Tonight, CNN launches their latest docuseries, The Nineties; this follows previous exposition-by-decade seasons of The Seventies and The Eighties. Each installment takes an aspect of that era, music for example, and delivers an insightful retrospective complete with expert and celebrity interviews. One of the upcoming episodes the cable network has been hyping will focus on how television evolved in the 1990s.
The decade was indeed revolutionary when it came to television, what with the advent of cable TV and the small screen programming resulting from new networks, untethered by the puritanical restrictions of the FCC. Still, no one will call the 1990s the greatest decade when it comes to horror cinema. It’s not that incredible horror wasn’t made; more that films of the decade reflect the meandering nature of the decade as a whole. This has to do with changes in technology, styles/trends, and even the world economy. Horror movies of the 1990s are a vastly motley crew of winner is a sea of aimless mediocrity.
Of course, everything would change in the 2000s following 9/11, the found footage revolution, the J-Horror trend, and the nihilistic brutality of genre films produced in Europe. The way we as a society process fear today, the specific anxieties of the 21st Century, make the 1990s look like simpler times indeed. And they were—right up until the dot.com bubble burst.
I don’t normally arrange my lists with any specificity, but I’ve organized this one chronologically; it’s interesting to see how changes in the horror landscape reflect corresponding cultural evolutions of the 1990s. I have a feeling you’ll agree with the majority of my choices, as I did my best to put personal preferences aside, focusing on films that made a splash and remain relevant. Of course, I couldn’t help but include a few sleeper hits you might have missed, movies that 20/20 hindsight proves never got the recognition they deserved. Still, boiling down an entire decade to 20 essential films wasn’t easy, and you might not agree with a few of my selections (especially if you’re a big Blair Witch Project fan). Let me know what you think in the Comments section!
Jacob’s Ladder (1990, Directed by Adrian Lyne)
Official Synopsis: After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. His girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend, Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he descends into madness.
This one came out of nowhere and knocked budding horror fans like me on our asses. The deeply disturbing, hallucinatory, mind-bender was unlike anything we’d seen in the 1980s and remains impeccable to this day thanks to dynamite performances by Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, and Danny Aiello. Many have attempted new spins on what is now a classic twist, but no one has surpassed Adrian Lyne’s beautiful anomaly. It’s become so iconic, that simply comparing a movie to Jacob’s Ladder is an instant spoiler. There were murmurs of a remake bandied about in 2016, but I can’t imagine anything good coming from such an endeavor.
Related Article: “Jacob’s Ladder” Was Released 26 Years Ago Today + Remake Status
The Exorcist III (1990, Directed by William Peter Blatty)
Official Synopsis: Police Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott) notices similarities between his current murder investigation and the methods used by the “Gemini” killer (Brad Dourif) who was executed 15 years before. He soon discovers a hospitalized mental patient (Jason Miller) claiming to be the dead serial killer, but who looks uncannily like a priest Kinderman knew who died during an exorcism. As more bodies are found, Kinderman looks for connections between the two supposedly dead men.
Vastly underrated, The Exorcist III is finally getting much of the recognition it deserves thanks to a sterling release from the folks at Scream Factory. It includes some incredible performances George C. Scott, Jason Miller, and Brad Dourif (the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play franchise). Written and directed by original Exorcist scribe William Peter Blatty, it’s as close as you’ll find to a true sequel (until, of course, Jeremy Slater’s TV series which premiered in 2016). It contains a classic jump scare that’s still celebrated today.
Misery (1990, Directed by Rob Reiner)
Official Synopsis: After a serious car crash, novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who claims to be his biggest fan. Annie brings him to her remote cabin to recover, where her obsession takes a dark turn when she discovers Sheldon is killing off her favorite character from his novels. As Sheldon devises plans for escape, Annie grows increasingly controlling, even violent, as she forces the author to shape his writing to suit her twisted fantasies.
