Total Recall

Total Recall: Dead Teenager Movies

With Final Destination 5 hitting theaters, we run down some memorable films in which slashers prey on teens.

by | August 11, 2011 | Comments

Final Destination 5

Cue another round of “truth in advertising” jokes, film fans: the fifth Final Destination hits theaters this week, bringing moviegoers one more round of screaming teenagers meeting their doom in a variety of fiendishly clever ways. Like the romantic comedy, we love to disparage the “dead teenager” movie (the term was famously coined by Roger Ebert as a pejorative for 1980s slasher flicks), but we clearly can’t get enough: some of Hollywood’s longest-lasting franchises (not to mention a few horror classics) have been built on the fresh corpses of teen characters who ran afoul of supernatural forces or homicidal maniacs. For this week’s Total Recall, we decided to take a look back at a few noteworthy examples from an often critically maligned — yet always quite popular — subgenre. Which ones made the (ahem) cut? Read on to find out!

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon


Cross Scream with The Blair Witch Project and you’ve got Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a mockumentary-style look at the trail of bloody terror left by a budding serial killer (Nathan Baesel) who’s so excited about his new career field that he invites a film crew along to watch him plan (and, ahem, execute) his dastardly deeds. “The dialogue has wit, and the rug gets pulled out from under us and the characters in several short, sharp jolts. At a certain point,” observed the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr, “Behind the Mask loses the tatty digital-video and immerses us in cinema.”



Repressed sexuality, religious fundamentalism, peer pressure, high school cliques, bullying — Stephen King rolled them all into one tightly wound bundle of supernatural horror with his debut bestseller, and Brian De Palma brought it screaming to the screen with this 1976 adaptation. Starring Sissy Spacek as the miserably put-upon victim of her brutally vindictive peers — not to mention her lunatic mother (Piper Laurie) — Carrie includes some of the most memorable sequences in the genre, as well as what TIME’s Richard Schickel called “An exercise in high style that even the most unredeemably rational among moviegoers should find enormously enjoyable.”



There’s nothing quite like the bond between a young man and his first car — especially when that car is a 1958 Plymouth Fury with a bloodthirsty evil spirit lurking under the hood. It’s kind of a silly premise, but it was explored effectively by Stephen King in his 1983 bestseller Christine — and, later the same year, by John Carpenter in the film adaptation, starring future Waking the Dead director (and noted cinematic nerd) Keith Gordon as Arnie Cunningham, a high school misfit who develops an unhealthy bond with the titular, murderous vehicle. But as much as Arnie loves Christine, the car loves him even more — which is why anyone who hassles him, including the pack of delinquents who vandalize her to teach him a lesson, soon tastes hot asphalt. “This is the kind of movie,” wrote an appreciative Roger Ebert, “where you walk out with a silly grin, get in your car, and lay rubber halfway down the Eisenhower.”



Starring the redoubtable Clint Howard as a military school outcast who copes with his torment by using his computer to translate the Satanic texts of a long-dead priest (played by Richard Moll!), Evilspeak is an early ’80s masterpiece of so-bad-it’s-good horror. What can you say to a movie that includes a pentagram-flashing computer, supernatural black boars, a gratuitous shower scene, Clint Howard wielding Satan’s sword, and a puppy named Fred? Only that it is, in the words of Movie Gazette’s Anton Bitel, “a satisfying blend of Revenge of the Nerds and satanism.”

Final Destination


By the year 2000, teenagers had been getting chased around by serial killers in movies for decades, and it was hard to imagine a new film coming along and bringing anything new to the dark, vicarious thrill of watching young malcontents run for their lives. And then came along James Wong’s Final Destination — which, if it didn’t put an entirely new spin on the genre, at least added a deranged layer of intricate art to the mayhem. Here, the villain isn’t a psychotic murderer or impossible-to-kill boogeyman — it’s actually Death himself, annoyed because a group of teens cheated him out of his due by getting off a plane before it explodes. Their punishment? A series of hands-over-eyes-worthy Death traps, unleashed with Rube Goldbergian panache. “There’s some mind-numbing dialogue as teenagers spout philosophical soundbites about Life and Death,” admitted Jumana Farouky of the Boston Phoenix, “but it’s worth the wait just to see a guy’s head sliced in half by a sheet of steel.”

