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Darkness in the City of Angels: Movies Based on Los Angeles True Crimes

The City of Angels…and demons.

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  • Photo Credit: American Zoetrope/FilmNation Entertainment/NALA Films

For a city whose main exports seem to be sunshine and glamour, Los Angeles boasts a surprising number of sordid true crime tales, many of which bleed over into the world of cinema.

From the theft of the very land on which the city is built and the water that sustains it to the deliciously dark deeds that defined film noir, LA is positively infected by the spirit of violence, chaos, and crime. 

That's not to say that Los Angeles is without its charms. Its natural beauty, the excitement of the entertainment industry, the city’s many hidden gems (from members-only magic clubs to password-protected speakeasies), and—of course—the weather continue to attract dreamers from all over the world.

Unfortunately, some learn the hard way that LA is more than a movie set, and there are stories woven into the fabric of this town that you'll never hear on any backlot tour. 

But perhaps it's not surprising that a city so sunny also has its share of shadows; after all, any place that dares to deem itself the City of Angels is sure to attract a few devils too.

If you’re ready to take a trip through LA’s seedy underbelly, check out these cinematic offerings based on some of the city’s most famous true crimes: 

The Black Dahlia

The 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short has all the elements of a truly captivating tragedy: A beautiful victim with dreams of the silver screen meets a deeply gruesome end — and her murder remains unsolved to this day, although there’s been no shortage of sleuths who have pointed fingers at possible suspects ranging from Orson Welles to their own fathers. 

James Ellroy, who has made a career of drawing readers into LA’s darkest corners, wrote the novel on which this Brian De Palma-directed neo-noir is based.

While it lacks the panache of other Ellroy adaptations, like 1997’s superlative L.A. Confidential, this is still worth a watch for those who find themselves ensnared by the Dahlia’s hypnotic allure. 


LA’s canyons are undeniably beautiful, but they can also be deeply sinister.

Case in point: While Laurel Canyon gained fame as a creative enclave in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it had a very different reputation by 1981, when porn star John Holmes (played here by Val Kilmer) found himself a suspect in the grisly bludgeoning deaths of four people in a canyon drug den.

While Holmes was eventually acquitted, this film offers a twisting account of how the murders may have gone down. If the denouement of Boogie Nights wasn’t dark enough for you, throw this on as a pitch-black requiem for the violent end of LA’s golden age of sex, drugs, and disco. 

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

No examination of true crime in LA would be complete without a mention of the Manson Family, and specifically their most evil and infamous two-night crime spree: The Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969.

Followers of would-be guru Charles Manson slaughtered seven people, including the beautiful movie star Sharon Tate, who was nine months pregnant at the time of her murder.

Quentin Tarantino puts his own unique twist on the Manson murders in this film starring Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio by reimagining the entire evening as a bloody revenge fantasy; pre-Barbie Margot Robbie brings a sweetness, strength and vulnerability to her portrayal of Tate.

The Cat’s Meow

Lest you think LA murder mysteries involving the rich and powerful are a recent development, here’s a film that throws things back a hundred years, to the suspicious 1924 death of Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) that occurred on the yacht of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

While Ince’s official cause of death was listed as heart failure, some suspect that Hearst himself may have murdered Ince in a jealous rage after catching the doomed filmmaker with his beloved mistress, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst).

Underseen and underrated, this movie will scratch any itch you may have for chin-grazing bobs and beaded drop waist flapper dresses—not to mention century-old conspiracy theories. 


Angelina Jolie stars as Christine Collins, a mother convinced that the missing son returned to her by the LAPD is not, in fact, her child.

When she raises the alarm, she is lambasted in the press, and eventually institutionalized—but is her son still alive somewhere? Or was he a victim of the Wineville Chicken Coop murders, in which several young boys were abducted, imprisoned, and killed by a farmer in nearby Mira Loma?

This grim tale serves as a timely reminder that women should be listened to and believed, not dismissed as hysterical. 

American Horror Story: Hotel

The fifth season of Ryan Murphy’s fan-favorite horror anthology series is set entirely at a fictionalized version of downtown LA’s Cecil Hotel (a locale that’s been called cursed due to its decades of murders, suicides, and disappearances), and sees many of the city’s most famous former citizens—from silent film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino to Satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. the Night Stalker—make memorable appearances.

Stylish, violent, and unapologetically over-the-top, this season has all of the hallmarks of peak AHS, and the anthology format means you don’t have to watch the first four seasons before you check into this Hotel

The Bling Ring

After all that bloodshed, why not end on a lighter note with a little grand larceny, teenybopper-style?

Sofia Coppola, with her penchant for telling stories about the beautiful, privileged, and bored, is a natural fit to direct this film about a group of vapid Valley kids, their brains addled by pop culture and capitalism, who decide to rob the homes of the rich and famous. Repeatedly. Brazenly.

And none too skillfully. Prison time may or may not be in the cards, but parlaying their crimes into certain fame? Now that’s a true Hollywood ending.