Top Ten Horror Films 1990sA column article, Top Ten by: Laura Akers, Danny Djeljosevic, Dylan Garsee, Nick Hanover, Shawn Hill, Paul Brian McCoy
We here at the Bulletin have taken it upon ourselves to provide you with a master list of the best horror films from each decade (or so). It was a brutal job; friendships were ruined; marriages crumbled; at least one writer sold their soul (or so I'm told). But in the end, choices were made, and while, if we wanted to treat it like Little League, there could be more variety in the final list, there ultimately couldn't be any better films.
Feel free to disagree in the comments below!
1990 – Jacob's Ladder (Adrian Lyne)
A curious thing about the horror genre is that its works are rarely about dealing with death. What I mean specifically is that in horror, death is a certainty for characters, with survival itself the rarity. There's no time to process death because it's around every corner in horror, it is omnipresent and escaping it usually means turning off your higher functions altogether and giving in to your base instincts, even if base instincts are what put you in danger in the first place. But Adrian Lyne's memorable psychological horror piece Jacob's Ladder subverts that notion, constructing an entire horror story around an inability to cope with the inevitable.
Lyne is of course no stranger to manipulating clichés and subverting expectations, as all of his films rely on tropes and filmic double entendres to get his messages across as effortlessly as possible, operating in the language of film itself but in unexpected ways. Usually this comes in the form of highly eroticized male-female power struggles but Lyne eschewed body politic in Jacob's Ladder and focused instead on that largest of sexual organs, the brain. But here the brain is wiped free of desire and filled with confusion of a nostalgic sort, focusing on the hazy memories and apparent hallucinations of the titular Jacob (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam vet who was traumatically injured and possibly unwillingly drugged while in combat.
Jacob's Ladder is full of Biblical imagery that telegraphs its "twist" pretty clearly, but that's beside the point because the horror comes not from surprise but from uncertainty-- uncertainty in Jacob as a reliable perspective, uncertainty in his very surroundings, uncertainty in what lies in store for his future as well as the true meaning of his past. Lyne's well-honed visual sensibilities allow him to produce a thoroughly disturbing and horrifying work that doesn't need to scare you, or surprise you, it just needs you to embrace its confusion and immerse yourself in the traumatically fractured mind of its lead.
– Nick Hanover
1992 – Dead Alive aka Braindead (Peter Jackson)
There was a time when Peter Jackson was not known for sweeping vistas and heroic adventure. There was a glorious time when he was known for bad taste and extreme gore. His first two films, Bad Taste (1987) and Meet the Feebles (1989) are masterpieces of offensiveness, and Braindead (Dead Alive to the US marketplace) finds a perfect balance between that trademark offensive behavior, over-the-top gore, and a sweet sentimentality that helps to set the horror-comedy apart, making it one of the best zombie films ever made.
Plus, the film is widely held to be the goriest film of all time. Provided you see the uncut version, that is. The US R-rated version is only 85 minutes with most of the gore removed, whereas the unrated release runs 97 minutes (which is still short of the UK 104 minute cut, but is Jackson's preferred version). So buyer, beware!
Set in 1957, the film follows the misadventures of timid Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) as he cares for his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) after she is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey – a hybrid creature spawned from the rape of tree monkeys by plague rats – and transforms into the living dead. The disgustingly grotesque flesh-eating living dead. Lionel falls in love with a local shopkeeper's daughter, Paquita (Diana Peñalver), and is torn between finding romance and trying to care for his more and more uncontrollable zombie mother.
Before too terribly long, Lionel has a basement full of zombies tied up and tranquilized (to some extent) and then his skeezy Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) starts maneuvering for the family fortune. All of which leads to the goriest, most hilarious, and most Freudianly disturbing conclusion to a zombie film ever.
