Jennifer's Body is getting panned in some circles for the alleged tragic flaw of a horror movie not being particularly scary. They're mostly right -- Diablo Cody's genre follow-up to Juno doesn't really elevate the heart rate very often. But I think that's because it tips to the "high school" side of the "high school horror" balance; it's more of a teen drama with a bloody metaphorical twist than a full-on horror flick.
That may disappoint some fans, but it sort of gets at why high school horror movies work so well, so often. It's a cliche that "high school is scary," but movies that make a connection between the reasons high school is scary in real life and whatever monstrosity happens to be stalking or haunting the characters are the ones that tend to leave the biggest impression.
In honor of Jennifer's Body, which I think will be unjustly maligned in the weeks to come, here's a list of some high school horror movies that figured this out -- and a few that were just plain fun.
1. Ginger Snaps - The movie's IMDb plot summary helpfully begins: "This film uses werewolfism as a metaphor for puberty." Well, yeah -- though it is generally considered polite not to lead with something like that. (Sorry.) But it's not all allegorical navel-gazing. Ginger Snaps is an elegant, harsh piece of teen horror that brutally plays on teenage insecurities, and is a pretty good werewolf flick too. It's a shame that director John Fawcett largely disappeared into the (better-paying, I hear) abyss of television.
2. Deadgirl - You probably haven't seen this one; it played last year's Toronto International Film Festival, where it proved too twisted and bleak to find a distributor. It's about two high-schoolers who find an undead, unkillable woman imprisoned in a basement and proceed to make her their personal sex slave. You know how they say that kids can be cruel? Deadgirl is about that -- and also how society gives up on its "lost causes," who then have little choice but to turn into criminals and undesirables. It's creepy, challenging stuff.
3. The Faculty - Still one of Robert Rodriguez's best films, I think; a clean, classical monster movie, impeccably executed and suspenseful. This subgenre has always been too eager to ridicule teachers, and Rodriguez -- along with Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson -- recognized that there was plenty of horror fodder there too. (See also the inferior Teaching Mrs. Tingle.)
4. Let the Right One In -- Okay, so maybe this is junior high, or whatever the hell they call it in Sweden. Still, the movie's insight into the social dynamics of young'uns is devastating: the rotten seek out the rotten, and when they get together, watch out. Let the Right One In has received no shortage of praise, but I think that to read it just as a "vampire movie" or, God forbid, a "love story," is to sell it short.
5. Prom Night (1980) - I can't really say that this movie holds up, and it is indirectly responsible for one of the worst horror remakes among this decade's slew. But it's classic stuff, isn't it? The raspy phone calls, the severed head, Leslie Nielsen... Just like high school
6. Dance of the Dead - When this played SXSW in 2008, some of us -- coughWeinbergcough -- saw it twice. At the festival. Watching the nerds and losers save the town from zombies on prom night is that much fun. This is one of the most gleeful, high-energy horror movies in recent years (it's actually kind of a comedy, but that doesn't really distract from the zombie goodness), and the fact that it couldn't get a bona fide release is kind of unconscionable.
7. Carrie - Ah, the doyenne of the high school horror, and one of my favorite movies of all time, really, no kidding. This is high school angst, anger and heartbreak writ large, telepathic and deadly. The split-screen melee that concludes the movie is terrifying as a cinematic manifestation of rage, and much of what precedes it has me in tears every time I see the film.