One of the key reasons behind the long-standing fascination with horror is that every era of the genre provides insight into what that particular generation was afraid of, and what was considered taboo. From a modern perspective, the ’70s and ’80s remain of particular fascination, as this period really blew the door open on what horror films were allowed to do, not only in terms of violence and sexual content, but also in the themes and issues dealt with.
So what happened in the 1990s? The most iconic franchises of the time fizzled out, the great filmmakers of the past two decades all seemed to hit dry spells; it was as if the genre itself suffered an identity crisis. Movies which tried to preserve the spirit of years gone by frequently failed; those which tried to do something new typically came up wanting.
This is not to suggest there was no great horror in the ’90s. On the contrary, this is why we’re here. If you’ve been following the site as of late then you know that we’ve been counting down the greatest horror movies of all time, year by year (each year we rank the top 15) – starting from 1970 to [insert current year here]. Now that we’ve finally made our way through the entirety of the ’90s we’ve decided to compile a huge list of the best of the best that the decade has to offer.
So, [insert random ’90s reference] and check out the 50 Greatest Horror Movies Of The 1990s…
50. Species (1995)
Director: Roger Donaldson
Stars: Natasha Henstridge, Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker
Earth’s scientists receive transmissions from an alien source regarding an alien DNA along with instructions on how to splice it with human DNA. A government team proceeds with the genetic experiments. They choose to induce a female, because a female would have “more docile and controllable” traits. Or so they thought. The end result of these experiments is Sil, a killer alien seductress who will stop at nothing to successfully mate with a human male.
An enjoyable creature feature where the creature just happens to mask itself as a beautiful, often-naked blonde. Nothing more than a big-budget exploitation flick, but it has plenty of great shock moments. In one scene Sil tries to mate with a man she meets after a car accident. They swim in his pool where Sil forces him to open his swimming trunks in order to copulate, but he refuses. After being interrupted, she kills the poor sap, morphing into her alien form, a bipedal mutant with tentacles on her shoulders and back, and flees naked into a forest without being seen. Species ingeniously combines the schlocky fun of ’50s sci-fi flicks with the foreboding tactics of Alien and the cautionary allure of Looking For Mr. Goodbar.
49. Nadja (1994)
Director: Michael Almereyda
Stars: Elina Löwensohn, Peter Fonda, Nic Ratner, Karl Geary
After the death of Dracula at the hands of Dr. Van Helsing, his daughter Nadja and her companion Renfield show up to collect his body. Nadja, who hopes that her father’s death has broken the curse on her, then sets her sights on bewitching Van Helsing’s daughter-in-law Lucy. Van Helsing recruits his son Jim and Nadja’s twin brother Edgar to hunt down Nadja and destroy her, though she still has a few tricks left up her sleeve.
Nadja is basically a remake of Dracula’s Daughter, the 1936 sequel to the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. The main changes involve the addition of twin brother Edgar, a much more reluctant vampire. But the movie isn’t really about story but about style, atmosphere and mood. Firmly set in 1994, complete with a soundtrack by My Bloody Valentine and Portishead, it is shot in a combination of rather lovely 35mm black & white film and the distorted Fisher Price toy video camera known as Pixelvision. It’s as much Woody Allenesque family dramedy as it is a horror movie, but it has a great sense of history and a clear love for vampire flicks old and new and some solid dramatic themes. This idiosyncratic take on the genre is as much concerned with ordinary family dynamics as the absurdity of its characters’ demonic existence.
48. Vampires (1998)
Director: John Carpenter
Stars: James Woods, Daniel Baldwin, Sheryl Lee, Thomas Ian Griffith
Jack Crow is a vampire hunter who, along with one of his partners, Montoya, and a prostitute, Katrina, survives an attack from the Master vampire, Valek. Since Katrina was previously bitten by him, Crow takes her along because anyone who is bitten by Valek becomes telepathically linked to him until they themselves turn into vampires a couple days later, and Crow is hoping to find him with the help of her. It seems Valek’s mission is to steal a black, wooden cross from a Roman Catholic church that will enable him to become so powerful that sunlight will not destroy him.
Helmed by the great John Carpenter, Vampires is a straight-up fun movie, one that indeed delivers horror and action thrills. It creates a great vampire mythology and puts a modern cowboy archetype up against it. While fans will always compare Carpenter’s later movies with his early genre classics, Vampires is excellent entertainment, even if it isn’t an “important” or “milestone” horror event.
