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.
30. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Perhaps one of the most quintessential October/Fall time viewing films of all-time. Tim Burton constructs period horror film with stunning visuals and a creepy atmosphere. Everything here is top-tier from the wardrobes, the acting, the production design, and the Danny Elfman score. It’s one of the rare family horror films that is not too much for younger viewers but has enough even for the hardcore horror fan.
In this variation on the headless horseman legend, Ichabod Crane, as played by Johnny Depp, is an early proponent and practitioner of the forensic sciences, and this, along with the bright red splashes of blood and general dismemberment, adds a kick of modernity to an otherwise classical tale. Jeffrey Jones, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, and Christopher Walken are very theatrical with Andrew Kevin Walker’s dialogue, while the kills are nicely varied and occasionally surprising. Though Washington Irving purists might get up into a tizzy, the thematic core of Burton’s film is that progress and the modern world are integral to not only the future of societal issues but of storytelling itself.
29. Cure (1997)
A wave of gruesome murders is sweeping Tokyo with the only connection being a bloody X carved into the neck of each of the victims. In each case, the murderer is found near the victim and remembers nothing of the crime. A detective and a psychologist are called in to figure out the connection, but where their investigation leads, neither man could’ve ever predicted. Picture a Zodiac-esque thriller in the style of Michael Haneke or Se7en if it was directed by Bong Joon-Ho and that’s kind of what Cure is like.
It’s a painfully slow procedure that builds tension, not through a constant state of dread or unease, nor does it ramp up the intensity in each scene like a rubber band being pulled back till it inevitably snaps, but by examining evil head-on. The two lead characters just talk about the modus operandi of the killer in such a precise and detailed matter, then when we start to see potential victims unknowingly fall into the proverbial spider’s web, we’re terrified because we know what’s going to happen next. We don’t even have to see it happen to know what happens. We can mentally picture the extreme carnage that’s taking place and when a filmmaker can scare you without showing you anything, that’s good filmmaking.
28. Thesis (1996)
After a student who, while researching her thesis project on media violence, happens upon a real snuff film of a former student who disappeared from her university two years ago. With the help of a gore-film aficionado, she starts to piece together what happened. If this sounds a lot like the plot of 8MM to you, you aren’t crazy. Both films tackle the same subject matter but where they differ is their tones and in their atmosphere. 8MM is, for better or worse, a Schumacher thriller. If you like his style, you’ll most likely enjoy that film but Thesis is operating on another level.
There is no fun over the top Cage performance, there are no quotable Phoenix lines, there are no tense action scenes and there’s certainly no leather daddy homoeroticism. Instead, there are more twists than a Chubby Checker concert and a pitch-black tone that looms over the film like a cloud of dread. Phoenix’s character in 8MM famously said “when you dance with the devil, the devil doesn’t change, the devil changes you” and while that’s a fun quote, it doesn’t really apply to either film, especially not Thesis. A more accurate quote would be, “when you go looking for the devil, the devil goes looking for you.”
27. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Upon learning that Tom Cruise had been cast in the lead role of Lestat, author Anne Rice was livid and stated Cruise could not carry the part, calling the casting “so bizarre; it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work” and “the worst crime in the name of casting since The Bonfire of the Vanities“. But in a rare turn, the author actually recanted her harsh critique of the actor after she saw it and not only personally wrote Cruise a letter of apology, she took out a two-page ad in both Vanity Fair and the New York Times calling the film a “masterpiece.”
That’s how good both Cruise and the film are, that the author herself had to publicly apologize. Gloriously gay and wonderfully camp, Interview with the Vampire is a gothic love story between two immortal men trying to raise a child together. But since this is a pulpy melodrama, the two undead queens bicker and bitch and constantly try to kill each other. It’s got all the high school soap opera trappings of the Twilight films mixed with the moody atmosphere of a Hammer horror with a touch of Grand Guignol. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece but Rice was right to walk back her complaints, it’s an excellent vampire film that does justice to both her novel and the genre as a whole.
26. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
We are just going to ignore Keanu Reeves’ horrid accent because of his overall awesomeness in real life but Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is what every Dracula film should be. Glorious and gaudy. Luscious set designs with gorgeous cinematography make this a beautiful film before we ever get to the wonderful performances from Gary Oldman as Dracula and Anthony Hopkins as the famed Van Helsing. Oldman commands the screen as the titular vampire while Hopkins steals the show with his Hopkins excellence. The film may feel stuffed to the brim at times, but it is never dull. Your eyes stay glued to the screen.