Along the way we get a bad-ass kung-fu priest (Stuart Devenie) – whose catch-phrase, "I kick ass for the LORD!" is still a source of unbridled giggles from me – zombie sex, childbirth, and a full-fledged zombie baby, loads of pus, body parts, and a gag-inducing dinner party, along with a finale that has to be seen to be believed.
It's hard to imagine that Jackson's next film, Heavenly Creatures, would be such an intelligent and sensitive treatment of a historical crime, or that he could go on to direct the historic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although I suppose that beneath the splatter-stick humor and gross-out effects there really is a heart of gold. The love story between Lionel and Paquita is touching and sweet, demonstrating something that few zombie film directors these days seem to remember; we have to care about the characters. Otherwise it's just an empty exercise in gore.
– Paul Brian McCoy
1993 – Cronos (Guillermo del Toro)
Don't let their descent into sub-Anne Rice levels of bad fiction fool you -- there will always be new and exciting ways to create stories about vampires. Guillermo Del Toro's 1993 debut, Cronos, focuses not on the sexual metaphor of vampirism but the growing desire to maintain youth and attain immortality.
The result is the kind of classy, stylish horror film that will become Del Toro's signature, about an aging antique dealer who comes across a strange golden scarab that injects him with something that causes him to become young again. Like any good horror movie, such a miracle comes with a price.
It's a modest film compared to Del Toro's later work, but one as striking as his action extravaganzas or deeply emotional horror fantasies because of the director's emphasis on mood and setting as well as monsters and scares. It was not only a promising debut, but a promise that would go on to be fulfilled.
– Danny Djeljosevic
1994 – In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter)
Mixing in a surface texture of Stephen King with the bones and meat of H.P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter briefly breaks the surface of his Nineties and Beyond collapse. Something happened after 1988's They Live and Carpenter's work never again achieved the purity of intent and successful merging of image, plot, and theme.
Even though this film falls short in comparison to his Eighties work, it is quite possibly one of the best Lovecraftian films ever made – even though there's no actual Lovecraft involved.
This was the same year that Wes Craven began dipping his toes into metatextuality with Wes Craven's New Nightmare (this flirtation would ultimately launch the Scream franchise), but Carpenter and screenwriter Michael De Luca go another route with their exploration of a text that influences and eventually supplants the reality it is created in.
And while it stays true to those Lovecraftian stories of old, the real precursor for this movie is a short story from 1940 by Jorge Luis Borges, called "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" which can be read here. It's the story of a group of writers from varying fields who create an imaginary encyclopedia full of imaginary objects and events. These objects and events eventually become real and write over the reality of the narrator. It's a work of subtle genius, and In the Mouth of Madness does an admirable job of achieving a similar sense of anxiety and metatextual self-awareness.
This is the third of Carpenter's self-professed "Apocalypse Trilogy" (the first two of which are The Thing and Prince of Darkness), wherein the director explores darker themes of the end of the world and our reactions to impending doom. Where The Thing took a very personal approach, and Prince of Darkness took a more theological/mythological approach, In the Mouth of Madness takes a very literary approach. There's just as much in here about the effects of violent media on the audience as there is about the nature of our shared reality.
In this film, Elder Gods have been influencing the writing of Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) for years, and as his audience has grown, so has their influence in weakening the boundaries of our world and Theirs. Cane's latest book, In the Mouth of Madness, is their new bible, and reading it infects you, driving you homicidally insane while at the same time mutating your body into something more suitable for the Gods in Waiting. Our hero, insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) discovers that he is just a character in the apocalyptic narrative, ultimately ending with watching his own story play out on a movie screen as the credits roll.
With a budget of only $10 million, the effects, some of which were eye-opening at the time, haven't really aged well, but this is a film of ideas; Frightening, paranoid, anxiety-tinged ideas that never wink to the audience or become too satirical. This is a film about being sane in an insane world and was the last strong work by one of history's greatest horror directors.
The only work he's done since that is comparable is the short film "Cigarette Burns" for the Masters of Horror TV series in 2005 that covers very similar territory.
