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.
40. Brainscan (1991)
Brainscan might be the single most 90s horror film in existence. It’s all about an evil video game that tricks the player (played by Edward Furlong, in what might be his worst performance) into committing random acts of murder. Everything about it is extremely dated, from the obsolete technology to the trashin’ soundtrack to the horrible costumes. Even the villain feels very Jim Carrey-esque. Played by T. Ryder Smith, the Trickster is a cyber demon who delights in tormenting whichever poor soul decides to play his game. More mischievous than malevolent, he’s more a horrible distraction than an outright monster. He’s the best thing about the film by a country mile. I would rank him among the most underrated horror baddies; I definitely would’ve seen another film starring this character. The kills are adequate and the premise is rather solid (it has a pretty good twist I didn’t see coming) but it’s the Trickster you’ll remember most about it. That or the fact that Frank Langella is inexplicably in this. I’m guessing old man Langella wanted to build an annex on his house or a swimming pool or some shit.
39. Lord of Illusions (1995)
Private investigator Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) stumbles into a mystery involving a fanatic cult who are preparing for the resurrection of their leader Nix, a powerful magician who was killed thirteen years earlier. You would think for a Clive Barker movie, this would be a bit more well known. Everyone knows Candyman, Hellraiser, and Nightbreed and hell, even Midnight Meat Train eventually became a cult hit but Lord of Illusions still languishes in semi-obscurity. While the film isn’t perfect (Bakula is miscast and some of the VFX are terrible), there’s still a ton to recommend. The setting is unique, the supporting cast is all terrific and Daniel Von Bargen gives an all-time great performance as Nix, the man born to murder the world. It’s got magic, murder, mystery, and legit horror — what’s not to love?
38. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Two thieves break into the creepy old home of a couple of deranged slum landlords and soon discover a disturbing scenario underneath the stairs. Bouncing back and forth between blunt satire, cartoon slapstick, teen horror and perverse violence, The People Under the Stairs is Wes Craven‘s most political film, his funniest film and craziest film all in one uneven package. A lot of it doesn’t work but for the most part, the good far outweighs the bad. For one thing, it gets major points for being shockingly progressive for its time. The film has a black kid take on an evil white family (with the help of another black guy) and he not only survives but saves two white kids. It’s unheard of. He, as well as the film, also gets points for putting something so taboo pushing into theaters. There’s a guy running around in a gimp suit yelling for his mommy while trying to kill some kids. Craven had some balls man.
37. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
Based on the anthology television series of the same name, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie involves a kidnapped paperboy (Matthew Lawrence) who tells three stories of horror to the suburban witch (Deborah Harry) who is preparing to eat him. The stories he tells are the three segments within the film: Lot 249, Cat From Hell, and Lover’s Vow. The first, based on a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, is about a college student (Steve Buscemi) who has to fight a duplicitous Julianne Moore and a conniving Christian Slater over a mummy he’s just acquired. Mummy murder and mayhem ensue. The second, based on a Stephen King story, is about a hitman (David Johansen) who’s hired to kill someone who’s trying to kill an old millionaire (William Hickey), the catch: the target is a cat. Cat carnage and destruction ensue.
The third, loosely based on a story from Kwaiden, is about a man (James Remar) who falls in love with a woman (Rae Dawn Chong) he saved from a gargoyle attack. Gargoyle related tragedy ensues. With one of the best wrap around segments in any horror anthology and some truly gnarly special effects, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie is far better than the show it was based on and was good enough to create a franchise. This should’ve generated some sequels but then again, how many times could Lawrence get kidnapped by witches before it just gets silly?
36. Maniac Cop 2 (1990)
If you were like me and wanted to see the movie that we were promised in Jason Takes Manhattan, then Maniac Cop 2 is for you. I love the last 20 minutes or so of F13 part 8 when Jason is causing some minor mayhem in Times Square but I wanted more. Directed and written by New York City filmmakers William Lustig and Larry Cohen, Maniac Cop 2 is a supernatural slasher about a lumbering hulk of an undead police officer, played by the always effective Robert Z’Dar, wreaking havoc throughout the five boroughs. While Matt Cordell has a higher sense of awareness than Jason Voorhees, they both are tanks of killers, remorselessly mowing down their victims on their paths of revenge. Like Lustig and Cohen‘s other work, it’s a pure snapshot of The City at a time when it was filled with a dangerous allure, that for better or worse, has been lost over the decades. But they are able to capture that griminess, combine it with over the top action-horror, and create a film that is both wonderfully fun.
