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Decades of Horror: 1990s Edition


Last week we kicked off our "Decades of Horror" feature by looking back at the best films of the 1980s. This week we're moving on to the 1990s, when remakes, adaptations, and horror-comedies reigned supreme (with the occasional prestige thriller thrown in for good measure).

Join Shelby C., Matt G., Matt L., Jose G., John L., and Sean M. as they recount their favorite horror films of the decade by year. Check back next Friday for Decades of Horror: 2000s Edition!

1990:

Matt L. - Misery (dir. Rob Reiner)

Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes is legitimately one of the most terrifying villains put to film and her performance elevates what would already be a super-effective horror film. The fact that this is from the director of When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride is just the surprising cherry on top.

Shelby C. - Misery (dir. Rob Reiner)

This film created entirely new phobias for me, as any good horror film should. The “hobbling scene” (yeah - you know the one) is so firmly embedded in my memory that I don’t think years of therapy could remove it.

Jose G. - Jacob's Ladder (dir. Adrian Lyne)

There are images in this dark masterpiece that still haunt me to this day. Tim Robbins is the perfect everyman suffering through a never-ending nightmare and director Lyne packs in glorious shot after glorious shot until the haunting finale.

Sean M. - The Exorcist III (dir. William Peter Blatty)

Not nearly as iconic or shocking as the original, but a vast improvement over Exorcist II (which is surprisingly boring). There’s some really creepy and unsettling moments throughout. Even with the tacked on exorcism at the end, this one holds up quite well.

Matt G. - Begotten (dir. E. Elias Merhige)

An experimental, allegorical treatise on violent birth and the thin line that separates destruction from creation. The film's central image (a ghoulish godhead hemorrhaging gouts of inky, ichorous blood) casts a long and indelibly dark shadow over the formative years of internet spoop. Nothing says “haunted video please don't click!” quite like the high contrast black and white visions of hell that Merhige conjures up in this movie. Begotten is the monster that's lying in wait at the bottom of every 4am creepypasta rabbit hole you've ever fallen down. This is abstract, non-narrative cinema at its most disturbing and disquieting. If you find yourself enjoying the way that this movie scrambles your brains, check out Peter Tscherkassky's Outer Space, which made my shortlist for 1999.

1991:

Matt L. - The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme)

What I said about Annie Wilkes above applies just as much, if not more, to Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. That he’s surrounded with equally strong performances from Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling and Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill (though the characterization is problematic) lifts the film from great to a true classic. And despite the lack of traditional jump scares, the final confrontation between Starling and Bill in his basement is one of the most suspenseful sequences I’ve seen.

Shelby C. - The People Under the Stairs (dir. Wes Craven)

A criminally underrated and underwatched horror film, which isn’t helped by the fact that it is streaming pretty much nowhere. Craven’s satirical horror flick deals with class and race in ways that are relevant and creepy and maybe even creepily relevant (still, 30ish years later).

Jose G. - Dead Again (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

I know the easy choice is The Silence of the Lambs but I recently re-discovered this Hitchcockian homage. Director Branagh keeps the tension wound tight with an all-star cast that includes his then wife Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia and a wonderfully glib Robin Williams in this tale of murder and past lives.

Sean M. - Cape Fear (dir. Martin Scorsese)

The rare remake that’s equal to the original. Also, I’m glad Scorcese kept Bernard Herrman’s original theme.

Matt G. - The Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme)

Every time I watch The Silence of the Lambs, I catch myself craving Hannibal Lecter's approval. That is the source of his charisma, and that is the human foible that he exploits (a foible that he, crucially, does not possess). He's urbane and worldly and vicious and, above all, difficult to impress, and therefore we are eager to impress him. He capitalizes on our vanity and tricks us into regarding him, first and foremost, as a finicky and exacting professor – the kind of mentor figure who might hit a disappointing student with a cutting remark, or might just cut them open. We know that he tends to feast upon rude, dull, small-minded, provincial people, and we tell ourselves that we are not like them. Surely Dr. Lecter wouldn't try to eat me. I could match wits with him, given the chance, and earn his begrudging respect. Deep down, we all just want the cranky old cannibal to like us.

