As (both current and former) teenagers everywhere will attest, high school can be scary enough without the prospect of masked killers, demonic possessions, malevolent spirits, and the like. So, in the spirit of solidarity with all those brave students preparing for their next semester- break out your favorite gel pen, open up those binders, and get ready to take some notes- because we’ve compiled a list featuring five of the best scream-worthy additions to the high school horror canon.
Carrie– 1976 dir. Brian De Palma
No list of high school horror flicks would be complete without an appearance from the telekinetic (prom) queen of all teenage terrors, Carrie. Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, Carrie gives the viewer an unflinching account of its eponymous heroine’s daily torment at the hands of her mother- an abusive religious fanatic- and a gang of sadistic classmates. The scares, when they arrive in furious fashion, are worth the price of admission alone. But, the film’s real power derives from its clear-eyed examination of the loneliness and pain that come with being a young person on the social fringes. Sissy Spacek makes Carrie permanently flinched and shrunken, but finds the fragile human heart inside a character that, in the hands of a lesser performer, would become an exercise in the perpetually pathetic. Carrie is pathetic, certainly, but she is also filled with a palpable yearning for acceptance that is at once painfully relatable, and overwhelmingly sad. Shown a modicum of kindness by her guidance counselor and a handsome fellow student, Carrie begins to slowly chip away at a lifetime of protective barriers. For a single moment, in the hazy glow of a streamer-bedecked gym, we get a glimpse of Carrie with the life she’s always dreamed of. It’s the kind of fairytale turn imagined by adolescent loners everywhere, until it all comes tumbling down in horrifying fashion.
Jennifer’s Body– 2009 dir. Karyn Kusama
A critical and financial failure upon release, Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body has since been (rightfully) reclaimed as a feminist horror cult classic. Hyper-verbal, witty, and topped with a handful of gleeful kills, Body turns the notions of burgeoning pubescent sexuality and the complexity of female friendship in the face of (both subtle and overt) misogyny, into a venomous satire that is as funny as it is downright freaky. Chock full of memorable quotes and machine-gun repartee, Diablo Cody’s script reads like an adderall-fueled Tina Fey rewriting (equally excellent high school horror) Ginger Snaps from memory, and is all the better for it. Megan Fox delivers every line with a deliciously knowing comedic sharpness- almost like she’s been through this whole thing before. Jennifer’s Body nails the terror of waking up to see your friends have changed, and knowing you will too, whether you like it or not. Life is hard, but hell? That’s a teenage girl.
Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night 2– 1987 dir. Bruce Pittman
A sequel in name only, thanks to a last-second cash grab by the studio, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 is a deranged mash-up of every popular horror of the day, the least of which being its supposed predecessor. Equal parts Nightmare on Elm Street, Carrie, the Exorcist, and psychosexual giallo knock-off, Mary Lou is the kind of beautifully bonkers trash perfect for distracting the late-night homework procrastinator. The film follows unassuming teen couple Vicki and her boyfriend Craig, who’s lives become completely untethered when Vicki finds herself possessed by the vengeful spirit of Mary Lou Maloney- a highly promiscuous prom queen, burned alive in a prank gone wrong- who has returned to wreak havoc on her former high school. What follows is the kind of b-movie chaos that every horror fanatic hopes for. There are elements that don’t hold up to scrutiny- specifically the (literal) demonization of female sexuality- but viewed in context as camp artifact, there’s a surplus of gleeful nonsense waiting to be enjoyed in this high school horror.
Final Destination– 2000 dir. James Wong
It’s a wonder that Final Destination didn’t hit screens far before its 2000 release, with a premise so simple and ingenious (Rube Goldberg Death Traps!!). Y2k heartthrob Devon Sawa stars as Alex Browning, a senior in high school, at the tail-end of his final semester. While boarding a plane bound for Paris on a celebratory school trip, Alex has a terrifying premonition of the plane crashing, and the death of everyone aboard. A fight breaks out when Alex tries to warn his fellow students of the oncoming tragedy, resulting in his removal from the plane alongside a handful of schoolmates. To everyone’s surprise but ours, the plane crashes. Alex and his friends have successfully cheated death. Unfortunately death, it seems, doesn’t take kindly to losing out- accidentally or otherwise. A gloriously goofy metaphor for the fear of moving into adulthood, and the end of adolescence, Final Destination’s kills don’t quite match the dizzyingly elaborate murder mechanics of its sequels, but there is an undeniable charm in the relative simplicity. The film is unfussy, and disinterested in posturing as anything but exactly what it is, a hyper-concentrated shot of adrenaline that still manages to make room for characterization beyond the prototypically rote personality types found in similar teenage horror romps. When the fateful accidents happen, there’s a sneaky twinge of regret wedged between the familiar jolts of horrified glee.
A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge– 1985 dir. Jack Sholder
Long dismissed by fans of the franchise, and equally derided by critics of the day, Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, has since undergone a well-deserved reappraisal, and begun to cement a quiet legacy as a progenitor of mainstream queer horror. Freddy’s Revenge makes a clean break from the rules established in its immediate predecessor, and bears little resemblance to the rest of the franchise in general. Once a sticking point for many Kreuger loyalists, its relative standalone nature has become the film’s greatest attribute. Existing outside of the general Nightmare timeline- save a handful of oblique references to characters from the first film- Freddy’s Revenge instead pitches it’s titular villain as the physical manifestation of adolescent protagonist Jesse Walsh’s tortured relationship with his own repressed homosexuality. The dream sequences are less a playground for creative kills (although there are some of those, too), and are instead more abstract duels between Jesse and his own psyche. The search for self acceptance as a teenager is scary enough, but add in the enormous complexity of finding that identity as a member of a marginalized group, and you’ve got the makings of a real emotional horrorshow. Taken on face value, Freddy’s Revenge is still an effective treat, chock full of surreal diversions, and a bravura climactic sequence that invites Freddy to a good-old-fashioned pool party. The scares throughout feel especially visceral, thanks to the dream-demon’s emergence into the real world, and there is an unexpected emotional gravitas that comes from the recognizable fear of a teenager terrified by the truth of their own existence. The balance of fun, fright, and feeling, make this Nightmare the stuff high school horror dreams are made of.