There’s no two ways about it, the 90s were an absolute shit decade for horror. Widely regarded as the worst era for horror by everyone with common sense and functioning eyes, the decade gets a lot of flak for not living up to the phenomenal previous decade and by not having an identity to call its own. The golden era of slashers had finally come to an end, gore driven films were fizzling out and every major franchise was pretty much done by the time the 90s came around.
But that’s not to say there was nothing but trash. While the decade had no one defining trend, it did have a bunch of small sub-genres that helped usher in a new wave of horror. There were realistic police procedures (usually involving a serial killer) and Asian extremism, the resurgence of found footage, and the birth of the self-parody that deconstructed the tropes with ironic humor. Since the gems were few and far between, it’s easy to dismiss the 90s horror output but the gems did exist. This list aims to mine the diamonds from the charcoal to bring you the best the decade had to offer.
This is The 50 Greatest Horror Films of The 1990s.
10. Ringu (1998)
Hideo Nakata’s Ringu could be seen as the film that single-handedly jump-started the J-horror craze of the early 2000s. Nakato fills the film with plenty of nightmarish imagery, creating a spooky atmosphere that permeates every frame. The film blends old-school paranoia with modern fears of technology to marvelous effect, leading to one of the most surprising finales in horror history. Who would ever think that a story about a mysterious and unlabeled VHS that leaves you with only seven days to live after you watched could drip with so much unbearable dread? Ringu does a masterful job of holding the viewer’s attention while they are holding their breath until it unleashes its skin-crawling finale. It also has one of the few American remakes that did justice to the original and is worth seeing.
09. The Exorcist III (1990)
After the disastrous follow-up to one of the greatest horror movies of all-time, William Blatty (writer of the original novel and screenplay) tried his hardest to right the ship with this third installment. However, with studio interference, it was unable to reach its full potential. The director’s cut is a more intimate and understated horror film with more of Brad Douriff as the Gemini Killer that feels like more of a direct sequel to the original. The studio cut most of that and wanted a more action-packed sequel. The connection feels more forced. That doesn’t mean the theatrical version isn’t a fun horror movie with a few chills, some great performances by George C. Scott and Brad Douriff, and one of the best jump scares of all time.
08. Misery (1990)
If there was a Mount Rushmore of horror, Stephen King would definitely be up there. The man has shat out more horror masterpieces while in a drugged-out haze than most do in an entire lifetime. Writing about ghosts and demons is his bread and butter but that bread usually bought him the demon in the bottle. He suffered from a hardcore drinking habit that almost cost him everything. The drink was a literal monster that kept him paralyzed and enslaved.
So, it comes as no surprise, that one of his best-written works is about a writer being held captive by a monster. Because he lived it. Replace Annie Wilkes with Jack Daniels and Paul Sheldon with Stephen King and it’s his life story. Him finally overcoming the monster that had imprisoned for so long. It’s cathartic for him and entertaining as fuck for us, the viewers.
There’s a constant debate on which King adaptation is the best and although Misery might not always win, it should always be in the conversation for Bates’ performance alone. She plays one of the all-time great villains in this movie and if it wasn’t for her, this film wouldn’t have been half as good.
08. Dead Alive (1992)
The slapstickiest of slapstick horror comedies this side of the Tasmanian Sea. (I don’t know if that is a thing or not). Peter Jackson, you know that guy that made the classy Lord of the Rings trilogy, made one of the goriest films of all the times with this hilarious and over the top zombie love story. Jackson is able to deliver a silly splatterfest that never goes into goofy territory which helps keeps us entertained all the way through.
The story is simple enough, a “Sumatran Rat Monkey” bites and infects an oppressive mom of the timid Lionel as he tries to court the lovely Paquita. Their budding romance is put to the test when Lionel’s domineering mother begins to transform into a flesh-eating zombie. Lionel tries to keep the fire burning with his love but also keep his monstrous and deteriorating mother alive and away from others. Jackson is able to tell this story through laughs and gore through an almost jovial style that never bores and makes you keep the barf bag handy.
06. Se7en (1995)
Horror films had several high-profile crossovers with the crime/psychological thriller genres in the 1990s, with Seven as a prime example of the potent offspring of this union. Adding in a twist of nihilistic, world-weary neo-noir, the film endured the same indignities as The Silence of the Lambs when it came to the desire to strip the term “horror” away from it.