1992:

Matt L. - Army of Darkness (dir. Sam Raimi)

Somehow I managed to skip over both the first Evil Dead AND Evil Dead II (a film I love) leaving this one as the Ash film that makes my list. It’s maybe appropriate, as I encountered and watched the movies in reverse order, and it was my love of the over-the-top craziness of AoD that led me to the others. Also, “Honey, you got real ugly” is one of my all-time favorite comebacks.

Shelby C. - Candyman (dir. Bernard Rose)

A film in which a privileged white woman in grad school infiltrates a poor black community in the name of “research” and shit gets really really real… aka the most accurate film ever made about graduate education. They should show Candyman in every first year Ph.D seminar as a warning. Also because it is a great film and Tony Todd is a national treasure.

Jose G. - Single White Female (dir. Barbet Schroeder)

Continuing the “Hell” series of the late 80’s/early 90’s that included Fatal Attraction (One Night Stand from Hell) and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (The Nanny From Hell), this Roommate From Hell entry was surprisingly effective and is anchored by two very good performances with Bridget Fonda as the naïve heartbroken lass looking for a roommate and Jennifer Jason Leigh going next level psycho as the last person you want to cross.

Sean M. - Bram Stoker's Dracula (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

My hot take? Coppola’s best literary adaptation.

Matt G. - Bram Stoker's Dracula (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Coppola's baroque, phantasmagorical reimagining of Dracula is an embarrassment of riches (and embarrassment is truly the only adequate response to sights and sounds as ghastly as Gary Oldman's voluptuous hairdo and Keanu Reeves' woeful accent). This is swing-for-the-bleachers filmmaking that demands your undivided attention. I can never use this movie as background noise, try as I might, because every scene in it contains at least one moment, one blink-and-you-miss-it eccentric flourish, that I want to make sure I catch. The result is a movie that's difficult to take seriously, but also difficult for other filmmakers to outstrip. A handful of noteworthy vampire flicks have come out since 1992, but I'm not convinced that I needed any of them.* Bram Stoker's Dracula is every vampire movie rolled into one – hell, it's practically every horror movie rolled into one. If you tasked Georges Melies and Sam Raimi with co-directing a Dracula movie in the style of Apocalypse Now, this is what you'd get.

*If Robert Eggers ever actually gets around to remaking Nosferatu, I might finally change my tune.

1993:

Matt L. - Body Bags (dir. John Carpenter & Tobe Hooper)

This is a year that I haven’t seen anything that makes the list, so I’m going with this made-for-TV horror anthology with two segments directed by John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) and one by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Funhouse). As an occasional fan of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt this sounds like it’s up my alley.

Shelby C. - Leprechaun (dir. Mark Jones)

In retrospect, Leprechaun is far more hilarious than scary. But try telling that to 5 year old Shelby, who was absolutely, utterly terrified of an effed-up mirror universe Willow suddenly appearing in her bedroom and biting off her ear.

Jose G. - Body Snatchers (dir. Abel Ferrara)

The Body Snatcher series has been bountiful for filmmakers but this may be my favorite with Director Ferrara moving the familiar tale to a desolate US Army base and Gabrielle Anwar bringing poignancy as an angst ridden teen willing to do anything to protect her kid brother.

Sean M. - Cronos (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

A disturbing and ultimately melancholy take on vampirism.

Matt G. - The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story (dir. Herman Yau)

The Untold Story is a Hong Kong Category III character study/crime thriller that is, to put it mildly, not for the faint of heart. It's one of those seedy, unsavory horror docudramas, like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, that leaves you feeling more than a little unclean. To watch it is to be doused in a steady stream of carnage and sleaze, like wading into the runoff from a broken sewage pipe. In terms of sheer brutality, I would liken it to Men Behind the Sun, albeit stripped of any sociopolitical lens and without a moral center. Men Behind the Sun is one hell of a tough watch, but at least it contextualizes its atrocities in such a way that you're always conscious of the fact that you're bearing witness to the horrors of war, which lends the grisly proceedings a slightly more reputable air than they deserve. The Untold Story is not remotely ennobling or edifying, but it is unforgettable. Its centerpiece sequence, in which the protagonist methodically annihilates an entire family, is one that I sometimes wish I could forget.

