The ’90s weren’t a golden age for horror. The ’70s were. The ’80s were too. In the ’70s, horror got hard. The Hollywood Production Code, which had kept screens clean and tidy for 40 years, was dead. And the filmmakers that took the most advantage of it were the ones that wanted to scare the bejesus out of you. By the ’90s, things chilled out — maybe too much. The slasher movie was dead; the major studios mostly stopped making horror. Reagan was gone, and George H.W. Bush was perceived as a wimp. Clinton would make America so boring he’d be impeached for lying about sex. And during this time, you had to really look to find great horror. But it was there if you made the effort.
As Halloween approaches, you’ve got a better excuse than any other time of year to sit in front of some damn fine horror. Here are our favorites from an inglorious, but far from inessential, decade. Note, as with our ’80s list: We stuck to one film per filmmaker, for the sake of fairness.
25. Army of Darkness (1992)
For his third Evil Dead movie, director Sam Raimi tried a sneak-attack. He took a franchise that had been known primarily by cult audiences, ditched the name and tried to pass it off as a standard (if weirdo) blockbuster. It didn’t work, but that’s to the film’s (and the fans’) benefit. Even sending Bruce Campbell’s Ash to the distant past — a year before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III — turns out to be an inspired idea, allowing our chainsaw-armed hero to battle medieval ghosts and goblins, bop about dilapidated castles and dole out some legit decent fish-out-of-water antics. (More fantasy romps need lines like “Give me some sugar, baby.”) By Army of Darkness, we’re more than several centuries away from the grindhouse gross-outs of the original The Evil Dead. But that’s not a problem when you have Ash fighting an army of mini-Ashes.
24. Wild Zero (1999)
You know what more zombie dystopias need? Guitar Wolf. Tailor-made for the South by Southwest crowd, this Japanese bonanza drops the retro-American garage band — with their leather jackets, shades and throttling lo-fi rock — into an outbreak of the undead. It’s like if The Ramones starred in a Romero movie, and unlike nuts and gum, it’s two tastes that actually do go great together.
23. The Exorcist III (1990)
Imagine heading into 1990. You were about to get new episodes of The Godfather, Chinatown and The Exorcist. It must have been so exciting! We know how that turned out. The Godfather Part III caught a fatal case of threequelitus, while The Two Jakes, directed by Jack Nicholson himself, rightfully hasn’t been mentioned since. (Besides, everyone knows the real sequel to Chinatown is Who Framed Roger Rabbit.) The Exorcist III didn’t make much of an impact either, but that’s because it was too subtle, too brainy to catch on the way William Friedkin’s original did in 1973. Helmed by The Exorcist novelist William Peter Blatty himself, it sics a grumpy George C. Scott on some new devilish transpirings, which may involve the possessed body of the late Father Karras (Jason Miller). There’s nothing on the order of Linda Blair vomiting pea soup or calling Max von Sydow one of the c-words, but it does contain one of the three or four actually respectable jump scares in cinema history.
22. Raising Cain (1993)
By the mid-’90s, Brian De Palma had had it up to here with being called a Hitchcock ripoff artist. His thrillers had all of them been savvy, sly deconstructions, teeming with De Palma’s own eccentric visual and editorial syntax. After loftier fare like The Untouchables, Casualties of War and Carlito’s Way, he returned to the genre that made his name. And he was grouchy, tetchy, more than a little bitter. The result is a horror-thriller that cheekily goes out of its way to piss off its audience. John Lithgow predictably throws himself into the role of a flustered child psychologist with multiple personalities, at least one of them a potential murderer. You can picture De Palma chuckling as he stages gruesome deaths off-screen, busts out one of his most convoluted long takes for no good reason and, best of all, spends about a half hour trapping us inside a Russian nesting doll of various characters’ dreams. It’s a blast — long as you’re a De Palma convert.
21. Cronos (1993)
Before the Twilight days, vampire culture was dominated by Anne Rice. (And, to a lesser extent, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.) A welcome respite came with the first film by Guillermo del Toro — an achingly beautiful twist on the bloodsucker drama, about two old men who find the secret to life and vitality, at the expense of making them hunger for blood. Del Toro is sometimes a vibrant thinker who doesn’t always know what to do with his brilliant ideas (or his even better creature designs). Cronos, though, is compact, air-tight, with not a wasted frame.