Friday the 13th


Its name has become synonymous with low-grade teen slashers, but before Friday the 13th was a franchise based on a lumbering goon who roamed with woods with a limitless supply of lives and an axe (or machete, or meat hook, or anything else he could use as a weapon) to grind, it was a cautionary fable about teen bullying, promiscuity, and the importance of swimming lessons. As Film Threat’s David Grove put it, “Long before Jason, and the endless machinations of dumb sequels, Friday the 13th represented the purest form of terror.”



It’s been one of the more thoughtlessly curated franchises in the genre, but before all the cheap sequels and the Rob Zombie reboot, John Carpenter’s Halloween scared the heck out of audiences — and earned almost universal praise from critics — with its smart, minimalistic, and utterly brutal take on the tale of a boy who grows up to be a silent, remorseless serial killer simply because he’s evil. Starring Donald Pleasance as the doctor who pursues the escaped Michael Myers, Jamie Lee Curtis as Myers’ screaming teen quarry, and future Major Payne director Nick Castle as Myers himself, this 1978 classic inspired Roger Ebert to write, “Halloween is an absolutely merciless thriller, a movie so violent and scary that, yes, I would compare it to Psycho.”

Idle Hands


Blending Cheech and Chong-inspired stoner humor with a soap opera’s casually impermanent approach to death, Idle Hands is one of the more decidedly strange entries in the genre, but it does have a certain kooky charm. The tale of a lazy teen (Devon Sawa) whose right hand becomes possessed and goes on a killing spree, Hands features a pair of undead slackers, bit parts for Fred Willard and Connie Ray, and a final act that includes a scene where the evil disembodied hand is felled via hotboxing. It was not, in other words, a hit with most critics — although Slasherpool’s Andreas Samuelson praised it as “stupid, silly fun with a decent amount of gore and heavy dose of teen humor.”

I Know What You Did Last Summer


Adding a slick dollop of 1990s style to the “mysterious campaign of bloody revenge for accidental death cover-up” motif previously explored in Prom Night, Jim Gillespie’s I Know What You Did Last Summer united some of the decade’s freshest young faces (including Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze, Jr.) against a hook-wielding maniac. Of course, the kids did sort of start it when they ran over a guy and dumped his body in the ocean, but that didn’t make the movie any less enjoyable for the Sacramento Bee’s Joe Baltake, who wrote, “Teasing and taut, I Know What You Did Last Summer is a teen horror flick with a different kind of kick to it.”

The Lost Boys


Dead teenagers, undead teenagers… for the purposes of our list, one’s as good as the other, especially if it means we get to pay tribute to Joel Schumacher’s oh-so-1980s teen vampire classic, The Lost Boys. Featuring an assortment of the era’s hottest young stars (including Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz, Jason Patric, and Coreys Feldman and Haim), Boys follows the adventures of a pair of brothers (Patric and Haim) who move to the fictional California paradise of Santa Carla, only to discover the darn place is infested with vampires. Fortunately, they meet the vampire-hunting Frog brothers (Feldman and Jamison Newlander), setting in motion a battle between good and evil that has carried over into a pair of sequels (and counting). “The Lost Boys is to horror movies what Late Night With David Letterman is to television,” wrote Caryn James of the New York Times. “It laughs at the form it embraces, adds a rock-and-roll soundtrack and, if you share its serious-satiric attitude, manages to be very funny.”

A Nightmare on Elm Street


What’s freakier than a serial killer hunting down nubile teens and ripping them to shreds with the razor-tipped fingers of his gross homemade glove? Said serial killer doing it in their dreams. With its devilishly inventive premise, thrillingly gory kills, and a talented cast that included the up-and-coming Johnny Depp, Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street proved that high school horror could be scary and smart. “There has never been a movie like it,” argued Cinemaphile’s David Keyes, “and there never will be.”