1994:

Matt L. - The Crow (dir. Alex Proyas)

Look, I grew up idolizing Bruce Lee and came of age in the era of angsty grunge music, so this film, starring the late Brandon Lee (who died during filming) was tailor-made for me.

Shelby C. - The Stand (dir. Mick Garris)

I have a very distinct memory of an excessively large pizza order, a half gallon of bottom-shelf vodka, and binging all 5ish hours of this mini-series without breaks. Not sure if I’d call that a rough Saturday or an awesome one.

Jose G. - Wes Craven's New Nightmare (dir. Wes Craven)

The ultimate in “Meta” horror found a clever way to re-invent the series by asking, “What if Freddy were real?" Having the original cast helps shape this edgy and surreal experience and Wes Craven is a bonus playing himself, albeit a much more philosophical and engaging version in this film within a film.

Sean M. - Wes Craven's New Nightmare (dir. Wes Craven)

Growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, Freddy was as ubiquitous as Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse. Which, of course, is what the movie is about. The meta-commentary works well, but it also works as a very sweet mother/son story.

Matt G. - Heavenly Creatures (dir. Peter Jackson)

A queer Bridge to Terabithia that ends in madness and matricide. If that doesn't sell you on this film, we're not the same kind of filmgoer. That’s all I got!

John L. - In the Mouth of Madness (dir. John Carpenter)

The opening musical riff slides from Duran Duran synth pop through a key change into Master of Puppets preworkout fist pump. It’s a disorienting musical move made all the more curious by the fact that the theme’s punchy guitar score opens on a montage of paper sheets rolling through a printing press. We’re making cheap paperbacks here, but the music is gearing us up for some heavy shit. I love In the Mouth of Madness. The first time I saw it, I remember feeling real petrification. I didn’t want to leave my couch because the ground might swallow me up. So I sat there a long while, breathing horror-fog like some dummy until I could move again. In the film reality is discursive, which means that we can always change the terms of what’s real just by getting enough people to say the same thing. Sounds too familiar almost three decades out. It’s like Sam Neil’s insurance investigator says, “It’ll get worse out there. Every species can smell its own extinction.”

1995:

Matt L. - Vampire in Brooklyn (dir. Wes Craven)

Okay, this is an odd pick, in that I’ve started to watch this movie twice - once in theaters when it came out and once as a rental. I fell asleep in less than 20 minutes both times (fun fact - this is the first movie I ever fell asleep during in a theater!). But, with the release of Dolemite is My Name signaling a possible Eddie Murphy-ssance, it might be time to revisit this one.

Shelby C. - Demon Knight (dir. Ernest R. Dickerson & Gilbert Adler)

Yet another example of a film that my adult self recognizes as a comedy, but

that terrified me as a child. In terms of fear-inducing pop culture icons from my childhood, the Crypt Keeper has to be right up there with the Leprechaun and Miss Trunchbull.

Jose G. - Se7en (dir. David Fincher)

A surprisingly gory and intellectual take on sin and the price of one’s soul, this thriller made a star out of Brad Pitt and established the career of director David Fincher. Uncompromisingly good, all the way until the grisly end.

Sean M. - Casper (dir. Brad Silberling)

I haven’t seen a whole lot from this year to be honest. Why not throw in one for the kids?

Matt G. - Safe (dir. Todd Haynes)

Julianne Moore delivers the ultimate Julianne Moore performance as a prim and proper housewife in Reagan's America who succumbs to an unexplained, undiagnosable malady that swiftly lays waste to her immune system, her marriage and her sanity. She becomes, in effect, spontaneously allergic to perfume and hairspray and household cleaning products and all the other trappings of femininity and domesticity that define her existence – allergic, moreover, she gradually convinces herself, to modernity itself, in all its insidious permutations. If Safe was chiefly concerned with tracking the progress of her mystery illness, I probably wouldn't characterize it as a horror movie. What puts it over the top is the unconventional treatment plan that she ultimately settles on. Suffice to say, Safe contains one of the least showy and most frightening depictions of cult indoctrination in movie history. This is a film that gets under your skin and stays there, like an incipient welt or rash or blister, a harbinger of disease and delirium to come.

