The dog days of summer are here, so we all know what that means: beer, barbecue and the possibility of seeing things exploding in the sky. And, if you’re lucky, it also means you have some extra days off of work. Why not take the day to watch some of summer’s finest offerings of horror?
Summer is synonymous with living carefree. Juxtaposing the sweat and the glee from vacation with a madman’s fantasies or an inescapable evil is an irresistible scenario for makers of the macabre. Below are ten movies to start off your summer vacation of fear:
1. Friday the 13th
The original Friday the 13th set a strange precedent for Hollywood. It showed that a low-budget semi rip-off of an original idea (Halloween), could make a ton of money for them. For a very minor investment, studios could stand to gain a lot of box office return because the age of the slasher movie ushered in a new audience who wanted to see blood and gore. And, as far as movies go that studios pushed out to capitalize on that, Friday the 13th isn’t bad. It has actual suspense—the POV shots with the famous ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma sound effect is iconic—and the focus isn’t PRIMARILY on how much blood is shed, it’s on how much the filmmakers could make the audience squirm, even with a silly twist ending that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too much (those are clearly man’s hands doing the killing!).
What Friday the 13th also did was change the setting of horror films as we know it. No longer did scares need to take place in some wind-blown, darkened landscape. Our deepest fear could be stalking right behind us in broad daylight, with a summer breeze on a twinkling lake beside us. We could meet our maker as the best seasonal resorts for youth: A summer camp.
2. The Burning
After the success of Friday the 13th, clones of pretty much the same exact plot were a dime a dozen. Killer of teenagers? Check. Sort of sympathetic background story for the psychopath? Check. Summer camp setting for elaborate deaths? Check and mate.
What sets The Burning apart from an army of half-assed copies is that some thought and talent went into its production. First off, it’s co-written and co-produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Weinsteins have been responsible for so much good cinema (including the continual backing of Tarantino’s work), that they’ve more than justified their existence. The plot is, meh, you know… someone accidentally gets hurt and they seek bloody revenge, but the cinematography is good (Harvey Harrison – 2nd unit D.P. on movies like V for Vendetta and Troy), the gore is good (Tom Savini – Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead), and the cast… it’s amazing. Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter all have small roles. Not only that, Jason Alexander is young, in shape and has hair.
If you’re going to cash in on the success of Friday the 13th, I guess at least have the decency to get the guy who did the original gore for that and have a ton of talent on hand. The Burning is a great time.
3. Sleepaway Camp
This is the last summer camp horror movie on my list. I swear! Sleepaway Camp is worth mentioning because it really, really tried to work with a psychological angle that hadn’t really been seen in this slasher genre before. Halloween did a bit with Michael Myers, but was smart enough to realize that fear is derived from the unknown, so it never delved too deep—delving too deep into Myers’ psyche and ruining suspense was Rob Zombie’s job years later.
Many people have said that the twist ending has bordered on transphobic. Many others have said that is crossed and burned the border with being exploitative. While I agree that the ending is certainly exploitative—it’s a horror movie, everything is exploited—I don’t agree that the ending is transphobic. It’s not exactly politically correct in a current climate, but the idea that madness and depression arising from conforming to the wrong gender is handled sensitively, I think. I mean, it’s not about to win any LGBTQIA awards, but it’s not the transphobic trash a lot of people think it is.
As for the story itself, we’ve been down this road before. If you enjoy seeing horny teenagers offed one by one in increasingly creative ways, Sleepaway Camp is worth visiting. It’s well-made and makes an attempt to understand its killer.
4. I Know What You Did Last Summer
After Scream came out in 1996 both self-aware horror movies and Kevin Williamson were a hot commodity. The slasher movie rose from its grave in a sort of self-appointed prophecy, showing that it could never stay dead. And in the end… it was pretty good. The studio tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice by replicating what made Scream so successful, but I Know What You Did Last Summer didn’t have that same sense of humor that made its spiritual predecessor so successful.
Based on Lois Duncan’s novel in name only, I Know What You Did Last Summer tells the story of bloody revenge on a group of teenagers who seemingly killed a man on their way home while drunk. They decide to dump the corpse and, a year later, those involved in the incident begin disappearing.
The cast is what makes the movie. The direction is sort of so-so but totally serviceable, but the cast is like something out of 1990s issue of Tiger Beat’s wet dream: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Freddy Prinze, Jr.
5. Zombi 2
Zombi 2, also known as just “Zombie” or “Zombie Flesh Eaters” has all of the locations we have mental associations with when it comes to summer and vacation: A tropical location, swimming out at sea… but with a horrifying twist. The tropical location is populated with zombies and, in this movie, they are NASTY buggers. You can’t even take a dip in the ocean without seeing one.
