13 Suburban Nightmare Films
Article By: Ben Raphael Sher
Suburbia has been sold to the masses as a safe, happy place to make one’s fortune and raise a loving family. That was certainly a drawing factor for the Monohan family, the central unit at the heart of The Gates (Thursdays at 9pm ET on Chiller). For decades, horror films (and some TV shows – see the aforementioned Gates reference) have capitalized on the secret evils found in small towns, which so many seek to deny. For your approval, 13 horror films that reveal some of suburbia’s more nightmarish realities…
1. The Blob (1958)
High school sweethearts Steve (Steve McQueen) and Jane must try to save their town from a massive, man-eating blob that threatens to annihilate the world. In the highlight of the film, the blob attacks a movie theater filled with teens. You could be next! Rumor has it that Grace Metalious originally ended her seminal small town novel Peyton Place with a series of events similar to the ones in this film.
2. Last House on the Left (1972)
Mari and Phyllis drive from Connecticut to attend a concert on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A quest for pot lands the girls in the lair of a group of murderers, who drug them, throw them in the trunk of their car, and take off for Mexico. Sure enough, the car breaks down in front of Mari’s house, and the girls are eventually murdered in the woods where they once frolicked. The killers seek shelter with Mari’s parents, who exact bloody revenge. Last House preys on the suburban teenager’s anxieties about what kind of dangers might befall them when they break away from the safety of their home (the film’s original ad campaign suggested that parents take their children to see it, to teach them the dangers of doing drugs!). At the same time, it raises upsetting questions about the ways in which the class divisions inherent in suburbia contribute to dreadful violence in American culture.
3. Carrie (1976)
A razor sharp portrait of the ways in which suburban communities randomly define what constitutes “otherness” and then try to annihilate it. Carrie White, traumatized by years spent living with an abusive, religious fanatic mother, does not have social skills or the ability to feather her hair. As a result, she ends up the scapegoat of her school’s nasty popular girls and most of its faculty. Carrie’s suburban nightmare is not her famous annihilation of the prom, but the collective abuse and neglect that creates such supernatural fury within her. Few other movies are so genuinely devastating and viciously funny at the same time. Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and director Brian De Palma totally understand how, for teenagers in suburbia, drama surrounding the prom rises to the level of Greek tragedy and Italian opera.
4. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
The American slasher film was one of the first horror subgenres to repeatedly represent suburbia as a place of fear and danger. While Halloween is often given credit for bringing danger “home” to Smalltown, USA, The Town that Dreaded Sundown did it first. The film, loosely based on a true story, depicts a reign of terror by “The Phantom,” a hooded killer who brutally murdered a series of young people in Texarkana, TX in 1946. The film’s documentary-like style adds to its ability to get under your skin.
5. Halloween (1978)
Halloween’s ingenious structure adds terror to every step of a normal teenager’s boring day, making it possibly the most epic suburban nightmare ever made. As Laurie Strode does a favor for her dad, sits through a boring class at school, walks home with her friends, and deals with another night of babysitting and boy drama, Michael Myers watches, waits, and kills. John Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey turn a cozy, upper middle class house into a gothic tomb, with horror potentially lurking around every corner. They turn suburbia inside out, revealing the dark underside that its idyllic surfaces tend to cover up.
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the great, scathing criticisms of the social structures that can make small town life so oppressive. A group of parents burn Freddy Krueger, a child murderer, alive. Years later he comes back to murder their surviving teenaged children in their dreams. Hall monitors and clueless parents constantly thwart heroine Nancy and her friends’ efforts to survive. Their parents thrive on denial, ignoring their children’s assertions that they are in danger, locking them in their houses, disconnecting the phones, getting drunk, and telling them to go to sleep. The movie cynically, and insightfully, suggests that parents’ unwillingness to believe in the potential horrors of suburban life allowed Krueger to thrive in the first place. Only the teenagers can rectify the error of their ways and save themselves.
