The 13 best movies based on urban legends
Ghosts, demons, slashers, zombies. These are all some of the typical antagonists behind today’s horror movies, and while the retread of these enemies is a bit tedious, the exposition on how they came to be can save audiences from boredom, and one of the most interesting of explanations is urban legends. As children, we all grow up hearing spooky stories of boogeymen and houses that should not be crossed out of fear for running into our demise, but to find out these stories are true makes the movies all the more terrifying.
Urban legends have been the subject of many horror films and while many of them have certainly fell short of the mark, some have hit the target really well, and with the upcoming release of Slender Man, let’s take a look back at some of the best films, both horror and otherwise, based on urban legends.
- Release: 1981
- Stars: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer
- Rotten Tomatoes: 86% from Critics, 61% from Audiences
Wooded summer camps are home to many creepy campfire tales and urban legends, and while it has been the home for numerous horror movies over the years such as Friday the 13th, one film was actually based on an urban legend: The Burning. Loosely based on the New York urban legend Cropsey, the film followed a group of camp counselors as they are murdered off one by one by a caretaker who was just released from the hospital after a near-fatal prank by campers leaves him horribly disfigured, driving him to seek revenge. The film, which was produced by Harvey Weisntein in his debut and co-written by his brother Bob in one of his two sole writing efforts, didn’t garner financial success at the time, but in the years since, it’s received very positive reviews from critics and has become a cult classic.
House of 1000 Corpses
- Release: 2003
- Stars: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie
- Rotten Tomatoes: 19% from Critics, 65% from Audiences
After 15 years of rocking the minds of listeners and scaring the pants off tourists at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, Rob Zombie decided to try his hand in filmmaking with House of 1000 Corpses, in which a group of teens researching urban legends are captured and tortured by a family in an unspecified backwoods region. Though the film doesn’t base itself on any one urban legend, but rather a fictional one made specifically for the film, it still finds some roots in general urban legends regarding families hiding in these isolated areas and the things they do to unsuspecting victims. The film was a modest financial success, grossing nearly $17 million off a $7 million budget, and thought it was panned by critics, it received largely positive reviews from audiences and gained a cult following, which helped spawn the 2005 sequel The Devil’s Rejects that earned a better critical reception and slightly better financial success.
- Release: 1992
- Stars: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley
- Rotten Tomatoes: 70% from Critics, 61% from Audiences
Tony Todd is considered one of the most widely recognized faces in the horror genre thanks to appearances as coroner William Bludworth in the Final Destination franchise and Reverend Zombie in the Hatchet franchise, but it all got started with his breakthrough performance as the titular antagonist of the 1992 horror film Candyman. The film follows a graduate student (Madsen, Designated Survivor) as she works on her thesis on urban legends and discovers the tale of Candyman (Todd), who was an artist and son of a slave and was murdered after having his hand severed and appeared in your mirror if you say his name five times. Though the film is based on a short story by Clive Barker, both share similarities to the Bloody Mary legend in which one is to stand in front of the mirror with the lights out and say her name three times until she appears behind them. The film was a modest box office success and generally positive reviews from critics, who saw the film as an elaborate and well-constructed campfire story brought to life, with the success spawning two sequels and helping further Todd’s career in the horror genre.
The Blair Witch Project
- Release: 1999
- Stars: Heather Donohue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams
- Rotten Tomatoes: 87% “Certified Fresh” from Critics, 56% from Audiences
It’s not only been hailed as one of the greatest horror films of all time but it’s also been widely recognized as one of the most influential in modern times given its popularization of the found footage technique in the horror genre, as well as the viral marketing campaign that kept the mystery of The Blair Witch Project a secret all the way up to the release of the film. Set around a trio of student filmmakers who go searching for a local Maryland legend known as The Blair Witch in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, the film was a roaring success upon its debut, earning rave reviews from critics who praised its found footage technique and ambiguity regarding the titular antagonist, and was a massive box office hit, earning nearly $250 million on a $60,000 budget.
