As we truck along with our year-by-year breakdown, we present to you the 15 Best Horror Films Of 1996. This is the year that gave us the revival of the slasher genre, supernatural fun with some teenage witches, and a werewolf story from the point of view of the family dog. Let’s get this started…
15. Head Of The Family
Director: Charles Band
Cast: Blake Adams, Jacqueline Lovell, Bob Schott, James Jones
Head Of The Family is the story of… a family. More importantly, it is the story of the eponymous head, a man named Myron whose giant dome dwarfs the rest of his figure. When adulterous philanderer Lance aims to get rid of his lover’s husband, he makes a deal with the murderous Myron. Lance, getting too big for his britches, plans to extort Myron for money. Unfortunately for Lance, Myron and his telepathic control of the rest of his family may prove too powerful.
Yup, it finally happened. Not the fall of Western Civilization, a movie based entirely on a single pun. He’s the HEAD of the family, har-dee-har! It’s so on the nose, but it’s hard not to love it. It helps that the FX work is superb, employing fantastic forced perspective camerawork, and a wonderful prosthetic mask to portray the family’s head. While a lot of the film’s success hinges on your enjoyment of the wild premise for the family unit, it is genuinely entertaining beyond that.
14. Splatter: Naked Blood
Director: Hisayasu Satô
Cast: Misa Aika, Yumika Hayashi, Mika Kirihara, Sadao Abe
Splatter: Naked Blood (aka Naked Blood: Megyaku) tells the tale of Eiji, a 17 year-old boy genius. He has created a new painkiller which works by transforming the sensations of pain into pleasure. He christens it “MySon” and is fairly excited about his discovery. His mother is a scientist, working at the local hospital, where she has been conducting experiments involving a new contraceptive drug. Eiji wants to be allowed to observe the final experiment, but his mother refuses. With that, he spikes the contraceptive with MySon, and then watches from a nearby rooftop as the three women chosen as guinea pigs are administered the drug.
The young boy then proceeds to follows the three women in order to secretly record their reactions to the drug. This is where things go nuts. This includes one of the women sticking her hand in boiling hot water for the joy of it and then eating her own fingers. She also cuts off her own nipple to eat before she ultimately sticks a fork into her eyeball and devours that as well. The other women have equally horrific fates. It takes a strong stomach to keep up with director Hisayasu Sato’s vision – but Naked Blood is made with an intelligence, artistry and sense of wit that pitches it way above the level of low-fi exploitation.
13. Killer Condom
Director: Martin Walz
Cast: Udo Samel, Peter Lohmeyer, Iris Berben, Leonard Lansink
New York. A living, squirming, and worst of all, biting condom, grips the city in prophylactic panic. Especially hard hit is detective Luigi Mackeroni. As chomped corpses pile up, no one believes his carnivorous contraception theory. Then when Mackeroni loses a testicle to the latex menace, his pursuit becomes personal. Soon enough, he blows the lid off a cult of Christian fundamentalists bent on eliminating New York’s sexual deviants.
So yeah, this movie is pretty insane. Beautifully so. Adapted from Ralf König’s 1987 comic book Kondom Des Grauens, Killer Condom is one of those rare gems of trash cinema that manages to deliver its exploitative schlock with adept filmmaking and a cohesive and pointed aesthetic. It traverses the dark alleyways lined with the soot of urban decay in a search for a quick midnight fix, and through its camp and satire it delivers the goods that trash cinema junkies desperately crave.
12. Bordello Of Blood
Director: Gilbert Adler
Cast: Dennis Miller, Erika Eleniak, Angie Everhart, John Kassir
Anal-retentive church gal hires the whore of one-liners Rafe to find her missing misfit brother. Rafe’s investigation leads him to a “secret” brothel under a Mortuary, which is filled with big bosomed, luscious chicks. The snag is that the ladies are really vampires and what initially looked like a Hugh Hefner-created paradise, soon turns into a nightmare…with big tits.
