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Film

The 10 greatest horror films of the 1990s

@Russellisation

Predictably, just like the erratic styles and sensibilities of the 1990s, horror filmmaking during the decade reflected a similar eccentricity, rewriting the rules of ‘80s horror whilst looking onwards at the terrors of the 21st century. 

This led to a landscape of ‘90s horror that was hard to truly pin down, caught in flux between the slasher traditions of old and a strive to modernise the genre. Still lurking in the dark corners of the genre were dated icons Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees who continued to haunt the genre with endless sequels, including Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994 and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday in 1993. 

Phantoms of a slasher tradition that had since long gone, these icons of horror no longer felt welcome in the genre, becoming burdens to the genre they once helped to thrive. Instead, ‘90s horror preferred revolution, be it turning a mirror on its own dirty slasher deeds in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, or bringing something entirely unique to the table with the utility of new technologies such as in The Blair Witch Project. 

Representing a thriving horror decade of experimentation and innovation, let’s take a look back at the best horror films of the 1990s. 

The 10 greatest horror films of the 1990s:

10. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

Released just as the horror slasher sub-genre was ebbing away from popularity, and entering into a new stage of revision, Bernard Rose’s Candyman was a film that very much took its slasher identity seriously, contextualising terror within a strong racial subtext.

For a fairly stereotypical horror tale, the narrative that Candyman explores throughout its runtime speaks of a more pertinent truth about mythmaking that exceeds its apparent slasher simplicity. Starring Tony Todd as the titular Candyman alongside Virginia Madsen as the protagonist, Helen, Todd would later become an icon of horror cinema thanks to his towering stature, fur jacket and terrifying hooked weapon.

9. Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)

A sly, intelligent psychological thriller that is up there with the best of the genre, Misery is a brilliant commentary on the nature of writing and authorship, telling the bizarre story of a relationship between an obsessive fan and a tortured writer.

Elevated by a terrific performance from Kathy Bates, who would go on to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 1991, Misery creates a fascinating, compelling dialogue about the nature of fandom and pop culture obsession. Adapted from Stephen King’s book of the same name released in 1987, the author even included Rob Reiner’s adaptation on the list of his top ten favourite film adaptations.

8. Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)

From the Oscar-nominated director of Flashdance and Fatal Attraction came one of the ‘90s darkest psychological horror films, starring Tim Robbins as the titular Jacob, a man suffering from crippling PTSD from the Vietnam war.

A pertinent story of horror for many young Americans recovering from the torment of the Vietnam war through the late 20th century, Jacob’s Ladder is a visceral journey that follows an individual’s personal journey to better his mental health. Picking apart his own delusions from reality, Adrian Lyne’s film is a powerful rumination on the erosion of mental health, particularly in the face of difficulty. 

7. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

John McNaughton’s compelling 1986 horror film is an investigation of the psychology of a serial killer Henry (played by Michael Rooker), a man who has murdered multiple people including his own mother. 

An excellent breakdown of the slasher villain popularised in the 1980s, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer forced audiences to question their own enjoyment of the genre they so beloved. As director John McNaughton reflected, “If the idea of a horror film is to horrify you, how could we best do that? Our conclusion was we could best do that by removing the fantasy. No ooga-booga, no monsters from outer space, no Freddy, no supernatural element. Pure realism. The greatest horror of all is, you know, human beings”. 

6. Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997)

Not to be confused with the iconic Akira Kurosawa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is definitely one of the most significant Japanese filmmakers in the landscape of modern cinema, with Cure being perhaps his finest horror film to date. 

Presenting a haunting vision of Tokyo, Cure follows a detective having to deal with the case of several gruesome murders committed by individuals who have no memory of their actions. With an overbearing, omniscient presence of terror, Cure crafts an ingenious take on the crime genre whilst suffusing the story with images of true horror. A director included within the pantheon of modern Japanese greats, Cure would help establish the existence of J-horror heading into the 21st century. 

5. Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992)

Though he may be well known for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s career sparked in 1987 upon the release of Bad Taste, giving cult horror audiences a unique take on body horror that continued in 1992 film Braindead.

The film follows Lionel and his mother, Vera, who soon becomes a victim of the ‘Sumatran Rat Monkey’ and physically decays until she is reborn as a zombie, infecting the town around her. Possessing a homemade aesthetic of rubber props, thick exaggerated blood and theatrical performances, this culminates in the film’s conclusion, described by author Mark Jancovich as a “30-minute non-stop parade of zombie dismemberment”.

4. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1990)

The infamous found-footage horror film of the 1990s, The Blair Witch Project was, in many ways, a literal ‘project’ that challenged the cinematic medium as well as audience expectations, sparking a cinematic revolution that would boil over into the 21st century.

Unapologetically unsophisticated and unpolished, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s film is simple, following three young film students through the woods as they try to capture footage of the urban legend, ‘The Blair Witch’. What results is a frantic dash through the Maryland wilderness with rare moments of respite, as the characters become lost in a labyrinth of occult mystery. It’s a paranoid chase scene with an invisible predator and horror at its most basic, resurfacing in your mind every time you go for a nighttime stroll.

3. Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

The second iteration of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in cinema, Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, is a crime thriller with serious bite with help from a delightfully shocking performance from Anthony Hopkins.

Based on the novel of the same name, and a series of books following the serial killer from author Thomas Harris, Demme’s film tails along with a young FBI cadet seeking help from an incarcerated cannibal in efforts to track down another vicious serial killer. With a central plot that is palpable to the core, Hopkins’ performance drives the drama, fueling the roaring fires propelling the film forward. Lecter’s piercing, unwavering stare consumes the young FBI agent, played by an excellent Jodie Foster, making for a heart-palpating conclusion featuring characters you cherish so closely.

2. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)

Wes Craven doffs his cap to the very horror genre he helped to create with Scream, his final masterpiece, creating an ode to the likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees as he heralds in the reign of a brand new genre icon, Ghostface.

Satirically twisting the conventions of the horror genre itself, Craven would kill off the film’s biggest name, Drew Barrymore, within the first sequence of the film, letting you in for 110 minutes of pure surprise. The story is pretty predictable, and purposefully so, following a teenage girl and her group of friends, stalked by a serial killer using horror films as inspiration for his murderous acts. With all its twists, turns and misdirection, Scream is thrilling to its very core, pedalled by a leading cast reaping obvious enjoyment from the inspired script.

1. Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)

Spawning sequels, spin-offs, remakes and re-releases, Ringu and its following series became a horror trailblazer for all things grungy, supernatural and long-black-haired. Centred around a mystical VHS tape that carries the curse of a young, bedevilled girl and the dark promise of death after seven days, the film birthed a new fear of technology and was, for many western audiences, their first taste of J-horror. Its influence has been evident ever since.

Whilst ghosts and curses used to inhabit spaces of the home, spaces of particular objects and even the crannies of one’s own mind, Ringu suggested that it might exist in the questionable realm of television and marvellous new technologies. The film was a cultural questioning of how trustworthy technology truly was, and in-particularly television. It’s a truly terrifying concept that cinema, let alone the horror genre, had never seen before – a dark, demonic, impossible spirit that you couldn’t evade and was futile to fight against.