From just about the moment the first movie camera was invented, horror movies have been a go-to genre. From Edison’s version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to The Cave of the Demons by Georges Méliès, horror let filmmakers try out new the new technology in ways that most other genres didn’t. Over the decades, horror went from awe-inspiring to out of fashion. In the 1920s, Lon Chaney and Universal Studios pushed silent horror films to new highs with amazing makeup effects and long-form storytelling. Then in 1931, Tod Browning changed the way the world would see horror forever when he made Dracula.
For Universal, their run of horror movies which included Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy helped keep the studio afloat during the depression. As America’s economy recovered and World War II began, the horror monsters fought against the Nazis, most notably the Invisible Man in the 1942 film The Invisible Agent.
The 50s gave way to schlock horror – the genre became focused on the newly minted “teenagers” and never looked back. With each passing decade, the story became secondary to scandal and gore. John Carpenter‘s 1978 film Halloween gave birth to the slasher genre, and the 1980s were overrun by low-budget movies with C-level Agatha Christie whodunits with masked killers planting their flags on various holidays.
Then came the 1990s and the quiet rebirth of thinking horror. Even the slashers of the 90s (some of them at least) had a deeper meaning. These are the 15 best horror movies of the 1990s.
If you’ve never seen Candyman, the movie based on Clive Barker‘s short story The Forbidden, then the trailer could be pretty confusing, what with the bees and the hook and all. When you see the movie, the pieces connect so well, and the story is told so perfectly, that it will likely become one of your favorites.
Starring Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen, Candyman tells the story of a graduate student who is studying urban legends and becomes interested in the local Chicago legend of the Candyman. Similar to Bloody Mary, the Candyman appears when he is summoned by saying his name five times while facing a mirror. Once he shows up, the Candyman brutally murders the summoner with a hook jammed in the bloody stump of his right arm.
14. Exorcist III
It’s rare that the third film in a series is any good, but for horror, it happens more often than not. In many cases, the second movie in a horror franchise is too similar to the first and the studio decides to try something different with the third. Sometimes, like with The Exorcist III, the change is so dramatic that it takes ages for an audience to discover the movie.
Exorcist III wasn’t originally an Exorcist movie. With 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic being a critical and box office failure, no one was chomping at the bit for another dive into that pool, but when William Peter Blatty began to turn his novel Legion into a film, the studio demanded that he connect it to his best-known work, The Exorcist. While the movie is primarily about a serial killer in Washington D.C. whose work has a satanic feel to it, it initially had few ties to the classic horror movie. The studio forced Blatty to add in an exorcism, which was added to the climax of the movie, and the writer/director was able to make it work beautifully.
13. The Sixth Sense
It takes a special movie to break into the pop culture lexicon the way The Sixth Sense did. The movie, which wasn’t even on Entertainment Weekly’s 134 film Summer Movie Preview of 1999, became the second highest grossing movie of the year, behind Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
The movie turned M. Night Shyamalan into one of the hottest directors around, and Haley Joel Osment into the biggest child star since Macaulay Culkin. Along with being a box office smash, the movie about a little boy who could see dead people was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Osment, and Best Supporting Actress for Toni Collette. Sadly, Bruce Willis was left out of the awards love. Until this year’s It, The Sixth Sense held the record as the highest grossing horror film (not adjusted for inflation).
12. Silence Of The Lambs
No one knew it at the time, but 1991’s Silence of the Lambs would start a new fascination with what we today call the serial killer procedural story. There had been movies about police and FBI agents before Jonathan Demme‘s film based on the Thomas Harris novel, but this one captured audiences in a way few other films ever have, thanks in no small part to the work of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.
Without Silence of the Lambs, there would be no Seven (which we’ll get to next), no Bones TV series, no CSI franchise. So much of America’s interest in serial killers and FBI agents over the last twenty years started with this film, and for good reason. Silence of the Lambs is amazingly terrifying in its realism. While the movie (and the novel it is based on) is partially based on the true-life killer Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño, the story is wholly original, but nonetheless creepy.
It is nearly impossible to accurately explain the impact that David Fincher‘s Seven has had on film and television. The movie, with a script by Andrew Kevin Walker and starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kevin Spacey is, at its heart, an old-school noir but with a modern touch that takes it to a level rarely seen at the time.
For well over a decade after Seven came out in 1995, just about every “gritty” movie had a yellowish hue to it, hoping to capture that feeling that Fincher created with his film. What most of them missed was that Fincher’s genius wasn’t just in the use of color in the movie, but in every aspect, from story to casting to editing (which the movie received an Academy Award nomination for). Seven masterfully played on the basic human fears of the unknown and the growing world of fame through acts of infamy.
By the start of the 1990s, the slasher genre was dead. Freddy Krueger’s story was ended with 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and an attempt to bring the franchise back in 1994’s New Nightmare didn’t catch the way the studio had hoped. Jason showed up in 1993 with Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, but audiences didn’t really care to see it. With movies like Silence of the Lambs, supernatural horror had fallen out of fashion.
But in 1996, director Wes Craven, with a script by Kevin Williamson, breathed new life into the slasher genre with Scream. The movie, which was both frightening as well as fun, took a look at the slasher movies of the past with reverence while also questioning their effect on American society. While the true theme is held until the end of the film, Scream is a fantastic examination of the argument that entertainment can lead to real life violence.
9. The Blair Witch Project
Released in 1999, The Blair Witch Project was the first movie to really use the internet as a marketing tool. The found footage movie was supported by a number of sites that showed quick clips and “real” footage of interviews and news stories about the missing college students.
The online marketing turned the low-budget film into an event, with many people believing that the footage was real. Both a critical and commercial success, The Blair Witch Project is often looked at as the start of the found footage movement, but in truth, it would be another ten years before major studios saw the profit possibilities of the filming style.