– Paul Brian McCoy
1996 – The Frighteners (Peter Jackson)
First there’s the cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Dee Wallace-Stone, Jake Busey, John Astin, and Jeffrey Combs. That’s like three different kinds of horror cred right there. Then there’s the FX, cheesy and dated CGI, but used very much to its advantage due to Jackson’s creative skill. Then there’s the story (from Jackson and Fran Walsh), which is just endlessly inventive, with one weird set piece after another. This is a movie that shouldn’t work, and almost doesn’t, time and time again. And yet it’s also that true rarity, the comedy movie that’s also scary (or is that the scary movie that’s also really funny?)!
With Fox at his height you have that sitcom perfected timing and delivery. Peter Jackson has shown time and again he knows how to let actors shine. This was the film in between Heavenly Creatures and Lord of the Rings, and if you want to call it his big Hollywood sell-out, you have to at least recognize that if he was going to bring his sensibility to Hollywood, Hollywood was going to have to just try and keep up. The movie has a manic pace (abetted by a Danny Elfman score), and somehow, thanks to the crazy FX, the dark tone of the story (serial killings, dead wife, shady con artistry), and the Fox Factor, it plays like a weird mashup of Ghost Busters and Back to the Future, if directed by Wes Craven. It takes the horror seriously, even as it makes fun of all its ghosts.
Fox’s ability to see dead people after his wife’s death leads him to haunt and then exorcise houses with his ghostly sidekicks, which gives him just enough sleazy conflict that you almost understand how he attracts the attention of a specter bent on his destruction. This swirling hooded figure even scares the ghosts, and once Fox and new love interest Alvarado begin unpacking his story (yeah, it’s a detective thriller as well), things only get weirder. Of course Fox is going to have to mock-kill himself to enter the astral plane himself at some point, and of course his other enemies and sidekicks and bullies (there’s always a bully in a Fox joint) are going to try to get their pound of flesh when he does.
But perhaps the weirdest part of all comes when we get to know Dee Wallace Stone’s character, a meek survivor of the original serial killing incident. Because she takes her B-Movie royalty cred and leads us down the path to hell with manic glee. Like a demented Disney queen, her threat looms larger and larger, until the denouement of the film becomes a fast-paced struggle for survival between her and Combs’ seriously twisted special agent, as Frank and Lucy are chased through the haunted ruins of a mental hospital. Fitting setting, since this movie be crazy.
– Shawn Hill
1996 – From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez)
I wish it was possible to watch From Dusk Till Dawn without any knowledge of it being a vampire movie, but films don't work that way and people have to know what a movie's about before watching. Which is a shame, because Robert Rodriguez and co-writer Quentin Tarantino go to great lengths to script a film that resembles the myriad post-Tarantino wannabes that sprung into the world after Pulp Fiction, only to deliver a glorious bait and switch where vampires start murdering motherfuckers all over the place.
It's also a perfect synthesis of Tarantino and Rodriguez. There's balls-to-the-wall ridiculous violence, cartoonish weapons and Danny Trejo, but there's also ultracool dialogue, aging actors in need of career resurgence (Fred "The Hammer" Williamson and John Saxon) and Quentin Tarantino drinking tequila as it pours off of Salma Hayek's feet. This is the second time this week I've casually mentioned Tarantino's foot fetish.
From Dusk Till Dawn is easily one of the films to beat when it comes to horror-tinged movies where people hit each other a lot.
– Danny Djeljosevic
1996 – Scream (Wes Craven)
We’ve all done it. We sit there, in the dark, watching a horror movie with our friends, castigating the characters with a vengeance. “Yeah, go for a walk alone in the dark…do just that.” “Of course, what better to do when there’s a madman on the loose than to screw yourselves silly in the spooky boathouse…” Part of our pleasure comes from our absolute certainty that if we were characters in a horror movie, we’d have the knowledge and common sense necessary to survive.
