Homework. Bullies. Stress. Angst. Hormones. High school can be a horrific experience, and horror filmmakers have benefited greatly by exploiting the experience again and again, for one very specific reason—teenagers are vulnerable, even the popular teens who always seem too cool to be phased by insecurity, or an escaped psycho with a power drill.
There are classics in the high school sub-genre of horror, and chances are most of us them are permanently etched into our memory, right there with old locker combinations and random song lyrics from bands we listened to as freshmen. And yet, there are many more films in the sub-genre roaming the halls between classrooms, desperate for the accolades and high fives that the cool kids get.
10. Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
When her parents leave town, Trish (Michelle Michaels, New Year’s Evil) does what any self-respecting teenager would do with an empty house—she throws a slumber party. What was supposed to be a pajama-clad, no boys allowed night of teenage girl fun turns deadly when an escaped mass murderer armed with an above-average sized power drill shows up to kill them all.
Written and directed by women, you might think the film would offer an alternative take on the budding slasher genre, especially when you consider the original script was intended as a parody of slasher tropes. It’s odd then that Slumber Party Massacre plays it straight and features so much gratuitous early ‘80s nudity lensed through the male gaze. What makes this an entry into the underrated high school slasher club is because the tone borders on skewering the tendencies of the genre even as it plays to them.
9. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)
Once a shy and mostly unseen girl, things changed over the summer when Mandy Lane (Amber Heard, Drive Angry) developed into the kind of girl that catches the attention of the popular boys in high school. All this new attention lures Mandy into a social scene that she might not be emotionally prepared to navigate.
Though it ultimately turns into an arid Texas slasher with some decent mystery and gruesome violence, the story never loses its sharp focus on bullying, body image problems, and fantasies of murder/suicide pacts that sometimes get the best of teenagers. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane plays with some dangerous ideas, rather effectively.
8. Teeth (2007)
Dawn (Jess Weixler, It: Chapter Two) is a dedicated member of Promise, a chastity club at her high school. Not merely a devout good girl, Dawn possesses teeth that, uh… don’t show when she smiles. Unlike what’s in her mouth, these lower set chompers protect her from anyone who might try to take advantage of her maturing sexuality—such as a sleazy gynecologist, who loses more than one finger, and several aggressive boys, who all lose much more than that. Surrounded by predatory men, Dawn must learn to accept who she is, inside and out.
7. Tragedy Girls (2017)
What are a couple of horror-loving teenage girls supposed to do in a boring, small town to simultaneously appease their fascination with blood lust and increase their social media likes and followers? For Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand, Deadpool) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp, Dark Phoenix), the answer is obvious: capture a local serial killer and force him to be their mentor. As bodies pile and the once quiet town falls into panic, the two best friends come to realize that growing and fostering internet stardom in the murder scene is far more challenging than they ever thought, and a test to the bonds of their friendship.
Horror films have long resorted to the effects of isolation, but social media has changed the world and created a new kind of horror film in the process. There have been several desktop platform and spooky phone app films already, and the trend shows no signs of stopping.
6. Veronica (2017)
During a solar eclipse, Veronica (Sandra Escacena, Terror y feria) and some of her friends sneak off to the basement of their Catholic school to play with a Ouija board and attempt communication with lost loved ones. Afterwards, Veronica can’t eat—as if an unseen force is holding her hands down whenever she tries to take a bite, weakening her body. But worse than that, a plague of supernatural entities begin aggressively trying to harm her family.
Veronica was inspired by a real event in Madrid back in 1991 that tells nearly the exact same story of student who suffered hallucinations and seizures after playing with a Ouija board at school, and then mysteriously died.
5. Death Bell (2008)
High school tests can be stressful, but seldom are they deadly. When preparing for college entrance exams, the top students at a high school in South Korea find themselves partaking in a special weekend prep class where a test will be administered, and one student will be killed for each incorrect answer. It’s like Saw (2004) filtered through the intense pressure that high school students face, when as find themselves locked in the room and forced to not only answer test questions correctly, but also watch a live video monitor displaying a fellow classmate bound to a chair within a tank that’s filling up with water.