- Release: 2013
- Stars: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson
- Rotten Tomatoes: 86% “Certified Fresh” from Critics, 33% from Audiences
Arguably one of the most popular in history, the legend of Bigfoot has been the source of numerous films, TV shows, songs and other media, as well as a popular source of parody over the years, but one of the most exciting films to watch surrounding the folklore creature is 2013’s found footage horror film Willow Creek. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait (God Bless America), the film follows a young couple who go to the woods of Willow Creek, California in search of Bigfoot for a documentary on the creature’s lore. Though it earned some negative reviews from audiences due to its similarities to The Blair Witch Project and lack of concrete answers, critics praised it for its inventive nature, strong sense of atmosphere and appropriate slow burn.
- Release: 1998
- Stars: Jared Leto, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid
- Rotten Tomatoes: 20% from Critics, 37% from Audiences
Alright, maybe this isn’t a great movie on its own, as numerous comparisons can be made between it and Wes Craven’s Scream, but in the realm of films based on urban legends, this is actually an interesting concept in bringing various legends to the big screen. Urban Legends features an ensemble cast including Jared Leto (Suicide Squad), Joshua Jackson (The Affair), Rebecca Gayheart (Scream 2), Tara Reid (Sharknado franchise), Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville), John Neville (The Adventures of Barry Munchausen), Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Brad Dourif (Child’s Play), and follows a group of college students who are murdered off one by one by a killer manifesting various urban legends. Though it received negative reviews from critics and audiences alike, it was a financial success and is actually fairly entertaining for fans of the slasher genre and those looking for a unique presentation of urban legends in film.
Dead Man on Campus
- Release: 1998
- Stars: Tom Everett Scott, Mark Paul-Gosselaar, Poppy Montgomery
- Rotten Tomatoes: 15% from Critics, 55% from Audiences
One of the more oft-forgotten and oft-told urban legends in history, the belief that a college student can get straight A’s in all of their classes if their roommate commits suicide is also probably one of the more realistic of urban legends out there, as one would think a college could potentially take pity on the student for having lost a friend. This urban legend was the subject of the 1998 black comedy Dead Man on Campus, in which two failing students learn of this condition and seek to move in a suicidal roommate in hopes of redeeming their grades before the semester’s end. It barely made its budget back and was panned by critics, but thanks to the performances from its two leads and dark humor, the film has amassed a small cult following.
- Release: 2009
- Stars: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor
- Rotten Tomatoes: 40% from Critics, 46% from Audiences
Roland Emmerich has thrived on ending the world multiple times over throughout his career, but the biggest shocker of them all was when he decided to take the urban legend that the world will end on December 21, 2012 when the Mayan calendar ended. He explored this in destructive and explosive fashion in the 2009 (too soon?) disaster epic 2012, which followed a struggling writer’s fight to keep his family alive during the multiple cataclysmic events around the world and other various characters handling of the situation, including an ark program designed to keep those who donated to it alive. The film featured an ensemble cast that included John Cusack (Hot Tub Time Machine), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Doctor Strange), Amanda Peet (Brockmire), Thandie Newton (Westworld), Liam James (Psych), Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Oliver Platt (Chicago Med) and Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and was a box office hit, earning nearly $770 million worldwide on a $200 million budget.
