horror

The 15 Best Urban-Legend Horror Movies

Slender Man.

This weekend, Slender Man opens in theaters after a long and winding road to the box office (including multiple release-date changes and a mostly absent marketing campaign). The central story is based on the internet lore surrounding the titular character, a long, spindly humanlike figure who stalks, abducts, and traumatizes people — particularly kids. In the movie, a group of teen girls attempt to solve the mystery of Slender Man to protect themselves and save a friend who goes missing. It’s classic urban-legend horror: those scary stories you heard through your best friend’s cousin’s girlfriend who knows a guy that was totally killed by mixing Pop Rocks with soda.

If you’re looking for more spooky stories along these lines, we’ve come up with a list of 15 urban-legend horror movies ready to freak you the hell out, ranked in ascending order of quality. From the haunted VHS tapes of Japan to the sewer-trawling alligators of the United States, here’s your guide to the best, most bombastic, and occasionally sexy urban-myth-based horror movies.

15. The Curve (1998)
When this one was released at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, it was called Dead Man’s Curve, but the name was changed so it didn’t sound exactly like another movie coming out that year revolving around the exact same premise: Conspire to kill your roommate, because if they die, the university will grant you straight As due to hardship. Curve was the edgier version, and starred Michael Vartan, Matthew Lillard, and Keri Russell, with all of her long curly hair. It’s an incredible ’90s time capsule in which one character tries to assuage another’s fears about her fizzling relationship by saying, “You guys are like Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. You guys are meant to be together.”

14. The Tag-Along (2015)
This Taiwanese blockbuster is based on the legend of the little girl in red who follows those visiting the forest and snatches their souls away. In this case, she haunts a young professional man and his family, who have recently crossed paths with her in the woods, and slowly starts pulling them over into the spirit realm. The graphics are pretty poor, but there are still a number of good jump scares, and the movie’s apparent anti-abortion, anti-career message for women functions as a very interesting lens to consider Taiwanese myth and cultural norms. Learning through horror!

13. Alligator (1980)
There definitely aren’t enough sewer monsters on this list, so for your consideration we offer Alligator, a movie about 36-foot-long urban-dwelling reptile that eats people and has the strength to burst straight up through a concrete sidewalk.

12. Urban Legend (1998)
Did you say you wanted your urban-legend-based horror delivered with a side of hot ’90s stars? Of course you do. Urban Legend stars Tara Reid, Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Jared Leto, and Joshua Jackson (in addition to genre icons Robert Englund and Brad Dourif) as college students pursued by a murderer who likes to use urban myths as deadly setups. There are Pop Rocks and soda, the killer in the backseat, Bloody Mary, organ harvesting, ankle slashing, the babysitter and the man upstairs, and even more. It’s a legends clearinghouse!

11. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
This holiday-specific movie takes place over the course of a Halloween night and tells a series of interconnecting stories about people who must suffer the consequences of breaking the evening’s traditions. There are spooky trick-or-treaters, jack-o’-lanterns aplenty, a Halloween school-bus massacre, and more.

10. Christine (1983)
Stephen King is responsible for at least 74 percent of our pop culture, and this 1983 adaptation is one of the better screen renditions of his work. When dorky Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) meets the car of his dreams in a junkyard, he spends his hard-earned college money to make it his own. Christine is the car’s name, and once it’s all spruced up, it gives Arnie a confidence he’s never known — along with a real mean streak. Arnie loves his new ride, and in turn, the car will protect him from even the slightest offense or threat to their very close relationship. Autonomous vengeful cars are one of the more surprisingly enduring haunted tales, and Christine is really its standard-bearer.

9. The Hitcher (1986)
Rutger Hauer is terrifying. Full stop. It’s his cold, relentlessness cruelty in The Hitcher that makes it a classic. As John Ryder, Hauer is the man with his thumb out on the highway that your mom warned you about. After an early encounter with young Jim (C. Thomas Howell) ends before Ryder can make him his next victim, Ryder spends the rest of the movie ruining Jim’s life and framing him for his cross-Texas killing spree. Hitcher also features a perfectly disaffected young Jennifer Jason Leigh.

8. Deathdream (1974)
Also called Dead of Night, this take on the W.W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw” is about a soldier who dies in battle but is willed back to life by the pleas of his mother. But the soldier, Andy, isn’t the same when he returns, and is even aware that he is now the living dead. He requires blood to keep from decaying, and as his ghoulish behavior persists, his family crumbles around him. Deathdream is Canadian cult classic and also a sharp critique of the effects of combat on returning soldiers. Urban-legend movies aren’t all just fluff.

7. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
The legend of the hook-handed man has been around for a long time, but it’s never been presented with as much sheen as it has in I Know What You Did Last Summer. The 1990s really perfected the “sexy teens in horror” construction (see: The Faculty, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Scream, etc.), and in that regard, this ensemble — featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze Jr. — really obliterated the competition. After a night of drinking and rabble-rousing, a group of friends on the cusp of high-school graduation accidentally kill a man during a drunken joyride. It pretty much ruins all of their lives, but being stuck in your small-town bait shop is a light sentence compared to the vengeance that will be exacted on the teens for their crime and their dirty cover-up. If you haven’t seen this one then, well, what are you waiting for?!

6. Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)
Together with Ringu, Ju-on is a standard-bearer for the Japanese ghost horror wave in the 1990s and early 2000s. It tells a series of interconnected stories that all center around a house where a terrible tragedy occurred, and where the spirits of the traumatized victims are left to haunt anyone who comes in after them. Ju-on would have been terrifying if it had just had Kayako (the long-haired ghost reminiscent of Ring’s Samara/Ringu’s Sadako), but it also served us Toshio, one of the most terrifying children in the history of terrifying horror-movie children. But go ahead and skip the 2004 American remake.

5. Black Christmas (1974)
Prepare for some possible heresy. Even if When a Stranger Calls defined the convention of “the killer is already in the house,” Black Christmas is the superior execution of the premise. The first 30 minutes of Stranger Calls is some of the best pure fear ever put on screen, but there’s a whole hour after that that isn’t nearly as good. Black Christmas, however, is a sorority slasher treat from beginning to end. In this Canadian classic, several of the sisters from Pi Kappa Delta are being harassed by a man dubbed the Moaner, who calls and just makes suggestive noises on the other end of the line. It’s nothing more than an annoyance until sisters start going missing, and the movie’s low-budget makes it all feel very, very real. Tune in to see Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin in their cinematic infancies.

4. Willow Creek (2013)
There are two very surprising things to consider about Willow Creek right off the top: It’s a very scary and not at all cheesy take on the myth of Bigfoot, and it was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. (Yes, he has carved out a solid directing career for himself, mostly on television, but to most people he is probably still that neurotic screaming comedian from the 1990s.) Willow Creek follows a couple camping in the woods and playing tourist around Sasquatch’s alleged stomping grounds, but who end up finding way, way more than they bargained for. The movie is an ideal case for using found footage, and there’s one long, static shot in a dewy tent that’s so tense it will shave at least a year off your life.

3. The Ring (2002)
Of all the attempts to successfully import J-horror to the U.S. in the aughts, this adaptation of Ringu is the only one that worked — and boy did it really work. Naomi Watts delivers an era-defining horror heroine performance as a mom trying to save her son from the wicked Samara, a ghost that gets passed around like a communicable disease after you’ve watched a haunting VHS tape she possessed. Play the video and you have seven days until your time expires. It features a teenage Amber Tamblyn in the cold open, and little David Dorfman, playing the son of Watts, is creepy enough to make Jacob Tremblay glad he wasn’t trying to come up 16 years earlier.

2. Ringu (1998)
Before American teens were being literally scared to death in Seattle after watching a bedeviled video tape in The Ring, a group of people were being terrorized by the original tape demon, Sadako Yamamura, in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu. The pale white ghost with the long, stringy hair — and one horrible eye peeking out from behind it — crawling out from inside a TV is a defining moment in horror, and one that kicked off a whole Stateside craze of adapting whatever Japanese horror story studios could get their hands on. Finally, the threatening chain letter was brought into the modern age!

1. Candyman (1992)
It doesn’t get better than Candyman for urban-legend horror. Tony Todd stars as the titular villain in this take on the Bloody Mary myth, which was adapted from fear master Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden.” The horrors take place in a housing project, and the narrative deliberately sets the violence off by placing it against the backdrop of racial injustice. When a university student researching urban folklore starts perusing the projects to learn more about the infamous Candyman, she not only discovers him, but learns he wants to take her with him to the afterlife. It’s a genre classic and a crucial entry in the Black Horror canon.

The 15 Best Urban-Legend Horror Movies