Well, of course. Because if you’re going to send up the “dead teenagers” movie, who better to do it than the guy who directed one of its definitive classics? This Wes Craven-directed deconstruction of teen slasher flicks came along at a real low point for horror at the box office; fittingly, its sharp blend of bloody action and self-aware humor single-handedly revived the genre, spawning an ongoing franchise in the process. “Scream is a rarity,” wrote James Berardinelli for ReelViews, calling it “a horror movie spoof that succeeds almost as well at provoking scares as laughs.”

Sleepaway Camp


Yeah, it’s a bloody teenage slasher flick that takes place at a summer camp and boasts a shocking twist ending, but Sleepaway Camp isn’t just a ripoff of 1980’s Friday the 13th — it’s actually got a certain sleazy charm of its own. And while its cheerfully low-budget legacy was besmirched somewhat by an increasingly jokey pair of sequels (starring Pamela Springsteen!), that doesn’t take away from the gory charm of what Antagony and Ecstasy’s Tim Brayton called “Not a particularly effective movie…but an exceptionally memorable one — one that lingers in the brain, disturbing and discomfiting.”

The Slumber Party Massacre


Teen slashers tend to come with descriptive titles, and Slumber Party Massacre fits into that tradition perfectly — there is, indeed, a slumber party, as well as a massacre. But if its title sort of spoils the plot, this 1982 cult classic isn’t without its surprises — including the fact that it was written and directed as a feminist parody of a thoroughly male-dominated genre. Unsurprisingly, the efforts of screenwriter Rita Mae Brown and director Amy Holden Jones sailed over the heads of the studio executives, who marketed the movie by unsubtly flaunting the cast’s most obvious, ahem, assets. Still, the point wasn’t lost on critics like Slant’s Nick Schager, who called it “A gruesome, T&A-filled feminist tract about female fears of mature male sexuality.”

Strange Behavior


If for no other reason than the fact that it was originally titled Dead Kids, this pulp horror pastiche deserves a place on our list. Starring Michael Murphy as John Brady, an intrepid small-town policeman investigating the mysterious murders of several local teenage boys, Behavior admittedly ventures into some pretty silly sci-fi territory — and limps along under a plot that hinges on a few eyebrow-raising coincidences — but it’s stylishly creepy, and it gets bonus points for having Tangerine Dream on the soundtrack. While calling it “too frequently clumsy to be an unqualified success,” Janet Maslin of the New York Times praised Strange Behavior as “certainly a refreshing departure from the mass-produced Hollywood fare of the moment.”



Long before the 1990s gave us a stylish coven of teenage witches in The Craft, Dario Argento mined the same territory — with bloodier and altogether more horrifying results — in 1977’s Suspiria. The disturbing tale of an American ballet student (Jessica Harper) who arrives in a prestigious German dance academy, only to discover that it’s under the control of an ancient sorceress named Helena Markos (played, according to Harper, by “a ninety-year-old ex-hooker Dario had found on the streets of Rome”), Suspiria kicked off Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy — and won praise from critics like the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, who argued, “Argento works so hard for his effects — throwing around shock cuts, colored lights, and peculiar camera angles — that it would be impolite not to be a little frightened.”

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre


Poor Sally and Franklin Hardesty. All they wanted to do was check on their grandfather’s gravestone to make sure nobody was vandalizing it — they even enlisted some of their friends to come along for their thoughtful errand — and what did they get for their trouble? Chased around rural Texas by a chainsaw-wielding maniac and his cannibalistic, inbred family. No, being responsible family members didn’t work out so well for the Hardesty kids, but it paid bloody dividends for filmgoers — and for critics like Eye for Film’s Anton Bitel, who praised what he saw as “some of the most prolonged scenes of sustained panic ever captured by cinema” and wrote, “Hooper infects characters and viewers alike with the thrill of a madness from which there can be no real escape.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Final Destination 5.


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