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.
20. Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995)
When it came time for HBO’s beloved series to make the leap to the silver screen, most people assumed they would have played it safe and make it an anthology film a la Creepshow. Instead, director Ernest Dickerson gave us a feature-length demonic possession/zombie armageddon similar to Night of the Living Dead and Demons but with the same zany Tales from the Crypt energy. In particular, lead by one of the best and most underrated horror characters of all-time in The Collector played devilishly by Billy Zane.
However, he is just a part of one of the best B-horror movie casts of the 90s with legit actors like William Sadler, CCH Pounder, Jada Pinkett Smith, and others. Demon Knight works by creating an intense air of claustrophobia and clashing personalities where all of the characters in the movie are fully fleshed out and given extensive backgrounds and motivations for their actions. And of course, we get the classic Cryptkeeper with his iconic voice and cringe-worthy puns.
19. Event Horizon (1997)
Set in 2047, it follows a crew of astronauts sent on a rescue mission after a missing spaceship, the Event Horizon, spontaneously appears in orbit around Neptune. Searching the ship for signs of life, the rescue crew learns that the Event Horizon was a test-bed for an experimental engine that opened a rift in the space-time continuum and left our universe entirely, allowing a hostile entity to possess the ship. This film had a solid concept with some strong performances from the likes of Sam Neil and Laurence Fishburne. Combine that with a genuinely dreadful atmosphere, decent scares, and an incredible score, you should have had a decently successful sci-fi horror thriller on your hands.
Instead, through studio meddling, Event Horizon was critical and box office bomb. However, it would find a strong cult following and get the love it deserved. If I were to ever do a list (I’m not) of films most affected by studio interference, I believe this would easily make the top 10 all time. With a rushed schedule and poor test screens because of the amount of gore being “too much”, a lot of editing and cuts had to made to the chagrin of director Paul W.S. Anderson. At least we got the directors cut, right? Sadly, no. The cut footage was improperly stored, and the tape rotted away. Simply heartbreaking.
18. Funny Games (1997)
In 1996, Scream would open the floodgates for meta-horror-type movies, and one year later Michael Haneke does us one even better. Essentially your standard home-invasion thriller, Haneke’s movie plays around with plenty of genre tropes and conventions but becomes so meta that at several times it breaks the fourth wall. Meaning the antagonists of the film have the ability to rewind time and fiddle around with the narrative. An extremely bleak dark comedy, Funny Games forces the viewer to relate to the hyper-violent psychopaths instead of the innocent victims, a plot component that clearly influenced later films like The Devil’s Rejects and the August Underground series. Pretty much every home invasion horror film or torture porn offering that’s come down the pipes over the last 20 years owes some gratitude to this movie.
17. Man Bites Dog (1992)
For some horror directors, simply scaring an audience isn’t enough. Some want to shock the viewer, by any means necessary. Whether that’s depicting extreme subject matter such as infanticide or rape, including unsimulated sex scene, real-life animal deaths or just pushing violence as far as it can go. Most attempts go so far past socially acceptable, that they lose their impact. It stops meaning anything when all you’re seeing is nonstop scenes of corn syrup, red dye, and women crying. Most of it is unwatchable misery porn from edge lords but there are some films that succeed in truly shocking audiences. Films like Maniac and Henry: Portrait of a Serial killer have never not been effective at upsetting people nor has films like Cannibal Holocaust or Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom lost their ability to offend and disgust. Between those two behemoths of controversy, lies Man Bites Dog.
The activities of rampaging, indiscriminate serial killer Ben (Benoit Poelvoorde, in an all-time great performance) are recorded by a willingly complicit documentary team. Eventually, the line between what is right and wrong and what is fiction and non-fiction starts to blur once the camera crew itself starts to actively participate in the crimes. A pitch-black satirical comedy, Man Bites Dog is one of those films that’s not afraid to go all the way. The film opts out of the extreme blood and guts violence (don’t worry, there’s still a ton of violence in the film) in favor of a more chilling, and subtle approach to shock cinema. Instead of carving people up, Ben yells at an old lady long enough to give her a heart attack. Or regales the camera crew in stories of proper dead baby disposal. He crosses every line and obliterates every taboo. He does whatever he wants but since he’s so charismatic, we’re complicit by not looking away. Our enjoyment makes us accomplices, which is the point. A shocking movie that out shocks the other shock movies that also have a point? Now that’s truly shocking.
