For many, this decade often gets the bad rap of being a weak period for the genre, or at the very least, a transitional period. The golden era of slashers had finally fizzled out, and the glut of fantastical gore driven films seemed to tire out as well. It didn’t help that advancements in computer-generated imagery shifted special effects away from practical and headfirst into digital, a move that heavily dates many of the films from this period. Many of the beloved franchises that began in the decades prior were announcing their final bow in the early ‘90s, too, with entries like Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (nothing stays dead in horror, though).
Along with the extreme advances in technology, horror entered a new sort of renaissance. The ‘90s ushered in a wave of horror grounded in realism, with a focus on serial killers. It’s also an age of self-parody and ironic humor. It brought forth new waves of found footage and Asian horror. It’s easy to dismiss the ‘90s, but the reality is that the decade had a lot of great horror to offer. Here are the best horror films of the decade:
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
This underrated gem is a creepy psychological horror that feels more like a descent into madness. Director Adrian Lyne explores the traumatic effects of PTSD through a haunted Vietnam veteran’s eyes, letting the audience experience it firsthand. Tim Robbins’ Jacob is tragic, and the film’s tone somber and gloomy. The psychedelic hallucinations? Terrifying. So much so that this one is currently getting the remake treatment.
A cautionary tale on the debauched power of fandom, this Stephen King adaptation was helmed by Rob Reiner, a director known for comedy, not horror. The result is a perfect blend of pitch-black humor and horror, with an Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates as psychopathic Annie Wilkes. Annie is terrifying enough in her care for James Caan’s bedridden Paul Sheldon, but the most iconic and cringe-worthy scene is the one that made “hobbling” common terminology: Annie smashing Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer.
Rob Underwood’s giant monster movie spawned a franchise of at least 5 sequels, a 2003 television series, and a reboot series for Syfy starring Valentine McKee himself, Kevin Bacon. As far as horror comedies go, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward are among the best duos, and the small fictional town of Perfection, Nevada, population of 14, will charm you. There’s a fun fish out of water story to this quirky town finding clever ways to survive the attacks of underground giant worm-like graboids, like maybe they were supposed to be in a romantic western instead. There’s not a lot of American made giant monster movies, luckily this is a strong showing. The practical effects are top notch, and so is the cast. Tremors is just too gosh darn likable to not make this list.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Academy-Award winner of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing Adapted Screenplay, the inevitable question became, “Does this count as horror?” Granted, a lot of early ‘90s horror towed the blurry line between thriller and horror, and the crime procedural aspect of the narrative certainly muddies the water. Yet, this is a film about a young FBI agent seeking assistance in capturing a serial killer building a woman suit from his victims from a cannibal. Sounds pretty horror to me. As is the sequence that sees Hannibal Lecter’s brutal escape from custody. There’s also heavy use of gothic imagery in the cinematography. Whether you’re team thriller or team horror, there’s no denying this is one of the best.
Also known as Dead Alive in North America, this bonkers zombie romantic comedy played a major influence to the following decade’s Shaun of the Dead. Before director Peter Jackson was filming grand fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he began his career with highly entertaining splatter comedies. At its core, the film is about poor virginal Lionel Cosgrove who must learn to stand up to his overbearing mother for the sake of love. His mother just so happens to have been bitten by the Sumatran Rat-Monkey, a violent animal with a penchant of unleashing zombie outbreaks. From zombie babies, zombie organs, to gigantic zombie moms, this blood-drenched gore fest has it all. As fun as it is gross, this movie will leave you yelling, “I kick ass for the Lord!”
Based on Clive Barker short story The Forbidden, this Bernard Rose directed tale of urban legend terror introduced one of the best boogeymen in horror history. Tony Todd’s masterful performance as the terrifying and tragic Candyman is timeless. He oozes charisma and terror in equal measure. The rough urban setting of Cabrini-Green gives a unique, refreshing update to the slasher aesthetic. Phillip Glass’ score is hauntingly beautiful and a highlight of the influential musician’s career. While all of this is an amalgam of great horror, it takes it a step further by delivering one of the most satisfying endings ever.
Not only did this unique spin on vampire lore mark Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature, but it also marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the director and actor Ron Perlman, who played thug antagonist Angel de la Guardia. A dramatic tale on aging and life, the vampire at the center of this film is old antique dealer Jesus Gris, played by the amiable Federico Luppi. Gris doesn’t become a vampire by typical means, though, but through alchemy. A scarab-shaped automaton hidden within Gris’ shop injects him with a substance that revitalizes him in every way, including a thirst for blood. Equal parts charming and gruesome, Cronos is one hell of a debut and contribution to the vampire sub-genre.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
John Carpenter, no slouch in the ‘90s by any stretch, created a Lovecraftian nightmare of insanity with a noir-like mystery that kept audiences guessing. Sam Neill, once again nailing a genre performance, plays insurance investigator John Trent, investigating the disappearance of horror writer Sutter Cane. His search leads him to the small town of Hobb’s End, a town seemingly straight out of Cane’s works. Considered the final entry in his Apocalypse trilogy, this psychological terror feels different from Carpenter’s work, at least in terms of unsettling, nightmarish imagery. It may have been written by Michael De Luca, not Carpenter, but no one can handle a complex narrative like Carpenter. There are subtle scenes of horror that crescendo into full-blown madness, like the old man on a bicycle in the dark, and minute details hidden throughout that makes this worth revisiting. Do you read Sutter Cane?
