Slasher movies are famously repetitive, sharing certain themes that recur over and over. A big one: university! Or across the Atlantic: college, baby! Campuses are the perfect hunting ground for maniacs targeting young adults who are out on their own, making bad decisions for the first (and last) time. Here are 11 classics to add to your horror syllabus.
A warning that some of the trailers here are NSFW – which you might have surmised already, considering the movies we’re talking about here!
THE VOICE-OVER ON THIS TRAILER. That is all.
11. Splatter University (1984)
In this ultra low-budget splat-sploitation entry – which kicks off with a none-too-subtle “stab-happy lunatic escapes the asylum” sequence – a nervous young sociology professor shows up for her new job at St. Trinian’s College, only to realise the gig has some major drawbacks. Not only is her new apartment a former crime scene (just a little poisoning murder, nothing to worry about, her busybody landlady assures her), the classroom that she’s assigned has been deemed cursed, since it’s where a teacher was brutally eviscerated by an unknown assailant some months back. Or as a student puts it: “Stupid teacher got killed...what a pain in the ass!”
Speaking of students, Splatter University has an array of loutish dudes and saucy ladies, most sporting spectacularly feathered hair, for the killer to choose from – and as the body count rises, the rookie prof decides she should try playing detective. All the acting on display here is on par with the rest of the production values, which are pretty rough. But nothing says “labour of love and/or dreams of profit” like a slasher movie made for pocket change that still has enough weirdly wicked energy (and a strange last-act twist) that makes it worth watching.
10. Sorority House Massacre (1987)
Carol Frank (who’d worked on 1982's Slumber Party Massacre) wrote and directed this slasher, which takes heavy inspiration from Halloween and The Amityville Horror. When prospective pledge Beth (Angela O’Neill) is invited to spend a long weekend with her potential future sisters, she fails to recognise that the sorority house is actually her former family home. She has amnesia, you see, and can’t recall some major chunks of her childhood. What sort of tragedy would make Beth forget an entire house? How about being the sole survivor after her crazed older brother methodically annihilated the rest of the family? Her crazed older brother, who’s just escaped from the nearby mental hospital, that is?
Before the events of the movie’s title transpire, because you know they’re coming, there’s time for a totally 1980s dress-up montage, an earnest attempt to interpret Beth’s sudden and intense recurring nightmares (talk about a party pooper), and the discovery that the house’s tragic history is no big secret – even if Beth somehow takes the entire movie to figure out her connection to it. Sorority House Massacre ventures down some artsy avenues when it illustrates Beth’s flashes of memory, but otherwise it has the bland look and feel of a made-for-TV movie, albeit one with more boobs and gore.
9. Final Exam (1981)
Final Exam opens with a slasher-movie standard – a double slaughter on lovers’ lane – but once it gets to campus, it takes a turn with a scene that feels especially eerie in 2019. After a classroom conversation about Charles Whitman and snipers sets the tone, a van pulls up on the quad and masked men start machine-gunning students at random. Aaah! Except, ha ha! It’s actually a macabre fraternity prank, because mass shootings are hilarious!
Somehow the students at the generically Southern Lanier College manage to shake off that intrusion and focus on the more important things at hand, like doing everything they can to avoid studying for final exams, stupid hazing rituals (like tying a fraternity pledge to a tree in his underwear), and – oh yeah – the killer who’s shifted from attacking cars in the woods to kids in their dorm rooms. About that last one: Thanks to the prank, the irritated town sheriff proves less inclined to believe any more reports of shocking violence.
Its use of a totally random maniac aside (seriously, he’s never identified or explained; he doesn’t even wear a mask), Final Exam proves pretty by the numbers. But it does have some memorable characters, including a frat guy who lives every moment fully committed to his nickname (“Wildman”), and a nerdy type named Radish who’s basically a first-wave true crime fanatic, fond of saying things like “Senseless murders are a modern phenomenon!”