Still, it is impossible to ignore the impact that The Blair Witch Project had on horror. While much of the 1990s was focused on “realistic” horror, this film and the next movie on this list brought back paranormal horror movies in a big way.
The 1990s weren’t a great time for Stephen King adaptations. For every Shawshank Redemption, there were some seriously bad movies, including five Children of the Corn sequels. Still, when a King adaptation worked, it really worked, and when it comes to King’s horror work, Misery is one of the best adaptations of any decade.
Released in 1990 and starring James Caan and Kathy Bates – who won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes – Misery tells the story of a writer who is held captive by one of his biggest fans who demands that he write a new novel in his series about a character named Misery Chastain.
Directed by Rob Reiner, Misery has become something of a warning to creators, especially in the digital age, on the dangers of fan interaction. After all, no one wants a sledgehammer to the ankle.
7. Funny Games
In 1997, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke brought his film to the Cannes Film Festival. The movie Funny Games told the story of a family that is held hostage by two incredibly evil young men. The men torture the family with a series of sadistic games.
What truly makes Funny Games stand out is how Haneke has one of the torturers, Paul, continuously break the fourth wall. While this style is sometimes done in comedies as a way to help the audience connect to the characters, it is very rare for a horror film to take that step and in doing so, Haneke better connects the viewer to the action of the movie. It creates a sense that you are not just observing what is happening, but are actively part of it. The breaking of the fourth wall reaches insane limits when the captors begin to play with time, changing the outcome of their actions to better suit them. Haneke remade his film for American audiences in 2007.
6. Bram Stoker’s Dracula
While Dracula helped bring horror movies to a new level in the 1930s, by the 1980s he was looked at more as a child’s monster than anything that could really creep audiences out. Vampires still showed up in film, most notably Lost Boys and Fright Night, but they weren’t Counts, they were punk kids or new neighbors. The classic vampire was out, but Francis Ford Coppola wanted to remind us all why Dracula was always cool.
1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula brought the story of the original vampire to new heights while using very old camera tricks to create the amazing effects. Gary Oldman‘s Dracula and Anthony Hopkins‘ Van Helsing were praised by critics, as was Winona Ryder‘s take on Mina Harker. The one misstep everyone seemed to agree on was the casting of Keanu Reeves, but even his surfer accent can’t take away from the power of the film.
5. Jacob’s Ladder
Fans of the hilarious podcast How Did This Get Made are likely well aware of Jacob’s Ladder and what the story is really about, since co-host Jason Mantzoukas often references the ending of the film, but for those of you who have never seen Jacob’s Ladder, we won’t spoil it here.
The movie, which stars Tim Robbins, failed to find an audience when it was released in 1990, but over the years the story of a Vietnam War veteran who becomes unable to tell the difference between reality and the hallucinations he is suffering through has found a steadfast fan base, and with good reason. Jacob’s Ladder is an equally terrifying and emotionally brilliant film that speaks to the trauma of war, which few movies ever do.
Filmed over three and a half years, Begotten is a terrifying retelling of the biblical story of Genesis. Merhige initially intended for Begotten to be told through music and dance and to be performed at the Lincoln Center in New York, but chose to turn it into a film when the budget for the live performance proved to be too expensive.
The movie, which is banned in Singapore, is not for everyone – it is deeply disturbing, utterly unnerving, and told without any dialogue. Begotten isn’t the kind of movie you put on for a fun Saturday night with pizza, but it is the kind of movie that sticks in your mind for weeks.
3. Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer
This is a sneaky addition to the list – while Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was filmed in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t released until 1990 because the content was so controversial. In many ways, Henry is the movie that set the tone for what 90s horror would be.
The movie, loosely based on the true story of serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, stars Michael Rooker and was made for just over $100,000 dollars. The content of the movie was so violent and unsettling that the MPAA gave Henry an X-rating and helped create a new rating – NC-17 – for movies that weren’t considered “adult” films but were considered improper for the usual R-rated audiences.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer found its audience on video, as nearly every theater in America refused to screen it.
2. Tales From The Hood
When it was released in 1995, many horror fans of all races scoffed at Tales from the Hood. Horror aimed at African Americans was rare, and the title suggested that this was more of a joke than a serious film. Turns out that not only is Tales from the Hood one of the best horror movies of the 1990s, but one of the best horror anthologies of any decade.
With four short stories and a wrap-around, Tales from the Hood uses horror to tell stories of police brutality, racism, gang violence and domestic abuse in a way that studio movies rarely can. In a movie filled with fantastic performances, comedian David Alan Grier steals the movie as an abusive step-father that is scarier than Freddy Krueger could ever hope to be.
1. The Frighteners
Originally intended to be the third Tales From the Crypt film following Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood, The Frighteners was Peter Jackson‘s first foray into the Hollywood machine. The New Zealand director had made a number of films, but most of them weren’t exactly catching the eyes of a wide audience. Horror fans loved Bad Taste and Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive) but even the most horror loving horror fan wasn’t so sure what Meet the Feebles was trying to do.
Then, in 1994, Jackson took the true story of two teen girls who committed a horrible murder in New Zealand and turned it into the amazing film Heavenly Creatures. Heavenly Creatures showed that Jackson could do more than crazy gore, and studios took notice.
While The Frighteners didn’t set the box office on fire, it has gained a strong following over the years, with special attention paid to the groundbreaking special effects as well as the fantastic acting work of Michael J. Fox, Dee Wallace Stone, and Jake Busey. Jackson used The Frighteners to build Weta Digital, which would go on to help him bring Lord of the Rings to the screen.
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