1996:

Matt L. - Scream (dir. Wes Craven)

Due to a scarring experience as a child in which I caught a glimpse of a severed head in a refrigerator (in a scene from one of the Friday the 13th movies when I was a kid) I actively avoided horror movies for years. This was the film that turned me around. The Psycho-style twist toward the start of the movie, the meta genre deconstruction, and the mystery element hooked right away and opened up the genre for me from that point on.

Shelby C. - From Dusk till Dawn (dir. Robert Rodriguez)

Unpopular opinion - I actually kinda hate From Dusk till Dawn. I don’t particularly like the crime-flick parts of it, and I definitely don’t like the “now it’s a vampire movie” parts. Why am I including it here, then, you ask? Three words: Salma. Hayek. Withasnake.

Jose G. - The Frighteners (dir. Peter Jackson)

I know many see this as hokey and cute but I found plenty of scares and wit in this post-Heavenly Creatures, pre-Lord of the Rings effort from Jackson. Michael J. Fox may have been an odd choice for the lead but the murderous duo of Jake Busey and Dee Wallace Stone are what made this film work for me.

Sean M. - Scream (dir. Wes Craven)

In the mid to late 90s, it felt like Kevin Williamson basically ruled pop culture (for better or worse). Of all the horror movies he wrote in this period, this easily holds up as the best.

Matt G. - Scream (dir. Wes Craven)

Seeing Drew Barrymore get carved apart in the opening minutes of this movie is every bit as shocking today as it was back in 1996. And yet, even as this movie turns our stomachs, it also stokes our egos, in much the same way as The Silence of the Lambs does. Ghostface's methods are a good deal cruder than Hannibal Lecter's, but the same principle applies. We all like to imagine that we would survive the events of your average, run-of-the-mill slasher movie. Horror movie characters are so stupid and shortsighted, y'know? Not like us. And besides, if a maniac had rung my house and asked me who the killer in the original Friday the 13th was, I would've known the correct answer. Scream is a movie for jaded, know-it-all aficionados of its genre. It snatches the cries of “don't split up!” and “don't go in there!” from the mouths of smartypants audience members and transfers them to the mouths of the people onscreen. Few horror films released in the wake of Scream have really nailed that meta gimmick, though many have tried. I liked Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil well enough, but I've become resigned to the fact that the art of self-reflexive scaremongering most likely peaked in the mid-90s.

1997:

Matt L. - Scream 2 (dir. Wes Craven)

It’s rare that a sequel is as good as the original film, but I would argue that this is one of the exceptions. Sure, it doesn’t have the same impact as the first, but it does have another great cast, masterful directing, and some unexpected twists going for it.

Shelby C. - Anaconda (dir. Luis Llosa)

Okay, hear me out. I know this movie is basically bad CGI and Jennifer Lopez in a tank top, but I find it weirdly charming BECAUSE it is so bad. I also have a soft spot in my heart for modern creature features, especially really garbage-y (yet entertaining) ones.

Jose G. - The Relic (dir. Peter Hyams)

As if late night scenes in a museum weren’t scary enough, this monster feature from Peter Hyams was perfectly lit (he is his own cinematographer) and perfectly cast with Penelope Ann Miller and Tom Sizemore thrown together to take down a modern day chimera.

Sean M. - The Devil's Advocate (dir. Taylor Hackford)

Pacino’s character is named John Milton. But don’t let that fool you. He’s actually Satan.

Matt G. - Cure (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Like Kurosawa's equally masterful Pulse, this is a somber and eerie slow burn of a movie, steeped in malaise, that fully commits to the apocalyptic implications of its outlandish premise. In that sense, it recalls The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness, though Kurosawa evinces a near total disinterest in the dogged humanism and sporadic levity that Carpenter brought to his thematic trilogy. Cure is a horror film about the fundamental inexplicability of murder. It features a compelling mystery narrative (involving a baffling string of copycat killings with supernatural connotations), and a relatively tidy resolution, under the circumstances (involving a deranged mesmerist who... you know what, just watch the movie). But there's more to it than that. Why are the seemingly ordinary people in this film compelled to kill? Hell, why is anybody? Kurosawa confronts us with an epidemic of madness moving across society like a pathogen, and challenges us to make sense of it. We can't. And that's why this movie is so troubling. I get chills just thinking about the final scene.