8. Hell Night (1981)
Linda Blair’s intriguing post-Exorcist career included (among many other titles) a couple of TV movies about juvenile delinquents, the legendarily terrible Exorcist II: The Heretic, the majestically campy Roller Boogie, women-in-prison epic Chained Heat, and this slasher flick produced by Halloween’s Irwin Yablans that’s majorly elevated by her presence. She plays Marti, the most level-headed and street-smart member of group of fraternity/sorority pledges who are tasked with spending the night in an abandoned, supposedly haunted mansion as part of a costume party-slash-hazing ritual.
The place is filled with goofy pranks designed to scare the inebriated partiers – but it turns out it’s not as abandoned as everyone thinks, and the lurking residents don’t take kindly to trespassers. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School star Vincent Van Patten pops up as one of the partygoers, but we all know that only a Final Girl, especially one who can hot-wire a car while wearing a frilly Victorian gown, can live through the night.
7. The Initiation (1984)
Future Melrose Place star Daphne Zuniga gets an “introducing” credit on this tale of sorority pledges who mischievously break into a giant department store owned by her character’s wealthy father as part of a hazing ritual (the father is played by Return of the Living Dead’s Clu Gulager; her mum is played by Psycho’s Vera Miles). Unfortunately for everyone, the local asylum has just had a jailbreak, and one of the escaped residents has a particular bone to pick with that very store – leading to a cat-and-mouse situation in the mall (or rather, the massive but oddly devoid-of-storefronts location The Intiation passes off as a mall) where everyone’s running around after hours.
That would already be a lot on top of all the sorority-girl cattiness and frat-guy horniness – which are on full display at an awesomely tacky fancy dress party early in the movie – but there’s also a subplot about recurring nightmares and repressed memories, tied into a deeply twisted family secret, which is revealed only to be overshadowed by an even more deeply twisted family secret. It’s all very melodramatic and sleazy, and yes, that’s a recommendation.
6. The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982)
Speaking of Daphne Zuniga, she made her big-screen debut a couple of years prior to The Initiation in The Dorm That Dripped Blood. Her part is much smaller here, but her death scene – which sees her discovering the dead bodies of her parents before being run over by a car – is notably horrific. The set-up is that a group of students remain at their otherwise deserted school over winter break, having been hired to clear out an ageing dorm that’s going to be converted into flats. But of course...they aren’t alone, and the bodies soon start piling up.
The Dorm That Dripped Blood – which you might also see under the inferior alternate title Pranks – has a delightful time introducing all sorts of characters who might fit the psycho-killer bill. Is it the main character’s pushy boyfriend, who’s supposed to be away on a ski trip? The sinister hermit dude who’s been squatting in the otherwise empty building? The leering cowboy who shows up to buy some of the furniture the school is discarding? Or someone else who might be slightly less obvious? To the movie’s credit, the true fiend is surprisingly difficult to puzzle out, but it makes perfect sense when revealed.
5. The Prowler (1981)
Thirty-five years after the (unsolved) double murder of lovers who slipped out during a dance celebrating the end of World War II, Avalon Bay’s university students decide it’s high time to start holding dances again. However, someone disagrees...and that someone is a masked, well-armed killer dressed in military fatigues. Nobody who’s ever seen a slasher film before will have any trouble whatsoever sussing out who the killer is – hmm, why does that one character who figures so prominently in the beginning of the film make such a big show of leaving town? – but The Prowler has ascended to midnight-movie status for a few very good reasons.
One, it’s directed by Joseph Zito, who went on to make the surprisingly good Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (the one with Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover); and two, the special make-up effects are by gore master Tom Savini – which is reason enough to add it to your list. However, it’s also an offbeat little chiller – there’s a Psycho shower homage and the scene where the frantic town deputy calls a nearby resort and encounters a lazily unhelpful desk clerk is so bizarre and perfect – with random roles for acting notables Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs) and Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train).
