Oh, those summer (fright) nights.
Like any avowed horror dork, I spend most of the year wishing it was October. Even in the depths of summer—sultry, cold beer-filled afternoons be damned—I think of fall. Which is ridiculous. Because horror has no off-season; the ooky spooky spirit is something you can carry in your heart all year round.
That said, there is something delightful about watching Michael Myers trudge, silent yet heavy-footed, through the same piles of rotted leaves you raked that afternoon. Or passing lines of pumpkin-bedecked porches after screening Season of the Witch. The implication here is the simple, timeless crux of all scary stories: it happened on a night…just like this one.
Good news boils and ghouls: horror has the hots for summer. Indeed as far as any seasonal affinity goes, apart from Spooktober, horror loves to bring the screams to the sunny months. Which, admittedly, makes a heck of a lot of sense. Temperatures are up, guards are down, and if there’s one thing scarier than what lurks in the dark, it’s what trudges brazenly through the light.
Below you’ll find a syllabus of summer horror to help you keep things spooky during the dog days. Some are genuine classics, others are campy schlock, but all are hot, bothered, and full of summertime slaughter.
Hell yes. Strap in.
Nothing says “summer” like being menaced by bugs. And in Them!, the bugs are irradiated giants intent on spreading their pissed-off genes as far as possible. Which is great because the only thing worse than big angry desert ants is more big angry desert ants. Them! has the distinction of being one of the first “big nuclear bug” features to scuttle out of the 50s, and it’s one of the best.
Director: Gordon Douglas, of Young at Heart fame.
Fun Freaky Fact: The flamethrowers used in the film were standard WWII-issue on loan from the US army because, and I really can’t stress this enough, fuck bugs.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a hot film. Sure, it takes place in the summer but this film sweats. Flies buzz, crickets hum. Everything feels scuzzy like roadkill on a hot highway. Everyone is glistening, with fear, sweat, and candy-red corn syrup. Makes sense that such a cinematic sweat-fest would close out on Leatherface twirling away, silhouetted against the only thing more oppressive than him: the Texan sun.
Director: The man/myth/legend Tobe Hooper.
Fun Freaky Fact: The shoot took place during one of Texas’ notoriously brutal heatwaves. +115-degree heat in un-air conditioned interior shots? During a dinner scene stocked with real rotting meat? Yum.
Jaws is a slasher film where the villain’s weapon of choice is a mouth full of teeth and the element of surprise. Oh right, and a local mayor whose entire platform boils down to “beach is life, what shark?” As if being the film that launched the summer blockbuster wasn’t enough, Jaws is also one of the best films about summer. Grab your towel and your low-key alcoholism — we’re going to the beach!
Director: Steven Spielberg
Fun Freaky Fact: Spielberg named the shark “Bruce” after his lawyer. When the animatronic misbehaved, its bonus nickname was “the great white turd.”
Tourist Trap (1979)
You know when you’re just looking to have a good time with your buds in the desert and you get beset by a killer obsessed with turning people into mannequins? Did I mention that said killer is telekinetic because oh boy is he. Skinny dipping? Trespassing? Forbidding roadside attractions? Don’t these teens know they’re in a horror movie? An underappreciated low budget offering with some genuine scares and a whole lot of shlock, Tourist Trap is a goofy, spooky summertime blast.
Director: David Schmoeller, in a feature debut!
Fun Freaky Fact: The art/fx director Robert A. Burns had previously worked as the production designer on two other hot summer horror flicks: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes.
Friday the 13th (1980)
It’s got a death curse! Friday the 13th is the overprotective, knife-wielding mom of the “summer camp slasher” genre — and with good reason! Teens get picked off, sex kills, and a wronged killer stalks the grounds. Camp Crystal Lake’s got it all! Including one of the best final scares in horror history.
Director: Sean S. Cunningham, producer of The Last House on the Left.
Fun Freaky Fact: The film was almost called “Long Night at Camp Blood” which, while accurate, is a worse title.
The Burning (1981)
Some shithead teens decide to pull the totally normal teen prank of leaving a rotting skull full of bugs and candles next to the camp’s sleeping caretaker. Wouldn’t you know it, the prank goes horribly sidewise and leaves the caretaker (named Cropsey, yes, that Cropsey) horribly disfigured and filled with an insatiable need to murder as many campers as possible with garden shears.
Director: BAFTA-nominated Tony Maylam
Fun Freaky Fact: Features some early Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter performances and the goopiest Tom Savini effects the 80s could muster.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Another literally and figuratively campy slasher flick? You betchya. Sleepaway Camp is an odd, at times disturbing cult classic with a notoriously shocking twist. While the film’s curtain yanking conclusion might not have aged well, its genuinely upsetting deaths and great (and so-bad-it’s-great) teen performances make it well worth the watch.
Director: Robert Hiltzik, who shot the film at his childhood camp.
Fun Freaky Fact: 30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski almost played the role of mean girl Judy.
Creepshow 2: “The Raft” (1987)
Some might blame Jaws for a crippling fear of open water. I blame “The Raft,” a.k.a. the scariest horror anthology segment of all time. Based off the Stephen King short story of the same name, “The Raft” sees four college kids take a dip in a remote lake where they swim out to a wooden raft to kick back and enjoy the summer sun. Then a big black murder blob shows up and eats one of them. And it only gets worse.
Director: Michael Gornick, the cinematographer from the first Creepshow.
Fun Freaky Fact: Oh, hello Page Hannah sister of Daryl Hannah. Sorry you got consumed by an angry oil spil.
Not only is this loving B-Movie tribute about giant man-eating sand-worms totally a horror movie (with sci-fi and comedy elements), it’s also one of the driest horror flicks out there. Nothing says “parched’ quite like the gooey innards of a Graboid caked in Nevada dust.
Director: Ron Underwood
Fun Freaky Fact: Tremors was originally going to be named “Land Sharks,” but was edged out by an SNL parody of Jaws.
Piranha 3D (2010)
Consider your expectations for a horror comedy about killer prehistoric fish run amok on a resort full of dumb drunk teens surpassed! Sure, there’s the requisite nudity and gratuitous gore, but Piranha 3D has a beachfront charm to it that cannot be denied. And yes the film is set during spring break not summer, but my frigid Canadian ass can’t tell the difference. I’m too busy delighting in the film’s shameless glee for bikini-feasting fish murder.
Director: Alexandre Aja
Fun Freaky Fact: No cuts were demanded by the MPAA which —for a film featuring a woman getting scalped by a propeller—is a big-honkin’ surprise.
It Follows (2014)
While the season It Follows takes place in is a tad ambiguous, it certainly feels like late summer. There’s a sense of encroachment, of dwindling days, and anxiously twiddled thumbs that’s at home in lazy late August evenings. And in being stalked by a murdering STD ghost.
Director: David Robert Mitchell, who cites horror greats George A. Romero and John Carpenter as major influences.
Fun Freaky Fact: Mitchell drew inspiration for the film from a recurring childhood dream.
Enjoy the spooky summer film season ya’ll!