16. Tremors (1990)
Jaws but on land with underground type shark creatures! They don’t make practical effect creature features like this anymore. The monsters are scary looking and some of the best creatures on film. Director Ron Underwood does an admirable job of blending comedy with toe-curling scares. Add in a who’s who of late 80’s early 90’s actors in Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Victor Wong, Michael Gross with others and you have a fun cast who play off each other well.
Tremors is just good old fashion fun that harkens back to creature features of the ’50s. What makes this one even better than most is that it focuses on the characters and storytelling over-stylized creatures and cheap scares. The effects and comedy still hold up almost 30 years later. It makes me wish we got that Tremors TV show…
15. Wes Cravens’ New Nightmare (1994)
Every generation gets a thriller with the perfect premise. Whether it’s a detective working with one serial killer to catch another, a deranged psychopath who kills his victims by creating extreme scenarios to test their willingness to live, or a maniac who kills people based on the seven deadly sins. A thriller is only as good as it’s killer and it’s premise. New Nightmare has one of the best. Taking the meta approach long before Scream, New Nightmare posits “what if the Nightmare on Elm Street movies were just movies but their popularity willed into existence a supernatural being who’s visage and desire to kill is based on those films?”
It’s a complicated setup for sure but it works like gangbusters. It adds a new spin to the mythos and takes the franchise into a new and interesting direction, one no other franchise has had the balls to go to since. When every other slasher was going into space, Freddy was breaking the fourth wall and coming after the people who made Freddy films. This film was on another level.
14. In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
The final film of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy that centers around a Stephen King type horror writer named Sutter Cane who goes missing before his latest novel is released. Sam Neil plays an insurance investigator who must try and find the missing writer but falls down a trippy rabbit hole that bends what is real and is a nightmarish illusion. Arguably one of the best cinematic representations of H.P. Lovecraft without adapting one of his stories. Much like Lovecraft, Carpenter tells a monster movie without focusing on the monster but how the thought or reality of them can disrupt life as we know it.
13. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
I feel a number of horror movies would be better for the viewer to go in blind without knowing too much of the story and this is one of the best examples of that theory. Fortunately, I was able to witness this movie in the theater without knowing much of anything other than it starred George Clooney, some director guy named Quentin, and it seemed like a crime thriller set in Texas. Oh, and Cheech Marin was in it. Little did I know what I was in store for and this has become one of my favorite films to share with people who have no idea what it is about as well. I have a spoiler warning above but I am going to add another here simply because if you don’t know any of the particulars, I want you to go in as blind as possible. It just makes it that much better. So, *Spoiler Warning Again*.
Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Robert Rodriguez we start off with an already dark action comedy where we think the Gecko Brothers are just going to be on the run from the cops till they are able to reach the Mexican border and that was a great half a movie already. Solid performances, drama, violence, and laughs. What more could you ask for? Well, for one sultry Selma ‘freakin’ Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium, and then we get…a vampire movie? What the hell, right? Halfway through the movie, everything is turned on its head and we get a nasty looking monster ripping innocents to shreds as our core group reacts to this craziness. It is a fun ride that gets better with re-watches because of the anticipation of what’s to come.
12. Tales From the Hood (1995)
Horror anthologies are arguably the hardest subgenre to pull off. Not only do they have to deliver entertainment in bite-size doses but more importantly, they have to create a compelling wrap around to tie everything together. Asylum has arguably the best structure but the one everyone steals from is Tales from the Crypt. In it, five strangers are brought together by a mysterious Crypt Keeper and due to their actions, they are all shown how they will eventually die.
It’s been the template for numerous films but never as successfully as Tales from the Hood, and that’s 100% due to Clarence Williams III as Mr. Simms. He’s charismatic, creepy, and completely unforgettable. Using the corpses of dead characters of each segment to segue into the next story, Mr. Simms, a malevolent mortician, leads three hoodlums through a series of horror tales, each revolving around racism or urban problems such as drug use, police brutality, and domestic violence. It’s a smartly written horror film with a predominately black cast that uses social issues as the backdrop of horror. It was and still is, ahead of its time.
11. Audition (1999)
Takashi Miike’s Audition is one of the most difficult films to watch on this list. Is it because it features a woman sawing off a man’s foot with piano wire? Or because she feeds another man a bowl of her own vomit? No, it’s because the first 90 minutes are a slow burn of an almost romantic film that abruptly changes into a full-fledged horror during it’s 20 or so minutes. Don’t take that as a bad thing though because it builds an unbearable tension leading up to the moment all hell breaks loose. It’s one of those films that you’ll only ever watch once because it’ll stick with you forever.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite horror movies from the past decade? Maybe they will show up further on the list!