Cinematary Canon #3: Best Slumber Party Horror Films
By Zach Dennis, Andrew Swafford, Lydia Creech, Ben Shull and John McAmis
NOTE: The films listed are not ranked by quality, but rather in chronological order.
Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento
Many movies that get played at Halloween parties don’t actually end up being watched--they just serve as a specific type of spooky mood lighting for laughter and conversation. For this purpose, there is perhaps no movie better suited than the cinematic lava lamp that is Suspiria, a sumptuous wash of vivid colors and bold lighting that is equally worthwhile whether you’re immersing yourself in every moment or you’re just enjoying the vibe. The film tells the story of an aspiring American ballet dancer who transfers to an Italian dance studio to study under a team of what she believes to be world class ballerinas--but who are actually murderous witches.
But this is not The Red Shoes or Black Swan, as Suspiria has nothing to say about the arts or the role of women as performers. All of the plot machinations here just serve as excuses to create a dazzling aesthetic experience, which might sound shallow and uninspired if the craft wasn’t just that good. It is. The red and purple hues of this movie give off an effervescent glow, the set design is eerily clean and geometric, and the soundtrack is absolutely hypnotic, adding up to a film that radiates off the television that is sure to captivate your party guests in a trance of symphonic horror. - Andrew Swafford
House (1977) by Nobuhiko Obayashi
One type of film that tends to get cued up at parties of any kind is the now-proverbial “so-bad-it's-good” film, which presents no pressure for the audience to take seriously and is mocked with a sense of communal elitism (that, granted, can be fun). And it may be tempting to put House in this category, as it is an absurd experiment in low-budget camp with visuals that may stir up all the memories you have of ridiculous Japanese game shows and toy commercials (it should come as no surprise that this was directed by an ad-man). The plot is even a fairly cliché one, when looked at on a surface level: a group of stereotypical teen girls (referred to by their stereotype--Gorgeous, Prof, Sweet, Melody, Mac [short for “Stomach”], etc.) travel to a family member’s house only to be picked off one-by-one by supernatural forces beyond their control.
However, I would argue House is legitimately a genre masterpiece that can be enjoyed on any level. Enjoy it for the comedic absurdity of a girl being attacked by a killer lamp or a man being transformed into an enormous pile of bananas! Enjoy it for the minute-by-minute visual inventiveness and the handcrafted special effects that create a new language of terror all their own! Enjoy it for the allegorical depth that it brings regarding concepts of domesticity, post-war grief, and even menstruation! Regardless of how you enjoy it, you will--this is one of the most electrifyingly watchable movies on the planet, and is sure to be a hit at any social gathering you host or attend this Autumn. A few years ago, I wrote a two-sentence review of House that I still stand by to this day: “First you will laugh at House, then you will laugh with House, then you will bow down and worship House. All hail.” - Andrew Swafford
The Thing (1982) by John Carpenter
I nominate The Thing to Cinematary’s Canon of Halloween Party Films! Another horror classic from the master John Carpenter, by now The Thing should have been widely seen enough that it can safely be relegated to the background. Let the bright whites of the Arctic and oppressive atmosphere of paranoia really take your Halloween bash to the next level. For extra creepy fun, Rob Bottin’s practical creature effects still impress to this day (they really, really do, and look better than the 2011 The Thing prequel’s CGI effects, imo).
Actually, and this may be breaking the rules, The Thing does still work as a scary movie, too. Even without the presence of The Thing, just watching a group of people descend into distrust and madness under extreme isolation can be scary in and of itself (I call these “cabin movies”). Thankfully, Bottin and Carpenter deliver plenty of grody set pieces along the way. Knowing the beats doesn’t mean they won’t still get you, but this is also part of the fun! - Lydia Creech
Most WTF moment: Spider head.
Sleepaway Camp (1983) by Robert Hiltzik
This is a really difficult film to write about.
If I take a step back and give an honest, objective opinion, it’s bad. It’s really bad. The writing is horrendous, the cinematography is reminiscent of “Ben’s 1st Birthday” on VHS in my parents’ closet, and it’s as though a film crew burst into a summer camp mess hall and announced “We’re making a movie and if you want to be in it, follow along.” But if I take another step backwards and slap my pretentious persona across its proverbial face, I can guarantee a damn good time with this movie. It’s really pretty good. It’s everything you could ever want in an 80’s slasher flick: overtly sexual innuendos in every line, 12-year-olds swearing like pirates, and a greasy camp cook drowning in a pot of boiling corn.