Before Silence of the Lambs ran the Oscars in 1992 (more on that soon) Kathy Bates struck a major blow (pun intended) for the legitimization of horror within the totality of cinema with her win for Best Actress. Her portrayal of psychotic fanatic Annie Wilkes also earned her entry into the pantheon of iconic horror villains and a guaranteed spot on any list of “most terrifying” Stephen Kings characters.
Related Article: Stephen King’s 10 Most Terrifying Female Characters
Nightbreed (1990, Directed by Clive Barker)
Official Synopsis: Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer) is haunted by terrifying nightmares of a city of monsters. He goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (David Cronenberg), for help. But what Boone doesn’t know is that Decker is really a serial killer. Decker frames Boone to take the fall for his murders, and Boone is killed by the police. But Boone is brought back to life by the monsters of his dreams, the Nightbreed, who in turn join Boone in his quest to stop Decker from killing again.
Nighbreed was so ahead of its time, studios and critics didn’t know what to think of it. Horror fans were united, however: Clive Barker’s cinematic follow-up to Hellraiser was lauded as captivating, terrifying, and absolutely mesmerizing. It built a huge cult following over the years, and the incredible response to a recent Scream Factory re-release/Director’s Cut proves it really was one of the 1990s best—whether anyone knew it at the time or not!
Related Article: We Can Finally See the Infamous “Lost” Love Scene from “Nightbreed”!
Cape Fear (1991, Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Official Synopsis: When attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) knowingly withholds evidence that would acquit violent sex offender Max Cady (Robert De Niro) of rape charges, Max spends 14 years in prison. But after Max’s release, knowing about Sam’s deceit, he devotes his life to stalking and destroying the Bowden family. When practical attempts to stop Max fail, Sam realizes that he must act outside the law to protect his wife and daughter in Martin Scorsese’s remake of the classic 1962 thriller.
A Guardian journalist recently attempted to establish a new subgenre; “Post Horror” was meant to describe films that shirk conventional genre molds, the insinuation being horror only began to branch out into more dramatic territory recently. What a crock! Anyone with more than a Wikipedia-based knowledge of horror, anyone with a true passion for the genre, knows our ranks are flooded with examples of powerful, drama based, morally ambiguous and cerebrally challenging offerings. Cape Fear is one of them, and one of the best.
Popcorn (1991, Directed by Mark Herrier & Alan Ormsby)
Official Synopsis: Real mayhem mars a B-movie revival featuring “Mosquito” and “Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man.” A murderer begins killing off teenagers at a horrorthon they have organized in an abandoned theater.
Released in 1991, Popcorn was still a product of the 1980s and, more than any other film on this list, retains genuine hallmarks of the decade past. Were it released in the 80s, no doubt it would have received more attention and retrospection; in the 1990s, Popcorn may have seemed dated. In hindsight, it’s a fantastic and vastly entertaining film that any genre fan should consider a must-watch. I have a feeling Scream scribe Kevin Williamson took more than just a page for Popcorn’s playbook when he penned his genre classic (more on that soon, too).
The Silence of the Lambs (1991, Directed by Jonathan Demme)
Official Synopsis: Jodie Foster stars as Clarice Starling, a top student at the FBI’s training academy. Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) wants Clarice to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), a brilliant psychiatrist who is also a violent psychopath, serving life behind bars for various acts of murder and cannibalism. Crawford believes that Lecter may have insight into a case and that Starling, as an attractive young woman, may be just the bait to draw him out.
Since the first Academy Awards ceremony, horror movies have picked up an Oscar here and an Oscar there, but none had completely swept the event, but in 1992, this one took home top honors for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Screenplay (Ted Tally), not to mention trophies for Best Film Editing (Craig McKay) & Best Sound Editing (Chris Newman). The influence Silence of the Lambs had on the legitimization of horror can never be understated.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Official Synopsis: Adaptation of Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel. Gary Oldman plays Dracula whose lonely soul is determined to reunite with his lost love, Mina (Winona Ryder). In Britain, Dracula begins a reign of terror and seduction draining the life from her closest friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost). Together they try and drive Dracula away.