7. The Stepfather (1987)
Terry O’ Quinn (Lost) gives one of the best horror performances of all time as Jerry Blake, a sociopath who takes his Norman Rockwell fantasies about 300 steps too far. The film opens as Jerry shaves while his bloodily murdered family lay strewn about their home. Flash forward, and he has found a new life with a pretty blonde divorcee (perfectly cast Shelley Hack, former perfume model and Charlie’s angel) and her teenage daughter, Stephanie. Before long, Stephanie witnesses Jerry throwing fits in his woodshed, moaning about how she and her mother can’t live up to his standards of perfection while carving a birdhouse. People start dying. Jerry isn’t so different from many suburbanites who tolerate violence in the name of rigidly conceived “family values.”
8. Parents (1989)
An extremely black, wonderfully creepy satire about the terrible childhood of Michael, a young boy in a postcard perfect ’50s neighborhood. He begins to expect that there’s something strange about the endless leftover meat that his parents serve him for dinner (for one thing, they won’t tell him what it’s left over from). Director Bob Balaban does a brilliant job emphasizing the grotesque qualities of ‘50s décor, and reminding the audience how ominous the mysteries of the adult world can be for children. Mary Beth Hurt and Randy Quaid personify eerie ordinariness. When Michael walks in on them having sex, you’ll be traumatized, too.
9. The Girl Next Door (2007)
David, a young boy living in a placid town in the 1950s, befriends a pretty 16-year-old neighbor named Megan. She and her sister have come to live with their Aunt Ruth after their parents’ death. Slowly Megan reveals to David that Ruth abuses them. Ruth’s atrocities become more and more horrific, and several of the town’s boys come to watch and participate. The police betray Megan’s confidence to Ruth after she reports her experiences, and David’s father tells him to mind his own business. A relatively accurate adaptation of a true story that took place in Indiana, and received national coverage, The Girl Next Door is almost unbearable to experience. However, it may be the most truly nightmarish of all suburban horror movies.
10. Poltergeist (1982)
The Freeling family must be punished for their comfortable complacency. They have an over-abundance of toys, dad thoughtlessly earns money by selling identical houses built on a graveyard, daughter Dana talks on the phone all the time, and everybody watches too much TV. As a result, the spirits of the dead bodies trampled by the Freelings’ suburban community kidnap their youngest, Carol Ann, through the family’s favorite gadget. Steven Spielberg produced (and, some have argued, partially directed) Poltergeist. As a result, it has a rosier view of family life than most. The Freelings bond together to save their daughter. They realize that she’s more important than their physical possessions (all of which are mysteriously consumed by the spirit world). It’s one of the few horror movies that might just make you want to call your mom.
11. The Stepford Wives (1975)
If the 10 movies described above demonstrate that suburbia can be a rotten place for children and teenagers, The Stepford Wives shows that it can suck for adult women, too. Joanna Eberhart and her husband move from New York City to Stepford, CT, where all of the women wear long, frilly dresses, speak in monotone, and are obsessed with shopping for groceries. After Joanna’s feminist consciousness raising group devolves into a raving conversation about cleaning ovens and waxing floors, she begins to become suspicious of the town’s spooky, secretive “men’s society.” The Stepford Wives has a thing or two to say about the disturbing lengths to which certain men will go to keep women in their place.
12. Season of the Witch AKA Hungry Wives (1972)
If you’re unbearably depressed after watching The Stepford Wives, check out this rich curiosity directed by George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead). Joan Mitchell, a dissatisfied housewife living in a suburb of Pittsburgh, decides to cure her boredom by joining a coven of witches. Her coven gives her a sense of fulfillment, community, and feminist consciousness, but things eventually go awry. Joan begins having recurring dreams of a Satanic intruder attacking her in her home, reality and fantasy increasingly blur, and, finally, somebody dies. It’s not the most inspirational feminist film out there, but it offers more possibilities than Stepford. It’s also an oddly fascinating depiction of domestic life in the ‘70s.
13. Flesh Eating Mothers (1989)
Even more housewife horror! The philandering neighborhood hunk has a venereal disease that induces cannibalism in all of his lovers, the scheming women of the local PTA. Soon, they seek to eat their husbands and children while making stupid wisecracks. The kids discover that they can only save themselves by administering an antidote…anally. As a depiction of the generation gap, Flesh Eating Mothers wins the award for least subtlety.
Honorable mention must go to Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Blue Velvet (1986), seminal suburban nightmares that (arguably) fall just outside of the horror genre.