35. Cube (1997)
Every couple of years, a horror film comes along that effectively does so little, every studio in Hollywood immediately green-lights five films to capitalize on it. Cube is so simple, every producer that saw it, hired someone just to fire them for not coming up with it. Six people with no memories have to work together in order to escape a booby-trapped cube. Alliances will form, paranoia will set in and math will be done. But more importantly, no questions will be answered. Later sequels will try and answer a few but they’re not talked about for a reason. It never explains who put them in the cube, why they put them in the cube, or what the cube was made for in the first place. It keeps its mysteries a mystery. Which is rare and should be commended.
34. IT (1990)
There was a time, a glorious time, where made-for-TV horror movies reigned supreme and that time was the 1970’s. Every week, one or more of the major networks would release a horror movie with whatever star they had laying around and it proved highly successful. Audiences decided to stay inside and watch Karen Black get harassed by a tiki doll or Valerie Harper deal with a crazy kid brandishing a pizza cutter (It’s a real film, look it up) instead of going to the theaters. It was a glorious time but then the 80s came ’round and fucked it all up. People wanted movies about archaeologists fighting Nazis and boats that were too small to fight sharks. Television horror died but before it left this Earth, it graced us with one last, glorious gift: the IT miniseries.
Released in two parts, (the first dealing with the kids in the 50s and the second one dealing with the adults in the 80s), the miniseries was an epic TV event. Everyone in America tuned in to see a creepy clown terrorize some children and later adults and it didn’t disappoint. Tim Curry fucking crushes it as Pennywise and he’s unarguably the best thing about it. The rest of the cast is pretty solid for the most part but Curry is operating on another level. While not his best performance, it is, however, good enough to make you lament the fact that he never did horror again. Because he was clearly born for it. His performance still scares audiences more than 30 years later.
33. The Frighteners (1996)
The Frighteners was the under-seen, mis-marketed nail in the coffin for Peter Jackson’s weirdo genre phase, the last of a series of bizarre, horror-inclined, films including Bad Taste, Dead Alive, and Heavenly Creatures. Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is a sad sack ex-architect who lives on the outskirts of town in a dream house he’ll never finish. Oh yeah, and ever since the traumatic car crash that killed his wife, he can see ghosts. Turning “my wife is dead” lemons into lemonade, Frank and a handful of befriended spooks cause “hauntings,” for Frank to “exorcise” for a fee. Thing is, death has become something of a sore spot in town: perfectly healthy folks are dying of heart attacks. And when Frank notices glowing numbers on folks’ foreheads, he starts to suspect something strange and spectral is afoot. It’s energetic, psychotic, and its only crime is failing to put Jeffrey Combs and Jake Busey in a scene together.
32. The Faculty (1998)
The Faculty fused writer’s Kevin Williamson’s knack for snappy teen drama with Robert Rodriguez‘s subversive camp to fantastic results. It’s smart without ever taking itself too seriously and campy without ever losing its cool, drawing proudly from the tradition of classic alien invasion movies and casting them in the 90s teen tradition.
Set in the dingy halls of a high school dominated by disaffected youths, The Faculty finds a ragtag bunch of classmates from across the social spectrum teaming up to stop an alien invasion that turns its hosts into mindless drones. The cast is a particular delight in The Faculty, well balanced between teenage heartthrobs, cool kid cred, and a wonderful adult cast that always comes into play just in time for a good laugh or an even better scare. It’s The Breakfast Club by way of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a heavy helping of The Thing, and with Rodriguez bringing his love for B-movies and some great production value to the table, it deserves to be remembered alongside the best of the decade.
31. Scream 2 (1997)
Building upon the preceding film’s use of meta-comedy to point out horror tropes as they’re happening, Craven’s Scream 2 doubles down in that department by hammering home the point. The film makes damn sure the viewer knows that this isn’t just a horror sequel, it’s a horror sequel to a meta-horror movie that’s way more meta than the last one. Since every character in this film knows the tropes and clichés of horror sequels and again, mentions them as they are happening, the film starts to feel like a parody but within that wink wink nudge nudge almost cleverness, lies a really fun horror sequel. Yes, the film calls its shots before it takes them constantly, leaving very little surprises but true to its word, it at least delivers what it says other horror sequels do. There are more red herrings, there are more victims, there are more kills and there is more than one killer. It’s bigger, badder, and more meta than it’s predecessor, which kinda makes it the perfect slasher sequel. It might feel like a parody but it’s at least a good parody.
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!