The Mothman Prophecies
- Release: 2002
- Stars: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton
- Rotten Tomatoes: 52% from Critics, 56% from Audiences
The Mothman Prophecies is a curious little mystery picture based on the book of the same name centered around author/parapsychologist John Keel’s investigations into the West Virginia titular folklore legend and its potential connections to theories regarding UFOs and supernatural phenomena in the area, as well as the collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967. The film itself follows a reporter (Richard Gere, Pretty Woman) who takes a detour he has no memory of to Point Pleasant, West Virginia and while investigating how he got there begins learning of supernatural phenomena in the town as well as sightings of a creature, all of which set him on a dark and mysterious path that also brings him closer to his deceased wife. Though the film received generally mixed reviews from critics, who criticized the film’s abundance of questions without answers, and was only a modest box office success, it’s the ambiguous and mysterious nature regarding the alleged sightings of the creature and its terrifying connections throughout the town that make this more than a worthwhile effort of bringing the legend of the Mothman to life.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
- Release: 1997
- Stars: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze, Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar
- Rotten Tomatoes: 35% from Critics, 40% from Audiences
Credited alongside Scream with revitalizing the slasher genre, I Know What You Did Last Summer is both one of the more often parodied and referenced films of the ’90s entries into the genre. Instead of going by the book it shares a name with, the film that is based on a legendary campfire tale and urban legend known as The Hook, in which a killer with a hook for a hand terrorizes a couple parked in their car. Set around a group of friends stalked by a hook-wielding killer one year after covering up a hit-and-run incident that seemingly resulted in the death of a man. Written by Scream‘s Kevin Williamson, the film received mixed reviews as critics and audiences compared it both negatively and positively to the 1996 slasher hit, but it has since gained a cult following and was a box office hit upon release, spawning one theatrical sequel and a direct-to-video sequel
- Release: 1986
- Stars: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
- Rotten Tomatoes: 59% from Critics, 74% from Audiences
One of the most disturbing and haunting urban legends ever known is the warning to never pick up a hitchhiker out of fear they will be a murderous psychopath, and 1986’s road thriller The Hitcher brought this to life in the most chilling and exhilarating way possible. Following a college student (C. Thomas Howell, Red Dawn) delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego who is terrorized by a manic hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer, Hobo with a Shotgun) killing random drivers and playing psychological games with him, the film was a modest box office success at the time and received mixed-to-positive reviews from critics, with much of the positive attention aimed towards Hauer’s thoroughly menacing performance and the film’s suspenseful pacing. The film’s success spawned a direct-to-video sequel in 2003 with Howell returning for his role, as well as a 2007 remake with Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) in the titular role that was also a modest box office success, but earned more negative reviews.
When a Stranger Calls
- Release: 1979
- Stars: Carole Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst
- Rotten Tomatoes: 31% from Critics, 49% from Audiences
The horror trope of a killer terrorizing a babysitter is well-worn and well-tread in movies, but the urban legend of a man calling the babysitter and reminding them to check on the children is one that, while seen in many films, has never been portrayed quite as successfully as the opening 20 minutes of the 1979 psychological thriller When a Stranger Calls. Though the film overall follows a disturbed man and his journey from murdering babysitters and the children they’re watching to escaping from his asylum and the hunt to bring him back, it’s the opening sequence of the film that has made it a cult hit and that actually followed the urban legend of the caller terrifying the babysitter, with the ultimate twist being delivered when the police trace the man’s call from inside the house being praised by audiences and critics. The film overall, however, received very mixed reviews for its anticlimactic and uninteresting latter parts of the story, but it was nonetheless a box office success and spawned a made-for-television sequel in 1993 and a remake in 2006 that expanded the opening 20 minutes into a feature-length film, which was also a commercial success but a much larger critical failure.
- Release: 2009
- Stars: Melissa George, Liam Hemsworth, Michael Dorman
- Rotten Tomatoes: 80% from Critics, 66% from Audiences
The Bermuda Triangle is one of the most feared, debated and controversial urban legends in history, with various conspiracy theories, ghost stories and mysterious occurrences surrounding the western part of the Atlantic Ocean, and the 2009 horror film Triangle gave audiences a disturbing look at the possibility of what awaits them in this area of water. Following a single mother who takes a boat trip with her friends and must board a deserted ocean liner following their own shipwreck, the film was an exercise in sheer psychological terror and audience mind-bending that was praised by critics for its combination of twisty storytelling and Melissa George (30 Days of Night)’s lead performance.