF GOD (2002)
It’s a memorable export of Brazil’s, along with the book of the same name by writer Paulo Lins. In a drama that charts the skyrocketing of organised crime in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio De Janiero in the 60s to the 90s, most of the actors are actually residents of the local favelas. The damned if you do, damned if you don’t atmosphere of crime and debauchery festers in the favelas, with very few discovering a better life.
We know all too well how real and bloody school shootings are: Elephant takes place in the fictional Watt High School in Oregon, based on the Columbine Massacre in 1999, where 13 people died and 24 were injured. It’s the horror story that sparked debate on America’s gun laws, violence in video games, internet use and school bullying. Elephant, though positively received by critics, was controversial because of the fear it would encourage copycat attacks. It’s director Gus Van Sant’s second in his “Death Trilogy”, in which three films are based on actual deaths; this includes Gerry, featuring two lost hikers, and Last Days, based loosely on Kurt Cobain.
FRUITVALE STATION (2013)
Fruitvale Station is the story of a young African American man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and paid for that with his life. A young and charismatic Michael B. Jordan plays the 22-year-old Oscar Grant, a father of one, shot on New Year’s Day in 2009 after an altercation with trigger-happy cops. Filmed in 2013, it’s sad how poignant this true story still is.
PARTY MONSTER (2003)
This is the ultimate murder-in-clubland shocker, which rattled the 90s club kids and world press alike. Based on the Disco Bloodbath book by celebutante James St. James, Party Monster follows the coke-addled rise to fabulousness and the decline to rehab and murder conviction of Michael Alig. The party promoter was jailed in 1997 for murdering fellow club kid and drug dealer Angel Melendez in a drug debt exchange. Party Monster uncovers the darkness in the neon-tinted, sticky-floored havens of Palladium and the Limelight.
And you thought those dicks in year 10 were bad? Bully follows the real-life murder of teenager Bobby Kent, killed by friends he’d sent over the edge with his physical, mental and sexual abuse. Director Larry Clark uses an amoral lens to shine a light on youth crime and the hedonistic, violent tendencies of youth culture. Based on the book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze which documented the case, it’s a disturbing film that sits starkly beside the era’s glamourisation of American teenage life.
CHRISTIANE F–WE CHILDREN FROM BAHNHOF ZOO (1981)
A story originally told through tape recordings of teenager Christiane F, this film traces the buzzed-out drug scene in West Berlin in the 1970s. Christiane, a 14-year-old girl who loves David Bowie, begins visiting the newly emerging discothèques, and finds herself dabbling in LSD and pills. Before long, she accumulates friends with similar tendencies and burrows deeper into the seedy Bahnhof Zoo scene, finding solace in heroin. The addicts engage in sex work to feed habits, refill syringes from toilets and steal from family, none of them any older than 15.