This film succeeds in spite of some serious detriments, namely: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and those ridiculous John Lennon glasses Dracula wore. These weaknesses were overshadowed by Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Cary Elwes, Sadie Frost, Tom Waits, and the predominantly breathtaking cinematography. For the record: I’m a huge fan of Reeves and Winona, both of whom have earned my admiration for incredible cinematic turns both before and after Bram Stoker’s Dracula; but damn did they miss their marks in this one.
Related Article: Horror Movies That Deserved An Oscar
Candyman (1992, Directed by Bernard Rose)
Official Synopsis: Skeptical graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) befriends Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) while researching superstitions in a housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side. From Anne-Marie, Helen learns about the Candyman (Tony Todd), a knife-wielding figure of urban legend that some of her neighbors believe to be responsible for a recent murder. After a mysterious man matching the Candyman’s description begins stalking her, Helen comes to fear that the legend may be all too real.
Like Nightbreed, Candyman (directed by Bernard Rose from a script he developed with Clive Barker) was ahead of its time and practically shunned by snobs and critics who simply didn’t understand what the film was trying to accomplish. The titular Candyman is a rare villain who is both pitiable and seductive, though often grotesque and infinitely disturbing. Tony Todd is a trailblazing actor whose unique talents were essential to the success and endurance of the character, one now considered an elite horror icon.
Related Article: There was Almost a “Candyman vs Leprechaun” Movie!
Army of Darkness (1993, Directed by Sam Raimi)
Official Synopsis: 3rd Evil Dead movie. Ash (Bruce Campbell) finds himself trapped in medieval times. He must quest for the Necronomicon, a book of evil which can return him to his time. Unfortunately, he releases the evil trapped inside the book and unleashes an army of the dead.
One of only two horror franchise films to make this list is Army of Darkness, the 3rd in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise; the fact that you won’t find entries from the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Halloween franchises on this list is a testament to how few series (no matter how popular) were able to adapt to the changing times (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare being the obvious exception, though it still doesn’t make the cut here). The point being Army of Darkness was a creative and daring innovation on tropes established in the first 2 Evil Dead films, making it an exciting and innovating 1990’s era horror movie that hit the mark—and it continues to entertain decades later.
Return of the Living Dead III (1993, Directed by Brian Yuzna)
Official Synopsis: Having recently witnessed the horrific results of a top secret project to bring the dead back to life, a distraught youth performs the operation on his girlfriend after she’s killed in a motorcycle accident.
I may go to my grave defending this film, but I honestly believe the only horror fans that will have qualms with Return of the Living Dead III being on this list are those who haven’t seen it. Is it as good as 1987’s Return of the Living Dead? Of course not, but disregarding Part III based on that measure is like hating every musician who isn’t Mozart of John Lennon. It’s impossible not to like Brian Yuzna’s irreverent gore-fest, loaded with practical FX that are often as hokey as they are grotesque. Savvy horror aficionados will recognize (and appreciate) nods to Hellraiser, and exquisite boobies will keep everyone’s inner teen immensely entertained.
Related Article: Top 15 Horror Movie Sequels as Good as (or Better Than) the Original
Se7en (1995, Directed by David Fincher)
Official Synopsis: When retiring police Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) tackles a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt), they discover a number of elaborate and grisly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer (Kevin Spacey) who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset also befriends Mills’ wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city.
I can’t believe there are horror fans out there who will argue David Fincher’s Se7en isn’t “technically” a horror movie. Excuse me? Not only does the film proudly (and brutally) wear its horror sensibilities on its sleeve, Se7en’s influence on 21st Century heavyweights like the Saw films, The Collector & The Collection, and I Saw the Devil (among many others) should make the film’s pedigree clear. You’d have to have an extremely narrow lens to exclude Se7en from horror as a whole or to deny it’s one of the 90’s best.