47. Nightwatch (1994)
Director: Ole Bornedal
Stars: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Sofie Gråbøl, Kim Bodnia, Lotte Andersen
A young law student, Martin, has taken a job as a night watchman at the city morgue, as the old watchman retires from his position. The morgue fills Martin with unease, and both his imagination and his friends play disturbing jokes on him. Tangible problems arise when a serial killer gets too close to Martin and his girlfriend. And you know, tangible problems that take place at the creepy morgue doesn’t make life easier…
All three story threads (Martin’s job at the morgue, Martin’s personal relationships, the serial killer’s course), converge in a surprisingly taut and satisfying third act that is bloody without being exploitive, and terrifying without resorting to jump scares and cheap shots. The identity of the killer, while not a terribly big surprise, is revealed with class and an appropriate amount of understatement. And while the girlfriend is predictably put into peril, it’s not in the way that you would expect – it happens without compromising her dignity and strength. The set design by Søren Kragh Sørensen and the lighting schemes by cinematographer Dan Laustsen (including an incredibly effective, and subtle, buzzing fluorescent right outside of the morgue cooler), give Nightwatch (aka Nattevagten) an almost unbearable tension. It is, technically speaking, a triumph.
46. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Director: Dario Argento
Stars: 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…
45. Bad Moon (1996)
Director: Eric Red
Stars: 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…
44. The Night Flier (1997)
Director: Mark Pavia
Stars: Miguel Ferrer, Julie Entwisle, Dan Monahan, Michael H. Moss
Based on Stephen King’s 1988 novella of the same name, The Night Flier follows a sleazy reporter who chases a killer who may, or may not, be a vampire; given that it’s Stephen King we’re talking about, the ultimate twist won’t surprise you.
This might seem like a bold statement, but The Night Flier is arguably one of the 15-20 best vampire films out there. Certainly when it comes to the 1990s, very few films trump it (From Dusk Till Dawn, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Blade, Dracula and Cronos are its only real competition), and subsequent decades haven’t produced too many stronger subgenre works, either. It’s an awesome and underrated movie that all vamp fans should see at least once.
43. The Frighteners (1996)
Director: Peter Jackson
Stars: 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.
42. Tales From The Hood (1995)
Director: Rusty Cundieff
Stars: Clarence Williams III, Corbin Bernsen, Joe Torry, David Alan Grier
Not only is its title an obvious riff on Tales From The Crypt, but so too is its frame story, which features its own sort of crypt keeper in Mr. Simms, a mortuary attendant that’s visited by a trio of teenage drug dealers. While these three are itching to buy a stash of “the shit” from Simms, the elderly mortician instead decides to play horror story host by revealing the macabre details behind the latest corpses to arrive at the funeral home. Each victim fell prey to supernatural circumstances of some sort, and it soon becomes clear that this trio has stumbled into a sinister haunt whose true horrors have yet to be unleashed.
Tales From The Hood presents four short urban-themed horror stories centered on concepts such as police brutality, domestic abuse, racism and gang violence. Today, TFTH’s best remembered story is likely KKK Comeuppance, which feature a white racist terrorized by ambulatory black slave dolls, a kind of off-kilter tribute to 1975’s Trilogy Of Terror. Director Rusty Cundieff, producer Darin Scott, and a visibly committed cast created something special here, and it’s a small shame that their film didn’t birth a perennial series.
41. The Faculty (1998)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Stars: Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Josh Hartnett, Robert Patrick
What happens when you combine Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Thing, and basically every movie John Hughes has ever made? You get The Faculty – a horror tale set in a High School where the students suspect the teaching staff of being aliens, who are intent on making the students their victims.
In the late ’90s, horror filmmakers had started to make movies that were more and more unlike the slasher flicks of the ’80s. Thanks in part to Wes Craven’s Scream (written by The Faculty writer Kevin Williamson), and other movies like it, horror films were moving towards a more clever formula by not only poking fun at their predecessors but by blending in other genres like comedy, sci-fi, and even romantic comedy. One of the best movies to come out of that trend’s three or four year window was Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty. Rodriguez was fresh off of making From Dusk Till Dawn, and took a lot of the same formula that worked for that project into his new film. Yes… the main story is almost a note for note rip-off of Body Snatchers, but Rodriguez and Williamson admit that by referencing it multiple times throughout the movie. Indeed, The Faculty is a witty deconstruction of genre movies – and a bloody good time.