20. Arachnophobia (1990)
In the ’80s, major studios were mad for horror, always up to scour for loose change in the sofa to pay for a new Freddy, a new Jason, a new Michael Myers. Once 1990 hit, the R-rated slasher movie was treated like it was disco. Trashy horror became a thing for cheaper studios, and any horror released with a budget or names were PG-13 — scares for the whole family. That wasn’t always a bad thing. Horror thrived long before the censorious Production Code ended in the ’60s. And it thrived again in the ’90s, occasionally, in movies like Arachnophobia, where the goriest thing is John Goodman squashing a killer spider under his boot. In fact, we could use more gee-whiz fightfests like this today — movies that remember that terror doesn’t always mean buckets of blood.
19. Body Snatchers (1993)
“Good allegories never die,” wrote Dave Kehr, “they just expand and contract to fit the times.” Kehr was speaking of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, itself a radical update of Don Siegel’s 1955 original. But it equally applies to Abel Ferrara’s twist as well. The Clinton-era version moves the pod people action to a military base — the perfect setting to raise disturbing questions about conformity. This was Ferrara’s follow-up to Bad Lieutenant, and though he plays things comparatively straight — no graphic heroin shoot-ups or Harvey Keitel’s peen shots here — it’s the last great Body Snatchers movie. (Yes, we remember 2007’s unaccountably vapid The Invasion, which somehow managed to say absolutely nothing about the Iraq War.)
18. Ravenous (1999)
“He was licking me!” Cannibal movies have always been a hard-sell, but Ravenous doesn’t play anything safe. It’s for the most select audience imaginable: the tiny minority who’d watch a Civil War period piece about people eating people that’s also, very quietly, pretty damn funny. Throw in a bizarre score by Michael Nyman and Blur’s Damon Albarn, the presence of both David Arquette and Jeremy Davies, plus a cannibal-vs.-cannibal duel between Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, then wonder how the guy who wrote this also wrote Rumor Has It…
17. Candyman (1992)
Like any profitable horror movie, Candyman birthed a franchise, one that tried to turn its resident boogeyman into another Freddy Krueger. And as with Halloween or even Nightmare on Elm Street, the sequels didn’t quite get what made the first one special. Candyman was different, though. It was no mere shocker; it was so arty it even had a Philip Glass score. And it turned into an examination of white privilege, with a heroine (Virginia Madsen) whose journey to vanquish the supernatural foe (Tony Todd) wound up alerting her to the class struggle in low-income urban America. Neither Glass nor social awareness returned for the sequels.
16. Cemetery Man/Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)
Before his too brief love affair with Hollywood, Rupert Everett — remember him? Give this charmer a comeback! — was the star of one of the funniest and most inventive zombie numbers of the ’90s. Made by Argento and Fulci mentee Michele Soavi, it’s a heartbreaking study of loneliness and existential despair couched in a whiz-bang gorefest. Everett plays a cemetery caretaker whose job regularly requires him to work the night shift, dispatching any fresh corpse that springs back to life. As the body count rises (and includes the woman he assumed was his one true love), we realize the extent to which his life is defined by his crappy but necessary job. Even dubbed, Everett is a deadpan rock star; watch his physical comedy and marvel that we ever let this guy disappear from view.
15. Scream (1996)
In the ’90s, we all thought we were really smart. We’d seen all the ’80s slashers, knew all the clichés, could maybe even rattle off the filmography of Wes Craven. (We also listened to Live, Bush and Blues Traveler, so what did we know?) As such, we gladly let Craven himself sell us the most ’90s horror movie of all: a self-aware slasher that delivered the same old goods while pretending to be above it all. Naturally, by Scream 3, the series was just another franchise suffering from diminishing returns. (2011’s Scream 4, however, is hilarious thanks to a grumpy-old-man-bitching-about-the-kids tone.) But we’ll always have the original — which, it should be pointed out, is actually a first-rate example of the genre it’s sending up.
14. Misery (1990)
The best Stephen King movies are made by great directors. Stanley Kubrick. Brian De Palma. George A. Romero. John Carpenter. Once upon a time, Rob Reiner was a terrific director too. During his aces early stretch — starting with This is Spinal Tap — he banged out two separate top-shelf King adaptations. Stand By Me bottled up youth like few other movies, while Misery revealed that the former Meathead knew how to tackle other genres while still being funny. Its success went right to Reiner’s head, and he got some terrible ideas and it’s been a long way down from here to North and The Story of Us and The Bucket List. But in Misery, the porridge, if you will, is just right.
13. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Technically this is a drama, and another of the era’s many films about the Vietnam War. But Jacob’s Ladder shares as much DNA with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July as it does with any of the era’s horrors. Tim Robbins plays a vet who thinks he has PTSD, but given the severity and the freakishness of his visions, he starts to wonder if it’s something even worse. The film’s not particularly deep, but it is bluntly effective. In other words, it’s not all that different from other Adrian Lyne movies like 9 ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction.
12. Nightbreed (1990)
With Hellraiser, novelist-turned-filmmaker Clive Barker lucked into the horror canon when he introduced the über-sadist Pinhead. Hollywood assumed they’d found their latest Wes Craven. But when Barker turned in his follow-up, the studio was sickened: He’d made a movie in which the gnarly-looking monsters were the sensitive good guys. Nightbreed was dramatically recut into a creature feature and, as these things tend to go, it bombed. Only in the last few years was Barker able to reconstruct his original version and, lo and behold, Barker was right. There are some horror movie jolts, some thrilling fights, plus director David Cronenberg playing a psycho. But at heart, it’s a minor-key elegy to the misunderstood, the ostracized, the people who have to become outsiders because society would never have them, and would destroy them given the chance.
11. Funny Games (1997)
True story: A college roommate came home one day when I wasn’t there, and for some reason put on whatever tape was inside the VCR. (This was the early aughts.) The film was Funny Games. When I returned, he yelled at me. “What was that fucked up movie?” he cried. The poor guy had accidentally sat through Michael Haneke’s takedown of the horror film. On paper, it sounds like a routine genre grinder, in which a nice bourgeois family is picked off, one-by-one, by two young psychos in tennis outfits. But Haneke forces us to ask ourselves why we enjoy watching suffering and murder. He even has his killers occasionally turn to the camera and wink at us, as if daring us to walk out or turn the movie off. A decade later, at the height of the torture porn era of the late aughts, he remade Funny Games in America, shot-for-shot, just to guilt-trip us some more. Haneke is a smug, humorless scold, here and in The White Ribbon, Amour and his new Happy End. But he’s not wrong.
10. Frankenhooker (1990)
Some horror directors work their way up the ladder, graduating to bigger budgets, some of them even doing “respectable” fare. (Even Wes Craven made a violin drama with Meryl Streep.) Not Frank Henenlotter. The madman of the no-budget horror scene (known for Brain Damage and three Basket Cases), Henenlotter stayed small and trashy. His masterpiece is a gleefully profane twist on Mary Shelley, in which a suburban mad scientist (James Lorinz) tries to bring back his dead wife after she’s eaten by a lawnmower. But apparently, it’s not a great idea to use the bodies of hookers he killed by drugging them up with “super-crack.” We’ll go to hell for loving this, but at least we’ll get to hang with Frankenhooker super-fan Bill Murray.
9. Tremors (1990)
Another PG-13 diamond that gives the rating a good name (see #20), Tremors brings back the creature feature, pitting Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward and, yes, Reba McEntire against some underground serpents skulking about the barren Southwest. There were too many sequels (plus a TV show), and in an earlier age that would have ruined the brand. But another perk of the ’90s is the rise of the direct-to-video market. The decidedly lesser follow-ups went straight to video store shelves, rarely to be seen, and ensuring that the original Tremors stayed perfect as it was.
8. Cure (1997)
The “J-horror” movement that began back home in the ’90s was quick to take over Hollywood, and during a period when horror was in need of a fresh perspective. But Ringu (remade as The Ring) hasn’t aged too well. What does age well are the spookers made by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira). Kurosawa made plenty of horrors, and plenty of films well outside of the genre. (His drama Tokyo Sonata is a beaut.) His best could never have been redone in America. This one concerns a mysterious rash of strangers who suddenly turn into homicidal maniacs, it’s a movie of ideas that bore into the mind, with no tidy resolution and a fog of sickening dread.
7. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Some of the best sequels are the ones that could be called “renegade sequels.” These are the follow-ups to big hits that refuse to repeat a past success, refuse to give us what we want. Babe: Pig in the City is a fine example. Gremlins 2 is even better. It too takes our heroes and villains to a metropolis, but instead of just going bigger and badder, director Joe Dante goes nuttier as well. It’s more of a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon than the first, dialing down the horror and ramping up the comedy. It even openly mocks the original, like a Reddit thread constructed by the filmmakers themselves. People came to watch the green nasties kill people; instead they got Tony Randall as a talking gremlin, a mid-film “intermission” with Hulk Hogan, and digs at a mogul who’s equal parts Ted Turner and our future 45th President.
6. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The backlash against the found footage movie that made the genre’s name was fierce, but don’t be fooled: The Blair Witch Project is a masterpiece. Strip away the believably herky-jerk amateur camerawork and the ambiguous shocker climax, and you have a potent portrait of escalating dread. It was a downer when Heather Donahue’s snotty confessional to the camera became a joke; few actors, well-known or first-timers, had ever been so raw, so authentically scared for their lives. And honestly, the vomit comet cinematography is still more pleasurable to the eyes than any Transformers entry or those Marvel movies mostly shot in boring rooms, nondescript parking garages and empty airport tarmacs.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
In early 1991, America fell in love with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. That summer, the news reported in horror the slayings of one Jeffrey Dahmer. No one batted an eye at gushing over a fictitious cannibal while retching in horror at the real deal. America has always had a problem putting two-and-two together, but we’d like to think the masses were simply responding to what was an abnormally strong exercise in finding sympathy for the devil. The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film to ever win Best Picture, but much more importantly, it was made by the late Jonathan Demme, one of the cinema’s, and the world’s, great humanists. Demme loved everybody, and he also loved to put that belief system to the test. And so even Hannibal the Cannibal gets the chance to be human, to be kind, to help out Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, both in tracking down a fellow killer and in putting to rest some old personal demons. And of course, he ate some people too.
4. Dead Alive/Braindead (1992)
Before his life was taken over by J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Jackson was the gorehound’s best friend. He always thought big, even when his only audience was freaks who loved watching bodies gnawed on by ravenous zombies, killer babies tearing apart faces from the inside, and dozens upon dozens of undead ghouls sucked into a lawnmower repurposed as a weapon. Jackson’s magnum opus, known either as Dead Alive or Braindead, starts off nasty then builds to an orgy of destruction that’s at least as long as the ending of The Return of the King, except it’s fun.
3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
It seems nuts now, but the world once turned on Twin Peaks. Back in 1992, a show that had once scored Super Bowl ratings — and laid the track for our current New Golden Age of Television — was dead, killed by declining audiences, who complained about the second season’s dipping quality. And then co-creator David Lynch had the chutzpah to make a Twin Peaks movie — a prequel that would show Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) before she’d been wrapped in plastic. The knives were out, first at Cannes, where Fire Walk with Me was booed, and then in American movie theaters, where it landed with a thud. Cut to the summer of 2017, when Lynch blew our minds every Sunday with Twin Peaks: The Return. Now it’s not so crazy to point out that Fire Walk with Me is every bit the third season’s equal. If anything, it’s even freakier, even scarier and somehow even sadder, depicting Laura’s mental deterioration step-by-step, all while reframing the series as a sensitive exploration of abuse. And like The Return, it wows with little to no cherry pie, damn good coffee or Special Agent Dale Cooper.
2. Se7en (1995)
Frankly, Se7en shouldn’t even be good, and not just because we grind our teeth every time we type out that stylized title. In anyone else’s hands, it would have been serial killer hackwork. It would have been deplorable — a movie that winds up buying into the nihilistic, juvenile, retrograde worldview of its psycho du jour. Thankfully, it was in the hands of David Fincher. In his second feature, Fincher conjured up a sickening mood of deep dread, making it hurt by sheer force of will. To see how a strong filmmaker — and a seriously overqualified cast — can elevate potentially evil material, look no further than this.
1. Audition (1999)
It’s almost 20 years old, and yet we still feel nervous about spoiling Takashi Miike’s traumatizing shape-shifter. Let’s just say that, for its first 75-or-so minutes, Audition doesn’t even seem like it belongs on a list of horror movies. It’s the heart-warming tale of a widower (Ryo Ishibashi) trying to find love again, and seeming to find it in a younger, docile woman (Eihi Shiina). How sweet! Except all is not what it seems… and, come to think of it, the way our hero finds his true love — by way of a fake movie cattle call aimed at young hotties — isn’t that sweet to begin with. If you find his actions duplicitous, patriarchal or just plain skeezy … well, you’re in for a treat. Just make sure you have a vomit bag at the ready.