Related Article: Top 15 Horror Movies That Will Devastate You Emotionally
The Craft (1996, Directed by Andrew Fleming)
Official Synopsis: After transferring to a Los Angeles high school, Sarah (Robin Tunney) finds that her telekinetic gift appeals to a group of three wannabe witches, who happen to be seeking a fourth member for their rituals. Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True) and Nancy (Fairuza Balk), like Sarah herself, all have troubled backgrounds, which combined with their nascent powers lead to dangerous consequences. When a minor spell causes a fellow student to lose her hair, the girls grow power-mad.
The Craft is the first film on the list that succeeds in capturing the essence of the 1990’s in a way that didn’t feel forced, contrite, or condescending; it was an exquisite window in the emerging youth culture, which was far more cynical than the generation that preceded it. The Craft was groundbreaking for many reasons and the ensemble cast of Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, and Rachel True were a quartet of rare talent, chemistry, and intensity.
Scream (1996, Directed by Wes Craven)
Official Synopsis: The sleepy little town of Woodsboro just woke up screaming. There’s a killer in their midst who’s seen a few too many scary movies. Suddenly nobody is safe, as the psychopath stalks victims, taunts them with trivia questions, then rips them to bloody shreds. It could be anybody…
I doubt I’ll get any arguments here, am I right? Wes Craven dropped a bomb on the entire horror landscape with his hilariously and blisteringly satirical send-up, Scream. He broke every rule in the genre by calling them out explicitly, like a magician revealing his secrets, before pulling the rug out from under us with an entertaining romp that’s as scary as it is cerebral. Like The Craft, it’s a window into 1990’s youth culture that captures cultural changes making these teens different from those who came of age in the 1980s. It’s almost ironic that Craven even attempted sequels which, by his own rules, couldn’t possibly live up to the original. Props to the Master.
Related Article: Bloopers That’ll Change the Way You See These Horror Movies
Event Horizon (1997, Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson)
Official Synopsis: When the Event Horizon, a spacecraft that vanished years earlier, suddenly reappears, a team is dispatched to investigate the ship. Accompanied by the Event Horizon’s creator, William Weir (Sam Neill), the crew of the Lewis and Clark, led by Capt. Miller (Laurence Fishburne), begins to explore the seemingly abandoned vessel. However, it soon becomes evident that something sinister resides in its corridors, and that the horrors that befell the Event Horizon’s previous journey are still present.
Perhaps the most divisive film on this list, I’m obviously of the opinion that Paul W. S. Anderson’s sci-fi horror gore-fest Event Horizon is a powerful and effective piece of cinema. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t acknowledge that the film has plenty of detractors who were unable to connect with the film’s seemingly disparate tangents and mid-point shifts in both the tone and themes. I loved how Event Horizon succeeds as both a claustrophobic/paranoid sci-fi and a metaphysical body horror like Hellraiser (which was obviously a major influence).
Ringu (1998, Directed by Hideo Nakata)
Official Synopsis: When her niece is found dead along with three friends after viewing a supposedly cursed videotape, reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) sets out to investigate. Along with her ex-husband, Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), Reiko finds the tape, watches it — and promptly receives a phone call informing her that she’ll die in a week. Determined to get to the bottom of the curse, Reiko and Ryuji discover the video’s origin and attempt to solve an old murder that could break the spell.
Though it wouldn’t become obvious until the J-Horror craze of the mid-2000s, the impact of Ringu, aka The Ring is huge. Those who were impressed by the American remake and curious enough to investigate the source material found a uniquely unnerving and haunted experience—one with staying power. Ghosts and supernatural horror had taken a back-seat in the turbulent years following 9/11, but the wave of films inspired by Ringu reignited our collective fears of a horrifying netherworld intruding on our own.
