13 Pranks Gone Wrong
Article By: Sean Abley
Who doesn’t like a good practical joke? Pretty much anyone with murder in his or her heart is who.
Pranks are a staple of horror flicks, typically setting in motion a chain of events that ends with a high body count; lure an unstable classmate into a too-good-to-be-true situation, add a bucket of pig blood or a fake corpse, plus an audience for the humiliation, and you’re good to go. But for some reason, horror movie characters just never learn from the past – ya prank a looney, ya get a looney with bloodlust, preferably yours. Horror pranks rarely go right, and here are thirteen that went terribly wrong.
1. Carrie (1976)
The most famous prank gone wrong in horror movie history. Our criterion for the prankster to pay for the prank at the hands of the pranked (or someone close to them) is certainly met here, with Carrie White’s fellow students and teachers either burning to death in the gym, or being killed in a psychically-motivated car accident.
2. Terror Train (1980)
Part of the Jamie Lee Curtis brand of 1980s horror movie comfort food, Terror Train serves up the ultimate taboo-busting prank—sex with a dead body. Well, almost sex. The object of the prank, Kenny, is lured into a too-good-to-be-true sexual situation by his pre-med school fraternity brothers. His fantasy girl turns out to be a cadaver from the med school lab, so worst night ever for Kenny (but best night ever for the lucky corpse). Kenny freaks out, and we flash forward three years to a med school New Years Eve costume party on a train. People start dying, and we assume it’s either Kenny in disguise, or David Copperfield (no lie). (A 2008 film starring Thora Birch called Train began as a remake of Terror Train, but eventually evolved into a “Hostel on a train” story instead.)
3. Heathers (1988)
So who is the prankster here? Is it Winona Ryder’s “Veronica,” who wants to feed Heather Chandler orange juice and milk? Or Christian Slater’s “J.D.” who switches the cup for one with drain cleaner, which kills her? Both wanted to prank, but ultimately J.D. is responsible for her death, and pays for it with his own at the end of the film.
4. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
Poor Melvin. 98-pound weakling, treated like garbage by the trash at the Tromaville Health Club. Once again, the prank here features the promise of sex with a girl. After talking the lowly janitor into putting on a pink tutu, the gym bullies send him into the darkened pool area to hook up with one of the hotties in spandex. Surprise! It’s a sheep! One suicidal window dive and a well-place truck filled with nuclear waste later, and the Toxic Avenger is born. Rest assured, all those muscle heads and bench press bimbos pay in delightfully bloody ways.
5. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
This William Castle house is full of pranks…and a vat of acid. Five random people are invited to a mansion by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price at his Vincent Pricey-est) for a game of “Survive and Get a Million Bucks.” Everyone is given a loaded gun and the game begins. Soon people are killing themselves and ghosts are appearing and all sorts of scary stuff is happening. Or is it? Nope, it’s not. Pranks everywhere! Turns out Loren’s wife Annabelle, forced to be at the party, faked her own suicide in a plot to drive one of the guests crazy enough to shoot her husband. But of course, Loren had some pranks up his sleeve as well, including a skeleton emerging from the acid bath, which results in Annabelle losing her balance and plunging into the vat. Castle’s “Emergo” gimmick—a skeleton emerging from the screen and flying over the audience—helped House on Haunted Hill to become a huge success. The 1999 remake is fine, but has approximately zero plot points in common with the original.
6. The Burning (1981)
A group of campers get the bright idea to pull a prank on the slightly off-kilter camp caretaker, Cropsy. They place a creepy skull with candles next to the sleeping man’s bed, then startle him awake. Uh oh! The prank works too well, and Cropsy freaks out. Cue the candles lighting his cabin on fire, followed by the burning of the title, and bam! Scarred caretaker in revenge mode. A cult hit beloved by fans of the genre, The Burning boasts early appearances by Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter (who is basically a featured extra).
