Summer is finally here! Classes are coming to an end. The days are longer. Somewhere a sandy beach is calling your name. Maybe you can already smell that burning campfire. To celebrate the first day of summer, in this edition of The Chopping Block, I take a look at some of the better summer-themed horror films. While fall is understandably the more common horror season, summer campsites and ocean beach sides offer plenty of subject matter for the horror genre. So wait for the summer sun to set, pull out a sleeping bag, and check out some of the films below.
I could have easily started this list off with The Burning, but I’ve discussed it earlier this year in Underrated Slasher Films piece. Madman is also a bit of hidden gem for slasher fans. Yet another cheap rip-off that followed on the heels of Friday the 13th, Madman is an odd film that offers more idiosyncratic charms than you might expect. After a summer campfire story about the legend of Madman Marz, naive camper Richie inadvertently summons the killer’s spirit and carnage ensues.
For the most part, Madman is a cheaply shot film with a strange blue tint in much of the lighting. What separates Madman from the host of other-budget slasher knockoffs are a few gruesome death scenes and a surprisingly grim ending. Besides how many other slasher villains have their own folk theme song? It’s one of those films that may fallen off your radar but is worth a look.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Sleepaway Camp had one of the better cover art images in the VHS era. It was one of those movies sitting along the top shelf that you begged your parents to rent. Essentially a cheapie knock-off of Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp distinguished itself from the dozen or so summer camp horror films in two ways. First, Sleepaway Camp has a noticeable mean streak missing from a lot of 80’s slasher films. There are a couple of death scenes that border on distasteful. Second, the gender-bending twist ending is not only genuinely shocking but also unsettling. Felissa Rose is excellent as shy, orphaned camper, Angela. It’s her performance in those final moments that will unnerve audiences.
I Know What Did You Did Last Summer (1997)
Following the success of Scream, the late 1990’s and early 2000’s saw a slasher-lite resurgence. These slasher films had higher production values, better acting, less sex and nudity, and more sanitized violence. During this brief slasher renaissance, I Know What You Did Last Summer was probably the best of the films not called Scream.
A loose version of the Lois Duncan novel of the same name fused with ‘The Hook’ urban legend, IKwYDLS was penned by Scream screenwriter, Kevin Williamson. The cast was stacked with young-up-coming talent including Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr. Anne Heche, and Johnny Galecki. With all the talent in front of and behind the camera, IKwYDLS is a surprisingly rote effort. It’s slick and competent, but not particularly scary. Most of the death scenes are fairly tame and the film’s central mystery won’t blow anyone’s mind. Overall, it’s a perfectly serviceable slasher film that boasts one terrific final jump scare.
Friday the 13th (1980)
It wouldn’t be summer holidays without a camping trip or a long weekend at the cottage. Friday the 13th is the king of summer camp horror films. Boasting some of the best make-up effects work from master Tom Savini and a landmark horror score from Harry Manfredini, Friday the 13th rises above it’s paper-thin story to deliver a genuinely scary experience. Its death scenes still set the bar for the slasher subgenre and the final jump scare is among the best in horror film history.
Could any other film sit at the top of this list? Jaws is the quintessential summer horror film. Steven Spielberg has you in the palm of his hand from the gripping opening scene. Even with the shark hidden for much of the film, Spielberg employs a grab bag of innovative tricks to keep the audience in suspense. The shark’s first full appearance is an absolute scene-stealer. Even when Jaws is stuck on land, the performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, and Robert Shaw ensure that nothing slows down or becomes dull. Jaws is box office filmmaking at its best – a movie that can be watched over and over without ever losing any of its fun and terror.