Ranking Criterion’s High School Horror collection

Criterion High School Horror

The Criterion Channel dives into the unique hell of being a teenager & we’ll tell you which films not to miss.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Back to school time is here, and maybe you’re taking a moment to reflect on your high school days, that complicated, angsty time of bad skin, painful crushes, poorly timed boners, and discovering that you’re turning into a werewolf.

Oh, you didn’t turn into a werewolf in high school? Then maybe you discovered that your school is run by a coven of supernatural witches. No? Perhaps you were stalked by someone after covering up a fatal car accident. Huh, well then. Luckily, for those of us whose high school experience wasn’t quite so eventful, there’s The Criterion Channel‘s High School Horror collection, featuring thirteen films that cover everything from 70s exploitation to cult horror to the glossy 90s slasher revival. Whether you’re just looking to see pretty people hacked to bits, or sensitive, insightful looks at the pain of leaving childhood behind (whether you want to or not), the films featured here are alternately creepy, disturbing, funny, and unexpectedly poignant. With the caveat that when we say “we,” we mean me, one writer with occasionally questionable opinions, we rate the offerings according to “must see,” “should see,” and “watch Carrie, which is mysteriously missing from this list, instead.”


Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento): If you’ve yet to watch Dario Argento’s giallo freakout, now’s the perfect time because it marks the world streaming premiere of the restored uncut version. Jessica Harper stars as a naive young American who’s accepted to a prestigious German dance academy, only to discover a series of gruesome murders tied to the mysterious Helena Markos, the academy’s founder. Wildly incomprehensible but also completely absorbing, its use of bold colors and over-the-top gore defined its genre, its nightmare-inducing imagery will stick with you, even if you can’t figure out what the hell happens in it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, dir. David Lynch): While one of the best movies in the collection, this is also the least enjoyable, so caveat emptor. A prequel to Twin Peaks, it recounts the harrowing last days of the doomed Laura Palmer (an excellent Sheryl Lee), and the events leading up to her murder. While often lapsing into incoherence like Suspiria, and with a brutally drawn-out demise for the tormented protagonist (without even factoring in who’s responsible for it, no spoilers), its oddly poignant ending is what makes it unforgettable, along with Lee’s powerhouse performance, which must have left her unable to speak above a whisper for days after filming.  

Criterion High School Horror
Donnie Darko (Pandora Cinema)

Donnie Darko (2001, dir. Richard Kelly): Another bummer movie (although, let’s face it, being a teenager really does eat it most of the time), Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a troubled teenager experiencing disturbing visions of a man wearing a grotesque rabbit costume, who both warns him that the world is about to end, and encourages him to engage in destructive behavior. Though the overly complicated plot, involving premonitions and alternate timelines, doesn’t always stick the landing, Gyllenhaal, playing a character who seems as equally fascinated by what he’s experiencing as scared, makes it a compelling watch. Donnie’s attempts at maintaining normalcy with his nice family and new girlfriend while believing that he may be losing his mind are all too unsettlingly relatable.  

Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett): A sisterly bond takes on a sinister edge in John Fawcett’s supernatural thriller about teenage Ginger (indie horror queen Katharine Isabelle), a late bloomer whose first period coincides with a werewolf attack. Emily Perkins is Ginger’s younger sister, who’s equal parts frightened, fascinated by, and envious of Ginger’s transformation into someone she no longer recognizes, violent and sexually aggressive, and an object of fear and desire for the boys in their school. Though it seems like it should be salacious, Ginger Snaps is surprisingly sensitive and empathetic in revealing the dark and unpleasant side of blossoming into womanhood.

Battle Royale (2000, dir. Kinji Fukasaku): Oh, you thought it was bad having to beat someone to the last slice of pizza in the cafeteria? Try being stuck on a deserted island and forced to murder your classmates in hand-to-hand combat. In Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, the Japanese government comes up with a rather extreme solution for juvenile delinquency: a survival game in which first prize is getting to go on with your life, and second prize is a grisly death. Controversial upon release due to both its intense violence and underage cast, it quickly developed cult status, and is now considered a 21st century equivalent to A Clockwork Orange.