1998:

Matt L. - The Faculty (dir. Robert Rodriguez)

Yeah, so this movie is dumb as hell but it’s also so incredibly fun. And, despite being 4 years out of high school, I was still in full-on “Teachers are the enemy, man!” mode at this point. Fun fact #2 - I am incapable of distinguishing this movie from this year’s OTHER teenage rebellion horror movie, Disturbing Behavior.

Shelby C. - Disturbing Behavior (dir. David Nutter)

The low-rent version of The Faculty, Disturbing Behavior’s most egregious sin is trying to convince the audience that late-90’s girl next door Katie Holmes is a “bad girl.” And also an incredibly silly plot. And stilted acting. And a cornball soundtrack. Why do I like this movie again? I can’t really explain it, but I do.

Jose G. - Pi (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Who knew that a mathematical genius’ paranoid decent could be so enthralling and chilling. Director Aronofsky’s debut was eye-catching and intricately puzzling. Still not sure what it meant, but it was quite the experience.

Sean M. - Bride of Chucky (dir. Ronny Yu)

I haven’t seen this since I was a kid, but I remember it being a lot of fun. Jennifer Tilly is great as the titular character.

Matt G. - The Last Broadcast (dir. Stefan Avalos & Lance Weiler)

The Blair Witch Project was ahead of the curve, and for what it's worth, The Last Broadcast was ahead of The Blair Witch Project. I'm not hipster enough to claim that makes it a worthier film by default, but it's a creepy and highly competently horror mock-doc that deserves to be remembered as more than a mere footnote in the history of found footage.

1999:

Matt L. - The Sixth Sense (dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

Before he burned up his goodwill as “the twist guy” Shyamalan caught us all off guard because the movie doesn’t play as if it’s building to a twist. Unfortunately, that’s a trick that maybe only works once, and it’s largely been diminishing returns since then. The movie is also in the middle of Bruce Willis’s really strong run of films/performances and introduced Haley Joel Osment as the next great child actor (he’s 31 now, if you want to feel old). It was also my introduction to Toni Collette, who is great in this.

Shelby C. - Stigmata (dir. Rupert Wainwright)

Okay, I’m starting to sense a trend here. Almost all of my favorite horror films from the 90’s are films that I admit are bad, but still have a weird love for. At least with Stigmata I can explain my reasoning, which is (awkward, but true) latent adolescent bisexuality that led to me finding both Gabriel Byrne and Patricia Arquette strangely attractive in this film.

Jose G. - Oxygen (dir. Richard Shepherd)

Maura Tierney is effectively cast against type as a troubled police detective who matches wits with a Houdini-inspired criminal (played creepily by Adrien Brody). The “oxygen” of the title refers to the amount of air left for Brody’s current victim, with Tierney trying to piece every clue while trying to keep her sanity.

Sean M. - The Blair Witch Project (dir. Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick)

The woods are scary as hell.

Matt G. - Sleepy Hollow (dir. Tim Burton)

Sleepy Hollow is the ultimate Halloween movie, a masterwork by any metric, and one of my favorite films of all time. Where to begin? Danny Elfman's brooding, booming score? Christopher Walken's audaciously weird portrayal of the reanimated horseman? The peerless production design (the titular town looks like it was erected in an enormous ashtray by a team of mad architects)? This is the greyest, most cheerless film that has ever managed to fill me with unbridled joy. It's as though Tim Burton communed with the unquiet spirits of every Universal monster movie, every AIP Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe movie, and every Hammer horror movie, and channeled them into the very celluloid that captured his images. This is, to date, the only film that I have ever watched twice in a row, in one sitting. 11 jack-o'-lanterns and/or decapitated heads out of 10.

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