Following the very slick Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight, this second entry in the “Tales From The Crypt” big screen series doesn’t fully measure up to its predecessor, but sill manages to deliver a mindless fun ride and the smutty goods we all crave from time to time. Yes, you know what we’re talking about: female flesh and extreme gore. What else is there to say? You have to love the stuff with the Cryptkeeper and the Mummy at the movie’s bookends – the Cryptkeeper of course has the best one-liners in the whole thing because, well, delivering extremely bad puns with a delicious cackle is why we all love the Cryptkeeper so much. “She’s knows that the best way to a man’s heart – is through his rib cage!” So, so bad and yet so awesome at the same time. What Bordello Of Blood lacks in irony and suspense, it more than makes up for in whimsy and cheeky self-assurance.
Director: Tom Holland
Cast: Robert John Burke, Lucinda Jenney, Joe Mantegna, Kari Wuhrer
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Thinner, commonly mistaken for a mediocre movie, is in fact a so-bad-it’s-great masterpiece. The plot is simple enough: Billy is an overweight attorney who specializes in defending non-threatening Mafia members (from Maine). One night he accidentally runs over and kills an old gypsy woman with his car as his wife is giving him oral pleasure. This, in turn, brings on the wrath of the woman’s dad, inspiring him to curse bulky Billy so that he looses weight until he wastes away and dies.
A delightfully mean-spirited horror treat, Thinner takes an admittedly slim (sorry) premise and makes a nice jet black comedy out of it. Stephen King has always been fond of dark comedy and old-fashioned morality tales and he clearly had a good time crafting this one. It’s true the main character is kind of a douche who deserves his fate, but that just adds to the grim humor of his situation. The movie also has a masterfully dark ending (which the director apparently hated), but it’s the perfect twist for the story. Thinner was far from the best book King has ever written and it’s not the best adaptation either, but it’s a great ride for those who like their King stories a little darker.
10. Tremors II: Aftershocks
Director: S.S. Wilson
Cast: Fred Ward, Chris Gartin, Helen Shaver, Michael Gross
Some six years after the original 1990 monster flick bombed at the box office (but tore it up on home video), a Tremors sequel was finally released straight-to-video with around one-third of the original’s budget. Yikes. This time, the character of Earl Bassett, returning from the first film, is hired to deal with a subterranean “graboid” infestation at a Mexican oilfield.
On paper, there’s no way this should’ve succeeded, but Tremors II is proof of what results a passionate crew can come up with when their budget is stretched to absolute breaking point. Somehow, the graboids are still fairly convincing (or as convincing as they need to be, anyway), and while the film is absolutely inferior to the original, it still retains the same sense of fun and rough-hewn charm.
9. The Dentist
Director: Brian Yuzna
Cast: Corbin Bernsen, Linda Hoffman, Michael Stadvec, Ken Foree
Dr. Feinstone has everything, a beautiful wife and a successful career in dentistry, but, when he discovers his wife in an affair, he realizes that behind every clean, white surface lies the stench of decay. Having gone insane, he enacts cruel dental torture on his patients.
The Dentist has been relegated to the direct-to-DVD dustbin for quite some time, but it deserves better than that. For one thing, the movie features a rather extensive pedigree behind the scenes. It was written in part by Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon (the writer and director of Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon), directed by Brian Yuzna (the producer of those films as well as Dolls), and featured music done by Alan Howarth (John Carpenter’s go-to composer on many of his post-Halloween movies). The film also has truly disturbing gore effects, the majority of which is a type that isn’t often seen in horror, mouth trauma. One of this film’s trademarks is a camera shot in which it appears the camera is inside the mouth looking at Feinstone’s work or is attached to the tool he’s using. You are right there, up close and personal, when he pulls a tooth, cuts the gums, cuts into the tongue, rips out teeth, or tries to rip a jaw open. Feinstone’s murderous mayhem, though, isn’t exclusive to oral injuries as he dispatches other people using such tactics as strangling, stabbing, and blunt force trauma to the head. The overall result is a series of truly grisly dental procedures and violent acts that are more than enough to put the viewer on edge.
8. Mary Reilly
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, George Cole, Glenn Close
Based on the Nebula-winning novel by Valerie Martin, Mary Reilly is an interesting reinterpretation of an old classic: Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Taking the original story of good and evil, and then shooting it from an outside, female perspective.