Grisly is the perfect word for the story here, one of the darkest that David Fincher has ever presented, and that’s including his work on Netflix’s Mindhunter. Each of the mangled bodies left behind by serial killer “John Doe” is arranged in a way that is truly theatrical in nature. It’s as if Doe took it upon himself to act as a set designer for how he wanted the film’s two detectives to behold and process each crime scene, arranging every aspect of the murders for maximum charnel house gruesomeness. Each one is a tableau that would no doubt make the likes of Mario Bava or Dario Argento proud, especially the “sloth” victim, who has been ceaselessly confined to a bed for a year until his body has almost completely withered away from inactivity. The “he’s alive!” revelation of that particular victim is one of the best pure jump scares in all of 90s horror.
05. Candyman (1992)
While researching for a project on urban folklore, a college student investigates some housing projects to try and find out more information about this mysterious Candyman. It is said that if someone looks in a mirror and says his name five times, he appears and slashes his victims with a metal hook. After witnessing this mayhem for herself, she is further horrified that he wants her to join him in the afterlife.
Tony Todd delivers his career-defining performance as the titular character and Virginia Madsen compliments here well. Like most Clive Barker works, Candyman deals with dark themes with this one being about slavery and oppression. This is not your “fun” slasher flick but is a bold film in how the themes are told and how well it was made by writer and director Bernard Rose.
04. Scream (1996)
It’s safe to say that the horror genre needed a real shot in the arm by the time the mid-’90s rolled around. Veteran scare lord Wes Craven had already reinvented the slasher film years earlier with the brilliant A Nightmare on Elm Street, and now he’d all but destroy the sub-genre with a knowing, winking, and consistently clever horror-comedy smash entitled Scream. Not only is the film legitimately scary, but it’s also unexpectedly funny, and of course it’s a massive treat for anyone who has seen enough slasher flicks to know the “unwritten rules” by heart.
The opening scene alone is enough to help Scream make any top 100 horror list combined with the use of cell phones, some great kills, and gore, the who is the killer mystery, one of the best final girls of all time and you get a fantastic horror movie. Scream would be a game-changer as it would reenergize the slasher subgenre and usher in meta-horror while creating numerous copycats. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.
03. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Every now and then, there is a film that comes along in horror that helps define the genre and set a new trend. This may only happen once or twice a decade and the fact that The Blair Witch Project is one of those films helps solidify its place as one of the genre’s most definitive films. The marketing alone is the stuff of movie legend as it had people thinking this “found footage” could have been real. Many will look back claim the film to be boring or not that good, but regardless of your feelings on the actual delivery of the film, everything around it from its legacy, marketing, and trendsetting ways are undeniable.
The story follows three students doing a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch. After interviewing several locals, they venture out to the woods of Burkittsville in order to research the legend. As the group begins to fall into hysteria and unable to find their way out of the dense woods, the director’s most effective tool was to leave everything up to the viewer’s imagination. Some of the best horror movies are ones where you can put yourself in the character’s place and imagine how you would handle the situation and I feel The Blair Witch Project is one of the best at doing just that.
02. The Sixth Sense (1999)
I feel the impact of M. Night Shyamalan’s debut feature has worn off slightly because he became “king of the twist endings” and by now most know what takes place at the end of this one even if they haven’t seen the film. There is a generation that wasn’t able to experience this film for the first time without it being spoiled and some have forgotten how special it was at the time of its release. I’m sure all of you will say you knew the whole time but regardless of what anyone thought of the ending, Shyamalan was able to craft a creepy ghost story with some great scares while Bruce Willis and young Haley Joel Osment gave fantastic performances.
01. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Straddling the line between horror and thriller, The Silence of the Lambs is essentially the artsy version of William Lustig’s Maniac. You replace the sewer like filth that oozes from every pour of that film with class and sophistication (which sounds like an oxymoron considering this film has Buffalo Bill, who is as grimy as they come), and change the point of view from the killer to the detective hunting him and that’s basically this film. I mean, you have to squint a little bit and change most of both films for it to work, but it’s there. What I’m essentially saying is, the academy is full of shit when it classified it as a thriller instead of a horror. Because this is as horror as they come.
There are not many films that are considered perfect across the board and this one unquestionably qualifies. Having two of the absolute greatest performances in cinema history from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster respectively (not to mention Ted Levine who’s always sadly overlooked), this film not only creates iconic characters but more importantly, knows how to properly use them. There are no superfluous characters and no wasted moments. It’s one of the tightest thrillers not made by Hitchcock and actually kinda feels like the film he always wanted to make.
What did you think of the ranking? Do you still think the decade sucked for horror or do you think it was underrated? Comment down below and let us know!