In ONE of the movie’s best scenes, a woman decides to go swimming, topless of course, and she gets attacked by a shark. Then, she gets attacked by a zombie. Then, the zombie and the shark start fighting. The special effects have their problems, like when a zombie’s arm appears and disappears randomly throughout the scene, but this was back in the good ol’ days before CGI. You’re watching a dude caked in makeup wrasslin’ a real live shark. And it’s only ONE of the movie’s best scenes… if Zombie vs Shark doesn’t top the list without blinking an eye, you’re watching something remarkable.
Lucio Fulci made some of Italy’s best horror movies throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s. He doesn’t so much tell stories as he films fever dreams that are punctuated with blood. And he doesn’t just show carnage, he lingers on it like some sort of fetishist showcasing what he loves most. Fulci’s best movies tap into the part of our brain that is powerless without reason.
6. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The original. Back when Chain and Saw were two separate words. Back when photographic techniques eschewed anything resembling professional in favor of showing the real beads of sweat and misery that populated its shoot in record-high heat in Texas when it was filmed. The entire production was miserable and that misery was captured on celluloid in all its terrible, sickening glory. It’s still one of the best horror films ever made.
The way the film is shot is to put you into the horror with the victims. You can practically feel the heat of every set piece and smell the nauseating scents of the slaughter houses. The soundtrack is comprised of discordant noises designed to set the audience ill-at-ease.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is about a road trip to hell. We’ve all had bad road trips—maybe a tire blows out or the head gasket goes. But, I’d wager that no one accidentally stumbled upon a family of cannibals that are dead set on making you their next dinner.
7. Tourist Trap
Tourist Trap is an underrated little gem of a movie. Chuck Connors, best known as Lucas McCain of “The Rifleman,” knocks it out of the park in this movie as the villain. He uses the same gentleness he was known for as Lucas McCain, but here he twists that nice guy façade, subverts it, and plays with his role in such a way that is so menacing, it’s incredible.
Produced by Charles Band, who would later go on to create Full Moon Pictures, Tourist Trap is one of the most original movies that follows in similar footsteps as Texas Chain Saw, with a group of young folks on a trip getting themselves mixed up in an almost unspeakably awful situation. What ends up happening to them is too weird and original an idea for me to fully divulge here; just take my word for it that you have to see it to believe it and it’s so out there that it’s sort of genius.
Bonus points in the casting: Did you have something of a crush on Donna’s mom in “That 70’s Show”? Well, she’s in Tourist Trap and she’s lookin’ good.
What is it about horror finding its way to you while you’re on summer vacation that’s just so chilling? Is it because you’ve spent so much time planning and saving that if something bad were to happen, it violates everything you thought to be true up until that moment? Or is it because when you’re having so much fun, you feel so much more vulnerable to something unexpected and terrible?
An anthropophagus is a fabled cannibal and the titular Anthropophagus seen here is a man-eating, seemingly unstoppable killing machine. The film was declared a “Video Nasty” by the English government when it was first released, which only aided in an audience’s desire to actually go see it. In truth, the majority of Anthropophagus can be a bit of a slog and could have used some serious editing to tighten it up, but when it gets going, it’s fantastic. Italian gore cinema in the 1970s was… something else. You’re not likely to find much more disgusting stuff out there, even today. The gore was somehow aided by how cheaply it was filmed, making it seem more like a documentary reel, showcasing all of the terrible things in the world.
If you can stomach the violence and survive some of the plot’s periodic doldrums, it’s a fun watch to remind you of the glory days of Italian horror. Just don’t watch it if you’re pregnant.
THE quintessential summer horror movie. The sun is shining and the ocean waves are crashing on the beach. Beneath the surface of shimmering water is something that can take your leg off in a single bite or, worse, chomp down on you, spin you relentlessly and then eat you.
It helps if the horror is lensed by Spielberg. The techniques he utilizes are genius and it’s no wonder how he got to be mammoth filmmaking legend that he is today. What could have been a knockoff of Creature from the Black Lagoon featuring a monster that exists in real life, Jaws is (thankfully) an exercise in classic horror, from beginning to end.
Though it happened by total accident, a sort of serendipitous moment in the production, the greatest asset Jaws has going in its favor is what we DON’T see. Whether we see a tip of a fin, or a silhouette against the water, or a yellow barrel bobbing up and down menacingly, we know that the shark is out there, waiting.
If you’re going to cash in on the huge success of Jaws, as someone of Roger Corman’s production status is wont to do, you’d better hire a director as talented as Joe Dante. Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg would actually work together many times throughout the years on movies like Gremlins and The Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Piranha is made in the same campy glee as drive-in pictures like The Blob, but Piranha is made with tongue slightly in cheek and has an awareness to it that really works in its favor. Roger Corman had a good eye for directorial talent (giving early starts to Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola), and Joe Dante’s twisted sense of humor is the perfect blend for a story like this, combining gore and bloodshed with levity.
Somehow, Piranha has endured over the years and has even been remade a handful of times—once for TV and another time in 3D with tons of nudity and Richard Dreyfus in a role as a winking nod to its similarity to Jaws.