The premise of the movie is simple, if almost cliché. Mary Reilly is an impoverished, yet surprisingly educated Irish maid who works in the house of Dr. Jekyll, whose scientific experiments are beginning to go slightly awry. Their love was inevitable, as it always is in such stories, but they are kept apart by the differences in their social stature. And then comes Dr. Jekyll’s “assistant,” Mr. Edward Hyde. Mr. Hyde is fascinated by Mary Reilly, possibly even in love with her in his own twisted way, and as an expression of his affection, plagues her at every turn. The film culminates in an unsurprising conclusion when Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are revealed to be the same person, and Mary Reilly, by the virtue of her unwavering devotion, saves Dr. Jekyll’s soul before he dies in a dramatic flourish on his laboratory table. Those expecting a traditional horror film may be disappointed. However, for those with an open mind, and a taste for the eerie, Mary Reilly is very much one to watch.
7. The Ghost And The Darkness
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Stars: Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, Tom Wilkinson, John Kani
Sir Robert Beaumont is behind schedule on a railroad in Africa. Enlisting noted engineer John Henry Patterson to right the ship, Beaumont expects results. Everything seems great until the crew discovers the mutilated corpse of the project’s foreman, seemingly killed by a lion. After several more attacks, Patterson calls in famed hunter Charles Remington, who has finally met his match in the bloodthirsty lions.
Many have said that The Ghost And The Darkness is essentially an African-based version of Jaws. And you know what? That’s not too far off. The film effectively wiped out the lion’s cuddly image from Disney’s The Lion King and reinstated its rep as the fearsome king of the jungle. The story is a fictionalized account of the Tsavo Man-Eaters, two lions that attacked and killed workers at Tsavo, Kenya, during the building of the Uganda-Mombasa Railway in East Africa in 1898.
6. The Stendhal Syndrome
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, Luigi Diberti
Named after the 19th century French writer who first described the phenomenon, Stendhal Syndrome is a rare hallucinatory disorder characterized by dizziness, fainting and even hallucinations when a person is exposed to works of art. Anna, a police officer who suffers from the disorder, is sent to Florence in pursuit of a man who has raped over a dozen women, killing the last two. Lured into a trap inside the Uffizi gallery, she’s captured and raped by the sadistic psychopath she was sent to capture. She manages to escape, but the traumatic experience changes her irreparably.
While much of Italian master Dario Argento’s work is surreal, almost dreamlike, The Stendhal Syndrome is remarkably dark, gritty and realistic. Argento’s signature cinematography is present in some scenes, particularly at the start of the film and when Anna is in the presence of paintings and artistic masterpieces, but it’s not as stylized as his work usually is, and it’s all the more disturbing as a result. The film should be approached less as delirious exploitation and more as a maturing director’s next evolution…
5. Bad Moon
Director: Eric Red
Cast: Michael Paré, Mariel Hemingway, Mason Gamble, Ken Pogue
A werewolf story from the point of view of the family dog. Yeah, it sounds pretty stupid. But it just goes to show you should never judge a book by its cover (or a movie by its IMDb synopsis). It’s a difficult thing to sell, which is why most outlines of this movie tend to sound pretty ridiculous. But in the context of the movie it actually makes a lot of sense. It’s easy to associate dogs with pure motives, which in movies tends to make them effective protagonists. Really, what can be more sympathetic than a dog trying to protect its family from danger?
The story opens as a camp in an atmospheric Amazon rainforest is attacked by a werewolf, which promptly gets its head blown off. The mixture of gratuitous nudity and random violence lands us firmly in well-marked horror movie territory. From here we travel back to the US and are introduced to a normal suburban family; a powerful lawyer-mom, her young son and their faithful German shepherd, Thor. They head up to a mountainous lake area to visit their favorite uncle, and no sooner is the mother commenting on how “safe” and “peaceful” this place is than people start being gruesomely murdered in animal-like attacks. Uncle Ted is invited back to stay with his family, but seems to bring this string of brutal murders along with him. And for some reason Thor seems a bit uneasy around the new arrival to the house…
4. The Frighteners
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, Jeffrey Combs
After a car accident in which his wife was killed and he was injured, Frank Bannister develops psychic abilities allowing him to see, hear, and communicate with ghosts. After losing his wife, he then gave up his job as an architect, letting his unfinished “dream house” sit incomplete for years, and put these skills to use by befriending a few ghosts and getting them to haunt houses in the area to drum up work for his ghostbusting business; Then Frank proceeds to “exorcise” the houses for a fee. But when he discovers that an entity resembling the Grim Reaper is killing people, marking numbers on their forehead beforehand, Frank tries to help the people whom the Reaper is after…
The Frighteners is a thoroughly preposterous movie that’s as outrageously entertaining as it is relentlessly chaotic. It starts off as a straight-up horror comedy but about midway through deepens into a much richer endeavor. Fortunately director Peter Jackson, at home with all kinds of excess, keeps everything spinning nicely, not even losing a step when the mood turns increasingly disturbing. Curiously, the film began as an official Tales From The Crypt feature film. However, the project was turning out so well that it ditched the Crypt preface and became a standalone feature. These inclinations were not wrong, with The Frighteners not only being a horror film with a lot to say, but also a gem from Peter Jackson’s career that often goes overlooked.