The Faculty (1998, dir. Robert Rodriguez): One of three movies in the collection from the late 90s hit-or-miss horror comeback, The Faculty was Robert Rodriguez’s second go at horror after From Dusk Till Dawn, and a collaboration with Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson. It’s two great tastes that go surprisingly good together, as a group of mismatched high school classmates discover that their teachers are being replaced by alien clones and work together to stop the growing menace before it’s too late. A little too much time is spent on too many characters and their relationship problems, but when things get cooking it’s a surprising amount of fun that’s probably better than you remember.

Criterion High School Horror
Massacre at Central High (Brian Distributing Company)

Massacre at Central High (1976, dir. Rene Daalder): The oldest movie in the collection, this curious combination of exploitative thriller and serious social commentary illustrates the mayhem that can occur when high school underdogs get a taste of power. New kid in school David, rather than ingratiating himself to a pack of bullies, murders them to “free” the other students, only to see the victims eventually become victimizers and turn on each other. A sort of low-budget take on Lord of the Flies (that reportedly inspired 1989’s Heathers), it’s bleak, lurid and subversive.

The Craft (1996, dir. Andrew Fleming): Though elder goths grumbled about its Hot Topic vibes upon release, The Craft is a fun little trip down mid-90s memory lane. Another new kid in school story (as someone who moved to a different town halfway through high school I can tell you this is indeed a terrifying concept), it stars Robin Tunney as Sarah, a lonely teen witch who’s brought into a coven of outcasts. Their shared abilities vanquish their foes and raise their social status, until one member of the group, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), becomes murderously mad with power. More silly than scary, The Craft wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does if not for Balk, who eats up the scenery and asks for seconds.   

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982, dir. Amy Holden Jones): Though originally written as a parody, The Slumber Party Massacre was refashioned at the last minute into a straightforward, occasionally derivative slasher movie, during the golden era when slashers all but printed their own money. Yet, some of the humor of the original script remains, such as a scene where the characters eat pizza from a box laying on top of a recently murdered deliveryman, either not noticing or not caring that he’s there. It’s those quirky touches that make Slumber Party Massacre not a hidden gem necessarily, but still worth a watch anyway. 

Unfriended (2014, dir. Levan Gabriadze): The most recent release in the collection, the surprise hit Unfriended presents a very 21st century situation: a mysterious entity that terrorizes its victims via the internet. A teenage girl commits suicide, and her ghost torments the bullies that made her life hell, first by turning them on each other, and then forcing them to kill themselves. Though 2020’s Host did the “everything takes place over a computer” gimmick with more finesse, Unfriended is a nasty piece of business, playing into both paranoia and social media addiction. (NOTE: Unfriended will not be available until October 16)

Criterion High School Horror
Unfriended (Blumhouse)

Prom Night (1980, dir. Paul Lynch): Vengeance is also on the mind of the killer in Prom Night, who’s polite enough to call Jamie Lee Curtis and her friends to let them know in advance that he’s coming to kill them in revenge for their role in an accidental death years earlier. Released at the height of Curtis’s scream queen era, it’s a bit of a snooze compared to her other work from that time, save for when the action stops for an extended dance number, and its upbeat disco theme song.


I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, dir. Jim Gillespie): Vengeance is also on the mind of the killer in I Know What You Did Last Summer, after Ryan Philippe, playing a real douchebag, and his friends accidentally run someone over and cover up the crime. Though one of the most successful releases in the teen-friendly late 90s horror resurgence, it’s also one of the weakest, featuring a cast of attractive but profoundly unlikeable characters who spend more time bickering with each other than fleeing for their lives.

Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003, dir. Kenta Fukasaku): The only sequel in the collection, and oh, what a misguided sequel it is! Clocking in at over two hours long, running time is not the only thing that’s bloated here. Everything is bigger, louder, and gorier than its predecessor, but without the insightful commentary. Instead, in what’s either a bold or wildly tasteless (or both) angle not even two years after 9/11, the “heroes” are a group of Al-Qaeda like terrorists fighting the American government. One could be charitable and say it’s satirizing 80s jingoistic (and xenophobic) nonsense like the Rambo movies and Delta Force, but it’s mostly too clumsy and ugly to get a pass for that. Just watch Battle Royale a second time.

High School Horror is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Criterion Channel High School Horror Trailer:

Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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