If you’re looking a movie to feature during your Halloween party this year, throw this on. You’ll also get to play one of my favorite drinking games of all time: Drink whenever you see someone wearing a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt. - Ben Shull
Re-Animator (1985) by Stuart Gordon
Not so much a comedy of errors as much as it is a comedy of malpractice. A budding yet mischievous med school student experiments with a new vaccine that allows him to bring the dead back to life. However, the side effects of the drug of far more potent than he could ever have imagined.
Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West – Reanimator,” Re-Animator takes a nearly surgical approach to storytelling, precisely removing layers of comfort before packing in the voids with a macabre filling. Much of the film’s draw is anchored in gross-out realism, particularly the stunning makeup effects. What makes it a great Halloween party flick is that there is always something to see on-screen, be it a fumbling corpse or a decapitated head working on its night moves. - Ben Shull
Shaun of the Dead (2004) by Edgar Wright
The mark of a quality “slumber party horror flick” is its appeal to the audience as both being fun and entertaining, but also sending a shiver down their spine — forcing connection between the different parties watching the film.
I say this because I find that writer/director Edgar Wright crafts his films with this in mind. They are built to both deal with community (as this entry does along with Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End), but also create a sense of it within the audience that is watching it. His dialogue his punchy, his characters relatable and his action is exhilarating.
This makes Shaun of the Dead — his first feature film — a perfect example of this concept of movie-watching. While Shaun doesn't strive for the story nuance or set-piece thrills of his latter work, Wright establishes his concept of working within genre with a flair of his own. In this respect, he works much like Quentin Tarantino, but I find that Wright is much more interested in humanity than Tarantino and this allows his work to feel more personable.
Shaun of the Dead follows the titled character (played by Simon Pegg), who has recently broken up with his long-time girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), because of his lack of focus on their relationship. But it also hurts that he lives with his slacker best friend, Ed (Nick Frost). Lucky for them, a zombie apocalypse hits the day after and Shaun rounds up Liz and her friends along with his mother and step-father to attempt to survive.
Wright delivers his trademark humor and action sequences that exude cinema and style. In one sequence, he plays Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” as Shaun and Liz beat down a zombie that has crawled into the bar they are staying in. The music dictates the action as Wright stages Pegg and Ashfield to knock the zombie on the head to the beat. It seems simple, but it creates an action sequence that warrants emotional reaction whether it is to the music playing or to the choreography of the sequence.
This hand-and-hand format that Wright uses throughout the course of his filmography is effective, and allows Shaun of the Dead to be that perfect midnight movie. - Zach Dennis
ParaNorman (2012) by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
For those wanting a more tame, but still cinematically and visually incredible, choice for their frightful party, ParaNorman is your pick. And my pick, too. Always.
LAIKA's second feature film tells the story of Norman, a preteen living in the New England area of the U.S. in Blithe Hollow. The New England setting is integral to the film's plot which involves witches and zombies and ghosts and all sorts of really cool dead things. Norman is ostracized from peers at school and bullied for having the power to see these cool dead things, just like you can see the chump in the seat next to you.
Amazing themes of fear, prejudice, and empathy (see Zach's review) are woven into this beautifully animated and crafted feature. (Can you tell we're a fan of LAIKA's here on Cinematary?) Paranorman won't scare you like The Witch or haunt your dreams like Rosemary's Baby, but it'll give you shivers with its unparalleled artistry and courageous main character. - John McAmis
The Guest (2014) by Adam Wingard
Lord, my biases are so obvious. I’ve already written about two Carpenter movies for these lists, and now I’m writing about an obvious Carpenter homage (The Guest even steals the “What the fuck” line from The Thing).
However, The Guest knows what it is, and does it extremely well on top of that, so I think it’s the perfect fun Halloween party pick. The first time I saw The Guest, I started it over again immediately after it finished; it’s just that good. The setting is Halloween based, the score is a fantastic throwback (I’m gonna say 80’s synth inspired, not straight) (don’t get mad at me, Film Twitter), and the direction is super stylish.
On top of all, I think The Guest does try to glancingly say some smart things about how returning soldiers are treated by society, which is certainly has ripe thematic possibilities, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, so you don’t have to either. Just sit back, relax, and let the experience of The Guest bowl you over. - Lydia Creech
Most WTF moment: RIP party decoration