25. Ravenous (1999)
Would you be interested in a movie if it was described as a spaghetti horror western that is a black comedy about cannibal soldiers set during the 1840s? I’m sure there are many that said no to that question, but for those who said yes, I give you Antonia Bird’s Ravenous. I think what makes Ravenous stand out above the rest is the number of different sub-genres it has packed into one film while remaining fun and entertaining. Oh, and it’s pretty gory to boot. Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle play off each other really well as rivals with the other role players playing quirky characters to help round out the cast.
Director Bird could have just made a solid western horror but what really makes this film stand out are the chances she took to try something different by combining horror, black comedy, gore, and even a little supernatural element to give us a unique film. Plus, there is the gorgeous snowy mountain setting that instantly makes almost any horror movie better.
24. The Craft (1996)
The Craft follows four teenage outcasts who discover a powerful connection to the occult when they’re united to call the corners, and discover that when they abuse that power, it leads to dire consequences in a hurry. The clever script from director Andrew Flemming and screenwriter Peter Filardi approached those lessons through the common concerns of adolescence, the need to be accepted and desired, and all the ways teenagers use looks, race, reputation, or family income to isolate and abuse their peers. In that regard, The Craft is a timeless tale, even if its finger is firmly on the 90s pulse of fashion, music, girl power, and witchcraft, which was trendier than ever in culture, be it on TV (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed) or in movies (Practical Magic).
Like most 90s fare, it has some rough edges when it comes to themes of gender and sexual assault, but more than 20 years later, The Craft is still an effective coming-of-age tale and celebration of individuality over groupthink. And it’s also still creepy at points, especially if you have a fear of snakes. There’s a reason The Craft is still a teenage girl sleepover essential.
23. When a Stranger Calls Back (1993)
When a Stranger Calls has, in my opinion, the greatest opening to any horror film ever. It packs more white knuckle suspense in its first fifteen minutes than most films can pull off within their entire running time. It’s not as fun as Ghost Ship or pulse-pounding as the Dawn of the Dead remake nor is it as iconic as Jaws and Night of the Living Dead but no other film jangles the nerves as effectively. It assaults the viewer with weaponized terror, a feat only two other films have accomplished: Them and the underseen sequel to When a Stranger Calls.
When a Stranger Calls Back feels like a precursor to the 2018 Halloween in that it’s a reboot as much as it is a sequel. Like David Gordon Green’s film, it takes the best elements of the last film and tries to improve upon them. Such as adding levels of complexity to the female lead, dialing up the creepiness, and outdoing its iconic beginning (the latest Halloween moves the single-shot attack to the middle) but unlike that film, When a Stranger Calls Back actually succeeds. It’s heads and shoulders above the last film in every way. The opening is just as impactful, it doesn’t drag in the middle, has a far more memorable villain, and the ending, while not as scary, is satisfying in its own way. Craven needs to cut this film a royalty check for stealing its beginning for his film Scream.
22. Ghostwatch (1992)
The first TV program to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children, Ghostwatch was the 90’s equivalent to the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast of the ’30s. A lot of viewers, most of whom were children, had no idea the special was fake, leading to widespread panic. It was so traumatizing, that there were plans to do a follow-up in 2010 but the BBC said no on the grounds that they didn’t want to deal with the controversy again. Almost 20 years later and it has lost none of its power.
Ghostwatch was a fictional investigation program that delved into the supernatural. Hosted by TV chat-show legend Michael Parkinson, the program cuts between the live studio segment and a camera crew who are investigating the most haunted house in Britain. The more the audience (and by extension you) learns about the history of the house and the ghost who haunts it, the more the ghost (named Pipes BTW) comes into our world. Exceptionally well executed with great writing and believable acting, Ghostwatch is the only made for a TV horror film that’s good enough to challenge Duel for the throne and I think Ghostwatch might actually win.
21. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
A worn-out war veteran’s mind begins to fragment as he seems stuck in between reality and horrific hallucinations. Is he going crazy, or are there darker forces at work? This freaky psychological horror plays with the viewer’s minds as well by being filled with strange and surreal imagery that creates an uneasy feeling. Tim Robbins turns in one of my favorite performances of his as the tortured Jacob while having incredible chemistry with Elizabeth Pena whose relationship helps us stay invested throughout these horrid happenings. In the middle of the overused Vietnam War narrative during the ’80s, director Adrian Lyne was able to create something fresh that was emotionally poignant and surprisingly powerful.
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!