The Faculty (1998, Directed by Robert Rodriguez)
Official Synopsis: To the students at Harrington High, the principal and her posse of teachers have always been a little odd, but lately they’ve been behaving positively alien. Controlled by otherworldly parasites, the faculty try to infect students one by one. Cheerleader Delilah (Jordana Brewster), football player Stan (Shawn Hatosy), drug dealer Zeke (Josh Hartnett) and new girl Marybeth (Laura Harris) team up with some of their other classmates to fight back against the invaders.
When you break it down to its components, there may not be anything totally original about The Faculty; and when you look closely, the FX really aren’t that good. But the film’s shortcomings are only due to the limitations of the era, and not the imagination of then up-and-comer Robert Rodriguez. Horror fans will note a spectrum of influences from 1979’s Alien to 1985’s The Breakfast Club, and Night of the Creeps (1986), but The Faculty goes big in every respect. Bolstered by an infectious soundtrack and 90’s youth culture rebelliousness, this one wears its influences on its sleeve while reaching for the stars.
Idle Hands (1999, Directed by Rodman Flender)
Official Synopsis: When slacker teen Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa) has his right hand possessed by a demonic force, he finds that his life gets a lot more interesting. While Anton himself is an amiable guy, his hand proves to be an appendage of death, killing his two best buddies, Pnub (Elden Henson) and Mick (Seth Green), who return to life as wisecracking zombies. In addition to murdering those closest to him, Anton’s evil hand significantly hinders his chances with lovely neighbor Molly (Jessica Alba).
As the 1990s began to wrap up and people started freaking out about Y2K, Idle Hands came and went with little fanfare. Like Slither in 2006, the film suffered immensely from the studio’s lack of faith in horror comedies, meaning it got little promotion. Thankfully, horror fans discovered it in the dying days of VHS, giving the film a boast in popularity. Idle Hands is a fantastic stoner comedy on par with Half Baked and Friday, but it’s also a great practical FX gore-fest, an A+ presentation of B-Movie raunchiness and irreverence.
Lake Placid (1999, Directed by Steve Miner)
Official Synopsis: When a mysterious creature violently kills a man in a Maine lake, Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), the local game warden, looks into the bizarre case, along with Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson) and visiting paleontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda). Looking for clues in a tooth that the beast left behind, Kelly and the others eventually locate the monster, a massive and vicious reptile eager to devour anything in its path. Can the crocodile-like creature be stopped?
For many horror fans, Lake Placid is the equivalent of hot chicken soup on a cold rainy day. The premise doesn’t inspire much hope for greatness, but Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, and Oliver Platt all approach their parts with genuine enthusiasm that actually makes us care about them. Let’s be real: In most monster movies, we look forward to seeing characters getting devoured, but not here. A supporting role by Betty White is just another ray of sunshine in Lake Placid’s arsenal.
Related Article: 15 MORE Underrated 21st Century Horror Movies
Ravenous (1999, Directed by Antonia Bird)
Official Synopsis: Upon receiving reports of missing persons at Fort Spencer, a remote Army outpost on the Western frontier, Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) investigates. After arriving at his new post, Boyd and his regiment aid a wounded frontiersman, F.W. Colghoun (Robert Carlyle), who recounts a horrifying tale of a wagon train murdered by its supposed guide — a vicious U.S. Army colonel gone rogue. Fearing the worst, the regiment heads out into the wilderness to verify Colghoun’s gruesome claims.
The production was a mess and the studio was nervous about how mainstream audiences would receive Antonia Bird’s bizarre mashup of historical horror and cannibal tropes, but Ravenous is elite. Even today, nothing about the film is typical, from the cinematography to the soundtrack and the gut-churning twists and turns. Robert Carlyle’s performance is legendary and Ravenous also benefits from excellent turns from Guy Pearce, David Arquette, and Jeffrey Jones. Ravenous, like many of the films on this list, transcends its chronological place in time, holding a spot in the uppermost echelons of horror’s best.