Wes Craven’s Scream plays on our (likely) misplaced confidence. We know all the rules of horror films, as do most of the film’s characters, as evidenced by Randy’s litany: “There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. BIG NO-NO! BIG NO-NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It's a sin. It's an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, ‘I'll be right back.’ Because you won't be back.” And Craven uses our assumptions about ourselves and horror films to lull us into a false sense of security and turn the tables on us.
Scream is set in the cliché California small town, specifically in the cliché high school (complete with cliché nasty cheerleader), and centered around the cliché long-suffering horror heroine with a boy’s name—Sidney (Neve Campbell)--and takes place a year (to the day) after the hideous murder of young Sidney’s mother. The purported murderer is headed to the gas chamber, based on Sidney’s testimony, which TV tabloid reporter Gale (Courteney Cox) finds questionable. When the small town again seems open for butchery after the death of Casey (Drew Barrymore in the scariest scene in the entire film—the opening teaser), Gale comes back to town to document the killing of teenagers (including Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, and Skeet Ulrich) who are seemingly hellbent on their own destruction.
Which is where things get good and where Craven leverages all our self-delusion. Sidney, it turns out, is neither, in the end, the untouched ingénue nor the idiot that her many predecessors generally are. The Munch-like Screamer does not possess near-superpowers (regardless of what we think we see). And the ending is genuinely surprising—despite the fact that it is, in retrospect, so blatantly obvious.
But the reason it works is that the sly tone of the film matches our own internal dialogue, convincing us we’re all in on the joke until the very moment we realize we’ve actually been the butt of it—but all while managing to delight even hardest-core horror fans with mayhem, humor, gore, cheap thrills, great suspense, and actual frights . By sticking to those rules we know so well (until the moment he blows them apart by pointing out their own blinding qualities) Craven rewrites our old horror genre while creating his own—the meta-horror/comedy. It is in no small part due to him that we’ve gotten to enjoy films like Shaun of the Dead, Slither, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Zombieland, and others. On behalf of horror fans everywhere: thanks, Wes. We owe you one.
– Laura Akers
1998 – The Faculty (Robert Rodriguez)
The Faculty is Invasion of the Body Snatchers for people who thought Garbage was so much cooler than the Smashing Pumpkins. Released in 1998, after the horror genre was turned on its head by Scream, director Robert Rodriguez made a film that was almost so 90s and cliché that it was almost a meta-statement on film of the late 90s. A cast of surly teens attacking teachers? An homage to a film from the 70s? Usher? It’s as if Rodriguez had a checklist of "things that instantly date any project" and was crossing them off as they go along. What we could have gotten was a forgettable mess of a film. Instead, we are treated with a completely memorable piece of film making that seemingly compliments the film She’s All That in the category of "movies from the late 90s that are really fucking confusing if watched in 2012".
The transition piece between From Dusk Till Dawn and Spy Kids, The Faculty combines the best of both worlds. Unsettling gore and supernatural elements with cliché dialogue and weird ass casting. Salma Hayek (in a role she resumed in 2012’s Here Comes the Boom, seen by exactly one Dylan Garsee), Elijah Wood, Usher, and Jon Stewart all come together in a cacophony of casting. The effects are cheesy and the plot is stolen from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even my eight-year-old self could see who the real "queen" was 20 miles away.
It sounds like I hate it, but in all honesty, that’s what makes this film so great. Sometimes a movie doesn’t have to be good to be fun (see: Premium Rush), just as sometimes a movie doesn’t have to be fun to be good (see: Looper). The over the top acting, the insane visuals, the crazy casting, all come together to make a beautifully fun trainwreck of a film. Just like riding your bike down a really big hill with no helmet, it’s going to suck falling off. But it doesn’t matter, because that trip down was such a blast.
