Summer technically isn’t over in the calendar sense, but for most of us, summer is considered evaporated as soon as school is back in session. Even if school is a thing of the past for you, there’s still that lingering ghost of back-to-school season that comes back to haunt you every time September begins again.
There’s no shortage of movies set on high school and college campuses, so for back-to-school season, I’m narrowing the focus. These movies visit horrors of starting a fresh year at school — whether it’s coming back to familiar hallways after a summer away or transferring to a new school in the middle of the year.
10. The Substitute (2007)
Basically, The Subsitute is The Faculty for middle schoolers. This movie takes us to a Danish grade school where sixth-grade class is convinced that their substitute teacher is actually an alien who has come to Earth to collect human specimens. When their parents don’t believe them, they do what kids in movies do: they take matters into their own hands. The American dub is weirdly rated R (for language), but most would probably consider The Substitute to be more of a light horror romp for the whole family.
9. The Moth Diaries (2011)
Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is looking forward to the best year ever at boarding school with her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon), but her plans are ruined when a new girl arrives and steals her best friend away. The Moth Diaries is an atmospheric exploration of toxic friendships and Rebecca‘s obsession with new girl Ernessa (Lily Cole). Is Ernessa a vampire or is Rebecca just getting carried away over the loss of her friend?
The Moth Diaries is adapted from a book by Rachel Klein that focuses more on the claustrophobia of being trapped and isolated at a boarding school with the same people every day. If you’ve never heard of this book or this movie, it’s because its target audience was still deep into Twilight at the time.
8. Alena (2015)
Alena (Amalia Holm) is a poor kid transferring midterm from public school to an affluent boarding school. Alena just wants to keep her head down and play lacrosse, but her status makes her a quick target for predatory bully Filippa (Molly Nutley) and her crew of followers. Alena has a sum total of one friend at her new school, cool girl Fabienne (Felice Jankel) and one defender from her former life, Josefin (Rebecka Nyman) who is all-too-ready to stand up for Alena when Alena won’t do it for herself. The trouble with Josefin is that she protects her friend with violent excess.
7. Phenomena (1985)
Being the new kid in the middle of the school year is tough. It’s tougher when a) your dad is the celebrity that every girl your age has a crush on; and b) you can’t seem to stop sleepwalking around your boarding school; and c) you have a psychic link with bugs AND the serial killer who’s been picking off your classmates. Director Dario Argento is no stranger to the new-girl-at-a-boarding-school trope, but at least Suspiria‘s Susie Bannion (Jessica Harper) made some friends fast enough. Depending on the version you watch, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) eats baby food and explains that it’s because she’s a vegetarian. The sheen of her father’s celebrity and her undeniably pretty face aren’t enough to save her from being insta-labelled the Weird Kid.
6. The Woods (2006)
Heather (Agnes Bruckner)’s transfer to a new school is a punishment. Falburn Academy is alarmingly interested in Heather despite her bad attitude, and it soon becomes clear that this is one situation where it is not a good thing to be singled out as a “gifted” student. Being gifted means weird tests, abductions, and strange vines, tree roots, and fog that creep into your bedroom at night.
5. Mirror, Mirror (1990)
Megan (Rainbow Harvest) is a shy goth girl out of her element when her mom uproots her from L.A. and moves her to a new town in Iowa. Despite making some genuinely nice friends on her first day, Megan does become the target of the class bully and popular girl Charleen (Charlie Spradling). Luckily, Megan‘s new bedroom came with a demonically-haunted mirror that will grant her whatever wish her little teenaged heart desires.
Mirror, Mirror feels like an overly drawn out episode of The X-Files and Megan feels a little too obviously styled after Lydia Deetz. But there is some real earnestness to the movie that channels the tyranny of high school popularity contests and what it feels like to try to find your identity and fit in at a new school where everyone else already seems to know where they’re supposed to fit.
4. All Cheerleaders Die (2013)
How do you come back to school when your last school year ended with your best friend dying in a freak cheerleading accident? If you’re Mäddy (Caitlin Stasey), you might decide to join the cheerleading team to seek out personal revenge against your dead best friend’s ex-boyfriend. But revenge plans can sour quickly, especially when death, witchcraft, and a spurned ex-girlfriend leaves Mäddy and frenemies as undead beings hungry for blood.
3. The Craft (1996)
Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) is a troubled teen witch at a brand new school. Once she hears rumours of other student witches at her school, what else can she do but befriend them and round out their coven. The Craft is a cult classic for good reason. It’s a sort-of celebration of nonconformity and bucking against systems that make high school hell, balanced by the elementary fact that teen witches are still first and foremost teens and are prone to making truly shortsighted decisions. Even powerful witches aren’t immune to consequences.
2. Disturbing Behavior (1998)
Steve Clark (James Marsden) and his family move to Cradle Bay for a fresh start after his older brother’s suicide. From his first day it’s clear that his new high school has the usual cliques to navigate (thanks to a classic Cafeteria Clique Monologue outlining the teen social taxonomy of Motorheads, Microgeeks, Skaters, and Earthy-Crunchy-Hippy Fleabags). The big exception at Cradle Bay High are the Blue Ribbon students – “at risk” youth-turned exceptional A-types born of a special project by the school’s psychologist, Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood). Cradle Bay parents would love for their kids to all be Blue Ribbons, in a Stepford Wives-for-teens kind of way.
1. The Faculty (1998)
Herrington High is your typical all-American midwestern high school except for one crucial difference: a water-guzzling alien parasite has taken over the faculty. Soon, it will take over the whole school.
What’s unusual about the faculty is that it isn’t the school outcasts who band together to defeat an Evil taking over their school. It’s popular girl Delilah (Jordana Brewster) and her quarterback boyfriend Stan (Shawn Hatosy) teaming up with yearbook nerd Casey (Elijah Wood), bitter goth Stokely (Clea DuVall), rebel genius Zeke (Josh Hartnett), and sweet-but-naive transfer student Marybeth (Laura Harris). The Faculty is like The Breakfast Club meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the only thing these students have in common is that they all wear Tommy Hilfiger. There’s a message somewhere in The Faculty about the terror of conformity and the power intrinsic to being yourself, but that message gets lost somewhere in the action of snorting crushed caffeine pills and running from aliens.