Have You Checked The Children: Five Good Horror Films Based On Urban Legends

This weekend Sony Entertainment and Screen Gems are feeding Slender Man to The Meg in a box office sacrifice. It’s a sad fate for the infamous digital urban legend given the promise its mythology held for a horror film. If you’re fascinated with urban legends and love horror films, there’s no reason to despair with the inevitable box office failure (and critical failure) of Slender Man. Not surprisingly, the horror genre has a rich history of dipping into urban legends for some cinematic inspiration. In this edition of The Chopping Block, I’ll take a look at five of the better examples of horror films based on urban legends. And no, the slasher-lite Urban Legend is not included.

5 – The Burning and Madman

Both The Burning and Madman, derivative camping slashers from the early ’80’s, are very loosely based on the upper New York State urban legend of Cropsey. Like most urban legends, there are variations on the Cropsey myth but, in general, it’s the story of a child killer who escaped from a mental institution.

Neither slasher film directly explores the urban legend. If you’re interested, there is a fantastic documentary entitled Cropsey dedicated to the myth itself. Instead both films attempt to follow up on the success of Friday the 13th with stories of nubile young campers stalked by a deformed and deranged killer. The Burning actually uses the name ‘Cropsey’ for its villain, while Madman’s ‘Madman Marz’ is an ax-wielding monster seemingly summoned by a campfire song. For both films, that is largely where the relationship to the urban legend starts and finishes.

If you’re short on time, The Burning is by far the better of the two films. In addition to featuring a surprisingly strong cast of young faces (several of whom would go on to bigger things), The Burning also boasts some of Tom Savini’s best gore effects. The film’s infamous ‘raft scene’ makes it worth watching alone. Comparatively, Madman feels more amateurish but it boasts some decent death scenes and a surprisingly dark entry. Both films are good examples of underrated slasher films from the subgenre’s ‘golden era.’

4 – Willow Creek

I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s so my favourite version of Bigfoot is still the one from that episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. But the best big screen treatment of the Sasquatch is arguably the found-footage film, Willow Creek. It’s one of those horror films that divided fans and critics.

Directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, Willow Creek is a surprisingly restrained effort that takes its time getting to where it’s going. Some horror fans will be put off by the film’s admittedly slow pace, hence the film’s divisive nature. But Goldthwait makes the scares count once they arrive. He delivers one of the most suspenseful late-night camping tent moments since The Blair Witch Project. The ending is also somewhat ambiguous, though astute viewers will connect the dots with a little thinking. Goldthwait’s ending also raise some interesting questions about the nature of urban legends themselves.

3 – When A Stranger Calls

The killer is in the house! It’s an overused trope in the horror genre, and one that probably stopped working when Star 69 was invented. Nevertheless, the ‘babysitter tale’ produced several great horror moments and a few decent movies. I even still remember being told the ‘babysitter legend’ before my first babysitting job.

The original Black Christmas beat When A Stranger Calls to the punch, experimenting with the concept. An early slasher effort, Black Christmas remains an incredibly scary movie. It’s use of the killer calling from inside the house isn’t a twist as you always know the killer is inside. But it still produces a ‘gut punch’ moment when the ‘final girl’ is told to get out of the house. While not exactly a play on the babysitter legend, Black Christmas did pave the way, not only for the fun concept, but for the slasher subgenre more generally.

When a Stranger Calls, however, fully embraces the urban legend and trope, using it as a killer reveal. While it’s largely a pretty bland film, the first 15 to 20 minutes of When a Stranger Calls are among the best in horror film history. In fact, the opening is so good that Wes Craven paid tribute to it with is open to Scream. Most of what follows is pretty uninspired but that opening will make you think twice before ‘checking on the children’.

2 – The House of the Devil

Back in the 1980’s, North America was gripped by sweeping Satanic ritualistic cults, targeting our children and backed by unholy heavy metal music. Okay, not really. It was actually a moral panic – an exaggerated widespread fear perpetuated by the media. For a short moment in history, people believed Satanic cults were spreading across the countryside, committing brutal acts of ritualistic violence. Trash ‘journalist’ Geraldo Rivera even did a whole special episode on Satanic cults. People were wrongfully convicted, and lawsuits quickly followed.

The House of the Devil is the definition of ‘slow burn’, but patient horror fans will be rewarded with a truly creepy viewing experience.

Over twenty years later, mumblecore horror director Ti West turned a lot of heads with his 2009 gem, The House of the Devil. West’s story of a cash-strapped college student taking an odd babysitting job at a remote house is seeped in ’80’s nostalgia befitting its subject matter. The House of Devil is the definition of ‘slow burn’, but patient horror fans will be rewarded with a truly creepy viewing experience. Veteran character actor Tom Noonan also delivers a subtly haunting performance. If you haven’t seen The House of Devil, it’s not just one best horror films based on an urban legend, it’s one of the best horror films of the last 20 years.

1 – Candyman (1992)

Released several years after the glory years of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Candyman was a breath of fresh of air for the horror genre upon its release. Unique in both narrative and tone, Candyman’s tale of a graduate student investing the urban legend of the ‘Candyman’ has a rich mythology. Based on a Clive Barker Story, the film also boasts a career-making performance from Tony Todd and a standout horror score from Phillip Glass.

But it’s the rich narrative that elevates Candyman from most horror films. The Candyman refers to a Black artist, and son of a slave, who faced severe retribution for his secret relationship with a white woman. The young artist had his hand severed and was lynched by a mob. Now, if you speak the name ‘Candyman’ five times in front a mirror, he will appear with a hook in the bloody stump where his hand was chopped off. While Candyman only loosely borrow from the old ‘Bloody Mary’ urban myth, it develops its own mythology around the character and his role in urban communities that is far more interesting. Candyman remains one of the best horror movies from the 1990’s.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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