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
Upon release, the reviewers skewered this one. Variety wrote that the film was “neither funny enough nor scary enough to be fully satisfying as either a shocker or a spoof.” I vehemently disagree. May I present exhibit A: Billy Zane as The Collector. So wickedly delightful in his role, I daresay that the movie would’ve hurt without his presence. Exhibit B: Jada Pinkett Smith and the always classy William Sadler as the protagonists willing to send those gnarly demons back to hell. Exhibit C: the amazing practical effects. Exhibit D: the stellar supporting cast. Really, I could go on all day when it comes to just how fun this movie is. Sure, its loose tie-in to the popular anthology series is tentative at best, but with such a fun, badass movie that still holds up decades later, I think that’s a rather minor flaw.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
This collaboration between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino blended action with horror and reminded us that vampire movies could be so much fun. Starring George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as the criminal Gecko brothers, they take the Fuller family as hostages and hole up in a Mexican strip club with a twist: this bar served as a buffet for its reptilian vampire inhabitants. A stellar cast, gory action, witty dialogue, and a multitude of genre cameos from the likes of John Saxon, Tom Savini, and Fred Williamson makes you want to revisit the Titty Twister again and again.
I think a case could be made at this point that no other horror master had his finger on the pulse of the genre quite like Wes Craven. From gritty exploitation horror in the ‘70s, to surreal slasher in the ‘80s, to tongue-in-cheek dissection of slasher tropes and formulas in the ‘90s, Craven’s ability to intelligently introspect on horror with class and humor is something to cherish forever. Upcoming screenwriter Kevin Williamson made a bold debut with his clever script, and Craven’s direction spearheaded Scream into instant classic. The bold cold opening that saw the brutal, unexpected dispatching of a major star gripped audiences and never let go. Even now, Wes Craven, we’ll never let go.
Event Horizon (1997)
Unsurprisingly, this Paul W.S. Anderson directed sci-fi horror caught a lot of flak from critics upon release, as does most of his work. They were dead wrong, though. An uncredited re-write by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker elevated this haunted house in space flick into something truly special. For both the unsuspecting crew of the Lewis and Clark and audience members, the discovery of just where reappeared ship Event Horizon went 7 years prior was pure nightmare fuel. Event Horizon boasts some of the most frightening glimpses of Hell in cinematic history, and Sam Neill’s Dr. William Weir makes for one fearsome tour guide.
Released shortly after the introduction to DVD, when VHS was still common on shelves and in homes, many would discover this Japanese horror the same way the victims in the film would; by tape. Stateside, this was the mainstream introduction to Japanese horror that would usher in a popular wave of Asian horror, and the long-haired vengeful ghost. Sadako’s inhuman crawl from her well toward the TV screen was the stuff of nightmares. That most audiences experienced her terror in the same form she attached herself to victims added a new level of thrill. Hideo Nakata’s smash hit not only launched a franchise from the creepy curse of Sadako, but launched modern J-horror as we know it.
You’d be forgiven for being bored of the first, well, two-thirds or so of what plays out like a quaint love story. Sweet widower Shigeru may have found the one in fragile ex-ballerina Asami, after forming a timid connection that soon blossoms into romance. Then Asami’s façade begins to crack. The scene with the mysterious moving sack in the background signals something is very, very wrong here. Nothing prepares you for the completely sadistic, shocking finale. Needles in eyes and slow-moving wire amputations create the most unnerving introduction to the twisted work of Japanese auteur Takashi Miike.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This seminal found footage horror isn’t the first found footage film, but it is the one responsible for the wave of found footage horror that followed. The micro-budget film raked in millions worldwide, luring in those hoping to catch similar success. Posed as a documentary on three student filmmakers studying the local legend of the Blair Witch, they soon get lost and find themselves prey to that very legend. The documentary style, combined with clever marketing and a cast and crew of unknowns, had many believing this wasn’t a fictional story. Innovative filmmaking and a new twist on wooded terror makes this a classic.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The line “I see dead people,” and the doozy of a twist has long since become mainstays in pop culture, but M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough hit offered so much more than that. A gut-wrenching performance from then child actor Haley Joel Osment, and an against-type turn from Bruce Willis is what lends the emotional punch. But the scenes where Osment’s Cole is terrorized in his own home by the dead? Well, they make you want to hide under the blankets, too. This set the bar so high in ghost stories that Shyamalan has struggled to keep up with the expectations placed on him after this release.
Antonia Bird’s idiosyncratic mix of western, black comedy, and cannibal terror is a thing of beauty. A stunningly shot pre-Civil War era horror film with a unique sense of humor and twist on the Wendigo mythology makes Ravenous one of the most unique entries in horror. There’s not a weak link in the cast, led by Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle. As strangely funny as Ravenous is, it’s also dark and disgusting. Just what we want in our cannibal films.