4. Scream 2 (1997)
Before anyone freaks out, I really wanted to keep this list to the mid-1980s and earlier, which is why more recent campus-horror tales like the Jared Leto/Robert Englund/folklore-stravaganza Urban Legend (1998) and time-loop nightmare Happy Death Day (2017) aren’t included. But it would seem just plain wrong to leave out Scream 2, Wes Craven’s sequel to his phenomenal hit that gave new life to the slasher genre.
Two years after the gory events in Woodsboro, Final Girl Sidney (Neve Campbell) is at university with her old pal Randy (Jamie Kennedy) – a movie fanatic who gets a fun rant explaining the “rules” of sequels – when that pesky, phone-toting masked killer returns and starts ripping up her new friends; woe be unto Sidney’s sweet new boyfriend, played by Jerry O’Connell, or the sarcastic sorority girl played by Sarah Michelle Gellar at the height of her Buffy fame. As per Randy’s speech, Scream 2 ups the ante and it does so in some clever ways, riffing on the original film’s meta elements by opening with a murder spree at a cinema that’s screening Stab, a movie based on the “real-life” events of the first film.
But most of the film is set in and around the leafy environs of Windsor College, where Sidney is trying and (spectacularly) failing to move past her tragic high school years – though she does manage to survive the formidable villains of Scream 2 as well as the two other Scream movies that followed.
3. The House on Sorority Row (1983)
Mark Rosman (whose later career included Lindsay Lohan-Tyra Banks doll fantasy Life-Size) co-wrote and directed this suspenseful tale of sorority sisters who do a Very Bad Thing at the beginning of the movie and spend the rest of the time trying to cover it up...until they start getting picked off by a mysterious killer who’s hellbent on revenge.
The cast includes future soap opera actress and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Eileen Davidson (fun fact: in real life, she’s married to Hell Night’s Vincent Van Patten), who plays the chief troublemaker among the sisters. It’s her idea to prank their strict housemother when the old hag threatens to interfere with their graduation party – but the ill-conceived stunt, involving a real gun and the house’s filthy swimming pool, ends up killing the elderly woman. (Naturally, the party goes on as planned.)
The House on Sorority Row builds up mountains of genuine tension, even bringing in a secondary villain late in the proceedings just in case a psycho stalking around slitting throats wasn’t disturbing enough. There’s also humour – those sorority girls, so bad at dead-body disposal! – and some shudder-inducing aesthetic touches, like the deranged killer’s fondness for clowns.
2. Black Christmas (1974)
The O.G. slasher movie is getting its second remake later this year from director Sophia Takal, but it’d be difficult for even the most inspired reimagining to top the original, which is about a group of sorority sisters who are terrorised by a prank caller who is (spoiler alert) calling from inside the house. You can read more about the significance and lasting impact of Black Christmas in this older post:
It’s hard to pick one favourite element in a movie with so many outstanding ones, but the performances – Olivia Hussey as the no-nonsense Jess; John Saxon as the cop who actually takes the girls’ fears seriously; and especially a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder as Jess’ loopy sorority sister, Barb – are hard to beat.
1. Pieces (1982)
The title of this Spanish-American cult classic – whose casual trashiness is only elevated by its very noticeable dubbing – refers to how the jigsaw puzzle-obsessed killer at the centre of all the chaos prefers to leave his victims. It’s all for a very specific purpose since he’s collecting female body parts to make a patchwork recreation of the mother he chopped up when he was just a little boy.
But who is the chainsaw-toting grown-up version of the kiddie killer? All of the action in director Juan Piquer Simón’s film centres on a university campus, which has no shortage of potential suspects, not to mention victims, a worrisome situation that inspires the authorities to bring in a beautiful undercover cop (Lynda Day; her real-life husband, Christopher George, plays the local police lieutenant) who also happens to be a famous tennis player. That nonsensical bit of character development is par for the course for Pieces, which is filled with intensely gory murders but also has so many startling WTF moments (what university under the sun has a “kung fu professor”?) that you never know what flavor of incredible sleaze is coming next. Make your own “head of the class” joke here; Pieces has earned every single one of ’em.
Featured image: Dimension Films