7. Cry_Wolf (2005)
When you find out whodunit at the end of Cry Wolf, you’ll realize there were many pranks played throughout, but the first cut is always the deepest. After a student is found dead at the swanky Westlake Preparatory Academy, her classmates decide to spread the rumor a serial killer is on the loose. An email is distributed attributing the murder to the “Wolf,” a maniac in a camo jacket and orange ski mask. Wouldn’t ya know it, someone decides this is an amazing idea, and in an example of the deadliest of cosplays, dresses up as the “Wolf” and starts attacking people. After the big reveal at the end you’ll definitely want to watch this film a second time to see if it all adds up, but it’s a fun ride the first time regardless. Fun fact: Director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow is Katie Couric’s nephew!
8. Tamara (2005)
What do we learn from Jeffrey Reddick’s tale of feminist revenge? Don’t mess with shy girls who have a working knowledge of witchcraft. Tamara has a crush on her English teacher, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed by the jerks at her high school. After luring her to a motel room under the guise of a romantic interlude with Mr. Natolly, the bullies reveal themselves, a scuffle ensues, and Tamara winds up dead. What her tormentors probably wish they’d known about in advance of their terrible prank was the binding spell Tamara cast on herself and Mr. Natolly. The spilt blood in the motel room was the final ingredient, allowing the girl to rise from the dead and make short work of all involved.
9. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972)
Mad director Alan (aka film director Alan Ormsby) pranks his theater troupe by enlisting two delightfully gay assistants to play dead in a creepy island cemetery. The troupe digs up the pre-rigged grave and out leaps an apparently living corpse. Psyche! It’s just one of the assistants! Beside one pair of soiled pants, this prank doesn’t go wrong in the moment, but the chain of events this chicanery sets off does in a spectacular way. Using the corpse displaced by the prank, Alan orchestrates a voodoo ceremony to raise the dead. This time the dead truly do rise from the grave…
10. Slaughter High (1986)
The sad sack in Slaughter High, Marty, gets pranked several times before things go really wrong. He’s lured into a fake sex situation by Caroline Munro and her pals, and then tortured by the school bullies. Later he’s given tainted marijuana (which causes him to puke) and then his science experiment is rigged to blow up in his face; the subsequent fire causes him to panic and bump into a container of acid. It’s pretty much business as usual for “pranks gone wrong” films from there on out—revenge meted out by a scarred killer—but each kill is a lot of fun and Caroline Munro is always a joy to watch. A bit of trivia—the film was shot in England, and there are a lot of fake American accents being tossed around by the cast.
11. Alligator (1980)
This classic creature feature, co-written by John Sayles (The Brother from Another Planet, The Howling), is pretty straightforward—alligators flushed into the sewers grow up and attack the good citizens of Your Town, USA. But there is one nasty little prank involving some kids, a swimming pool, and a really hungry gator.
12. The Girl Most Likely To (1973)
How this made-for-TV movie got made in 1973 is a mystery to us, but thank goodness it did! In this Joan Rivers-penned tale of revenge, Stockard Channing plays Miriam, a less than attractive college student with more brains than boyfriends… and a plot-point-convenient allergy to roses. When she inexplicably nabs the lead role in a college theater production, one of the mean girls puts a dozen roses on stage, causing her to sneeze away her opening night. Distraught, Miriam races away, gets into a disfiguring car accident, and emerges from her various surgeries with a brand new, beautiful, unrecognizable face. Cue the bloody revenge, which includes sabotaging a parachute, coaxing a cheerleader to do a backflip off a balcony, and an exploding billiard ball.
13. Killer Party (1986)
This is the rare film where the prank going right is the reason the prank goes horribly wrong. During a sorority initiation ritual, pledge Vivia manages to set up an elaborate prank that involves objects moving under their own power, scary noises, and a fake guillotine beheading… of herself. No one is killed, no one is hurt, and no one is tricked into having sex with a corpse or anything fun like that. The prank works so well the sorority invites her to be a member, and that’s when it all goes downhill. Tasked with coming up with an April Fools scenario for a party the sorority is hosting in an abandoned fraternity house, Vivia and the ladies soon find themselves being picked off one by one. Is the killer one of the party guests? Or is the old frat truly haunted…?
Sean Abley is a playwright, screenwriter and horror film journalist. His latest book of interviews is Out in the Dark: Interviews with Gay Horror Filmmakers, Actors and Authors.