3. The Craft
Director: Andrew Fleming
Cast: Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True
A newcomer to a Catholic prep high school falls in with a trio of outcast teenage girls who practice witchcraft and they all soon conjure up various spells and curses against those who even slightly anger them. Imagine The Lost Boys, only they’re girls instead of boys – and they’re witches instead of vampires. Considering it was aimed at a teenage audience, The Craft is surprisingly dark. The final act alone has some scares that wouldn’t feel out of place in a “proper” horror movie (the film is technically a “supernatural thriller”).
Also, the film’s portrayal of witchcraft is a bit more interesting than the standard Hollywood portrayal, and it certainly doesn’t represent it as essentially “evil”, which makes a nice change. Overall, despite a few niggles, The Craft is a decent little film with a well-written script, strong performances and some surprisingly grim moments given its target audience.
2. From Dusk Till Dawn
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis
Without a doubt one of the craziest genre movies ever made, From Dusk Till Dawn starts as a seemingly routine crime flick before degenerating into an all-night bar brawl between a rag-tag band of human survivors and a pack of bloodthirsty Mexican vampires. As you could guess from the title, the narrative of the movie does in fact stretch from dusk until dawn shockingly enough. Just from the first scene we gather that the Gecko brothers, Seth and Richard, have a penchant for letting things spiral out of control given that a brief stop to pick up a map ends up with two dead bodies and a burnt down liquor store. The siblings efforts to escape the FBI and Texas Rangers have left a trail of destruction in their wake, but things really get out of hand when they stop at the Titty Twister bar with the Fuller family as hostages.
Their anything-goes precursor to 2007’s Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s first attempt to marry their wonderfully excessive sensibilities makes for an exciting double bill. Indeed, From Dusk Till Dawn is essentially a double-feature in itself; the first half a tale of two felons on the run, the second an OTT B-movie featuring severed heads, gallons of blood and vampire strippers. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Squeezing every last drop out of the $20m budget, Rodriguez directs with his usual stylistic verve while Tarantino’s script provides all the quotability you would expect.
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich
As you can clearly see from our own personal coverage, the horror genre was floundering during the early ’90s: all the major franchises had pretty much run out of steam by this point, and a fresh, smart perspective was sorely needed. Enter Wes Craven, who following his successful Nightmare On Elm Street meta-fantasy New Nightmare, created a new horror franchise (alongside screenwriter Kevin Williamson) that took to task the tired genre tropes everyone was thoroughly tired of watching.
So what, exactly, made this slasher so different? It’s simple: Scream caused a schism in the horror genre, its legacy being the creation of a distinct period of post-Scream horror movies. Unlike most smash hits, however, Scream didn’t just inspire a fleeting rash of imitations; it created a ripple effect in both filmmakers and the film industry as a whole. Craven’s seminal film about a slasher in Woodsboro who has a bone to pick with the friends and family of a young lass named Sidney Prescott, couldn’t help but comment on the rules of the horror genre – only to turn around and turn the knife on each cast member. The method was simple: Have your characters expressly lay out the horror movie commandments, have them break said commandments, and then punish them for doing so. This pattern follows the franchise all the way throughout, but the original will always be the most potent, as well as the most fun.
Let us know your favorite horror movie of the year in the comments below.