It’s August! It’s too hot to really do anything other than go to work or go on vacation. Are you about to go on vacation? You probably are if you didn’t already. Because it’s a strong American tradition to escape during the dog days of summer, it also means there’s plenty of good horror that mines it. Here are some of my favorite Vacation Horror movies that aren’t named Jaws (cause clearly, that is the best one ever made).
The Bay (dir. Barry Levinson, 2012)
Apparently tasked to direct a documentary about the environmental hazards facing the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore filmmaker Barry Levinson decided that no one would probably see it or particularly care. So he decided to take those issues and make a found footage horror movie, a major departure for a man who directed some of the more notable studio films of the 1980’s (Diner, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man). Over the Fourth of July holiday in a small, bayside Maryland town, years of environmental neglect and industrial harm finally coalesce into a massive, mysterious and deadly outbreak. It’s gory, disturbing, made me scream out loud multiple times, but is also educational. Levinson was right- I am now more aware of things like the impact of agricultural runoff on our drinking water than I would have been had I just watched a simple documentary.
The Burbs (dir. Joe Dante, 1989)
Not all vacations involve grand plans- sometimes you are so busy at work you never get around to making any! Or sometimes you might just want to sit on your ass for a week. The Burbs is the perfect riff on the summer staycation, with a young and still slightly comedy oriented Tom Hanks in the lead. It’s a Joe Dante riff on Rear Window, with total boredom leading to a sudden interest in spying on the creepy new neighbors, who take their trash out at odd hours of the night and have a basement that tends to mysteriously light up and make loud noises. A supporting cast that includes Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher and Corey Feldman, along with Dante’s signature master balance of comedy and horror, make this an all time summer classic.
Cabin Fever (dir. Eli Roth, 2002)
Now a household name among horror fans, Eli Roth made his feature film debut in 2002 with this mash up of so many tried and true horror concepts. You have a bunch of horny college students spending a weekend in a cabin in the woods, you have a flesh eating virus, and you have a bunch of gun toting backwoods racists who don’t take too kindly to outsiders. With Cabin Fever, Roth firmly established his brand of Maxim-ready horror, with plenty of nudity, gore, bad jokes and bad taste to go around. But it’s probably still his best movie, if not his most fun and rewatchable.
Evil Dead II (dir. Sam Raimi, 1987)
When it comes to a getaway-to-a-cabin-in-the-woods-gone-wrong horror movie, I am definitely not alone in this being the first movie that comes to mind. Essentially a DeLaurentiis level budget reboot of the first film (don’t think too hard about the timeline here), it takes the single location student film vibe of the first but imbues it with loads of crazy effects, comic timing and slapstick humor, firmly establishing the tone that would follow in Army of Darkness and the Starz series Ash Vs. Evil Dead. It is hard to think of a more purely fun horror movie.
The Hills Have Eyes (dir. Alexandre Aja, 2006)
Not all vacations, of course, are to the woods or the beach. Sometimes your family has the bright idea of taking an RV across the desert. For that, I give you French Horror Extremist Alexandre Aja’s utterly brutal remake of Wes Craven’s 1970’s classic. A family is lured into the middle of nowhere by a deceptive gas station owner, and is left to be preyed upon by a bunch of cannibalistic survivors of radiation from nearby nuclear testing sites. There is nothing quite as scary to me in horror movies as family members seeing other family members slaughtered- so this one hit a nerve for me. Fortunately, there is plenty of bloodlust to go around…oh, and feel free to skip the useless sequel.
Honeymoon (dir. Leigh Janiak, 2014)
A honeymoon isn’t just any old vacation, it’s a vacation you take (hopefully) once, with a very specific purpose- celebrating your love with your newlywed! However, it provides all kinds of opportunities to build tension- what if you find out things you didn’t know about before? What if you don’t have a good time? What if you discover some type of incompatibility? Honeymoon, which stars Rose Leslie (Game Of Thrones) and Harry Treadaway as the young couple on their special trip to a family owned (guess what?) cabin in the woods, mines these anxieties brilliantly and relatably, before building them into something sinister and terrifying. It’s also the one movie on this list directed by a woman, so be sure to check it out.
The River Wild (dir. Curtis Hanson, 1994)
This one is more of an action thriller than a horror movie, but in many ways it is just as terrifying. What if your family rafting trip was taken over by an escaped convict as harrowing and evil as Kevin Bacon’s character? Fortunately, your mom is expert river guide Meryl Streep, so you’re probably in good hands. It is just as much a family drama as an exciting thrill ride, complete with young performances from John C. Reilly and Benjamin Bratt. This movie is often forgotten in conversations about great 90’s action films, and it shouldn’t be!