4. The Woods (2006)
After starting a fire and burning down a tree in her backyard, Heather (Agnes Bruckner, Vacancy 2: The First Cut) is sent to an isolated all-girl boarding school deep in the dark woods. The sinister Falburn Academy—straight out of a Brothers Grimm story—is run by strict headmistress Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson, Wendigo), and filled with students whispering about witches and drinking weird milk with every meal. Not unlike Suzy Bannion’s arrival to the Freiburg Dance Academy in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), Heather joins the school as the mystery of a troubled student consumes it—in this instance, the girl is sent away for treatment after she attempted suicide. Yeah, okay, sure. When Heather begins having nightmares of voices coming out of the enveloping woods, she finds herself part of a sinister uprising that seems like it was always meant to include her.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Five years after Freddy Krueger (Freddy Krueger, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare) was lured out of the dreamscape and seemingly defeated, a family has moved into the infamous house on Elm Street, and Freddy is back to haunting the dreams of a teenager. Moody and confused, Jesse (Mark Patton, Amityville: Evil Never Dies) at first believes his bad dreams are the result of the broken furnace in the house and the intense heat in his bedroom, but the horror of his dreams soon becomes real, as Freddy grows stronger and has Jesse killing for him in the real world.
Frequently overlooked between the classic first film in the series and the fan-favorite third entry, the first sequel in the ANOES series is now considered a much more subversive film than audiences (and apparently those who made it) might have believed it was during its initial release. Viewed as a sequel to a successful horror film, Freddy’s Revenge is serviceable, with some cool effects here and there, such as Freddy cutting his way out of Jesse’s gut and entering the world cesarean style. As an allegory of confused sexuality, it’s killer.
2. Phenomena (1985)
Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly, Labyrinth) transfers to a prestigious boarding school in the Swiss Alps as students are being murdered by a mysterious serial killer. Teeming up with Dr. John McGregor (Donald Pleasence, Halloween), the local resident entomologist working with the police to solve the murders by analyzing the types of insects present in the decomposition process of the discovered corpses, Jennifer learns of her unique ability to communicate with these insects. Grisly as it may be, being one with insects proves to be a gift that will lead her to identify and then stop the killer.
Dario Argento’s dark fantasy has always been overshadowed by his ‘70s output, particularly his other boarding school masterpiece, Suspiria. And that’s a shame, as Phenomena offers some of his most striking images and set pieces, and the best use of a tormented chimpanzee with a death wish ever committed to film! There’s a heavily edited and re-branded version titled Creepers that makes the weirdness and violence practically nonsensical.
1. The Loved Ones (2009)
We only see Princess (Robin McLeavy, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) once in school before the torture starts, and she’s introduced as a timid girl who had to force herself to muster the courage to ask Brent (Xavier Samuel, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) to the prom. The execution is kind of heartbreaking, creating no villains, just a moment of sad rejection for a shy teenage girl when the boy she likes tells her that he’s going to the prom with his girlfriend. But then Princess’ father kidnaps Brent and forces him to attend a makeshift prom in the living room of their remote house, and we see her in a completely different light. Far from timid, Princess is a glittered covered, pink prom dress wearing daddy’s girl, with a horrific scrapbook filled with images of murder, and a power drill in her hand. (Yes, we have a power drill bookend to this list!)
The Loved Ones might look like something leftover from the torture porn days of yore, with knives being hammered through feet and holes being drilled into skulls, but it’s more about the crippling trauma and depression its characters are fighting through than it is about the blunt torture extravaganza they suffer.
Did we overlook something obvious, or fail to bring attention to an underrated high school horror that needs some attention? Let the Nightmare on Film Street community know what’s cool on Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, or The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!