– Dylan Garsee
1998 – Ringu (Hideo Nakata)
Inspired by both a novel (by Kōji Suzuki) and a television adaptation, and filmed over five weeks with a budget of only 1.2 million USD, Ringu became the highest grossing horror film in Japanese history and launched the "New Wave" of Japanese horror cinema which opened the door to countless international releases and adaptations of Japanese horror films over the following ten years.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past fourteen years (or are fourteen years old), you already know the story. There's a cursed videotape that, if you watch it, you receive a mysterious phone call. Seven days later, you die. And your corpse's face is all twisted up in terror.
So much so that you'll need a closed casket at your funeral.
At its heart, though, this is a mystery, and when our main character, Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) a reporter who gets drawn into the story after the death of her niece, begins digging around into the history of the urban legend she finds more than she bargains for. And the tension really begins to build when her son watches the tape.
For most of the film the anxiety is amped up slowly as Reiko discovers more and more about the origins of the cursed videotape and when all is said and done, she, her son (and her doomed jerk ex-husband) are thrust into a world of ghosts, psychics, curses, and murder.
All of that is spooky enough, but in the end, what really sold this film was the videotaped images of the ghost girl, Sadako (Rie Ino'o), with her jacked up nails and staggery walk climbing out of the well and coming toward the camera until she climbs out of the TV screen itself.
Here was a killer who didn't hide behind a mask or murder in creative and sickly entertaining ways. The image of a pale young girl in a long white dress, her face hidden by long black hair, was fairly innocuous taken out of context, but when Nakata added that grainy video texture and filmed her walking backwards, then ran that backwards to create the unnatural, jittery shamble toward the viewer, he nailed something primal. Something straight out of nightmares.
And he let loose Japanese ghosts into the international horror marketplace.
– Paul Brian McCoy
It may be difficult to image now but a little over ten years ago, found footage horror films were few and far between, mostly associated with Italian sleaze auteurs and the odd psychotic mockumentary a la Man Bites Dog. But on the eve of the millennium, two filmmakers low on funds and big on concept managed to make the kind of seismic film event that so rarely transpires in a generation.
It's not that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project is a truly original work-- after all, it blends elements of Cannibal Holocaust and even The Last Broadcast, which was released the year before. But with The Blair Witch Project, Myrick, Sanchez and their company of actors somehow created the perfect recipe for what would eventually turn into a massively profitable subgenre of horror. Where other found footage horror works like Cannibal Holocaust focused on the "realness" of their gore and effects, Blair Witch instead focused on mood and tone, emphasizing an inherently terrifying natural landscape-- a shadowy forest-- over more identifiable and therefore categorizable horrors like cannibals or murderers or monsters.
Adding to that is the brilliant marketing campaign that caught the public eye after the film had been purchased at Sundance, which was in itself a streamlined, more tasteful appropriation of the gonzo and nearly criminal hijinks the creators of Cannibal Holocaust unleashed on their native shores. The Blair Witch marketing team worked in collusion with the filmmakers to build up the aura and mystique surrounding the film, temporarily forcing unknowing audiences to wonder how much of the film was fact and how much was fiction, as mockumentaries were rolled out about the Blair Witch legend the film's characters were said to be studying. Upon release, The Blair Witch Project was no longer merely a film, but an event, a talking point that one had to be in the know about.
But none of that would have mattered if the film itself wasn't so bracing and effective. Though they've done little of note since, Myrick and Sanchez were in top form here, coaxing haunting performances from their leads, particularly Heather Donahue, whose tearful close-up confession dominated trailers for the film. The predecessors to Blair Witch were forceful and unsubtle, but Myrick and Sanchez milked subtlety out of necessity and wound up with art in the process. Say what you will about what followed, but The Blair Witch Project remains one of the landmark achievements of 20th century horror for a reason, and while everyone and their mother knows everything there is to know about it even if they've yet to see a minute of it, it's unlikely that its significance or impact will diminish any time soon.
– Nick Hanover
Oh my! That's quite a lot of horror right there!
Be sure to check back next week for the Top Ten Horror Films from 2000 and Beyond!