The 90s horror film, a decade of plenty of hits and just as many misses.
As the 80s ended, so did our interest in blood and gore. Something that used to scare/disgust us became a joke and now used for laughs in the 90s with several notable ‘splatter’ films offering more laughs than scares. The 90s saw a rebirth of what the 60s aimed to achieve, making the everyday man scary. This decade saw a rise in grounded horror, the influx of ‘intelligent’ horror films, as well as directors refusing to call their films ‘horror’ and instead chose the label ‘thriller’. The serial killer movie became increasingly more popular and the Norman Bates-esque character began to appear more and more. But that doesn’t mean there were none of the 70s/80s horror films anymore as the 90s also had sequel upon sequel upon sequel. Some were good, some were terrible.
The Exorcist III (1990): The second sequel to my all time favourite horror film. Writer of the original, William Peter Blatty returns as writer and director for this instalment. A body turns up with the striking resemblances to the MO of the infamous ‘Gemini Killer’ that only the police were aware of, Lt. Kinderman begins an investigation. The main problem is that the ‘Gemini Killer’ has been dead for fifteen years…
Have you noticed how I haven’t mentioned the first sequel to The Exorcist so far? Because its absolutely terrible. However, this film is pretty damn good. An effective psychological horror that, while not as great as the original, does a damn fine job creating a strange mystery as you are left guessing who the killer is and whether the ‘Gemini Killer’ is still alive or not. This film is light on the scares as its more psychological, but that doesn’t mean there are no great scares in the film, hospital scene anyone? There are a few problems with the ending that came about as this film was never meant to be a sequel to The Exorcist. The novel by William Peter Blatty was called; Legion and has nothing to do with The Exorcist at all. The entire last third of the film was re-shot to make connections to the original film and they even hired Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in the first movie to make a few cameo appearances. Still despite a few problems, this is a good horror movie and a worthy sequel.
Frankenhooker (1990): Directed by Frank Henenlotter and (obviously) inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. A medical student/electrician, Jeffrey Franken loses his girlfriend in a tragic lawnmower accident and only her head survives. So he sets about bringing her back and goes to the red light district to find victims for his experiment.
The title is stupid because the film is. Another one of those horror/comedies and this is one of the better ones too. If you think a girl dying in a terrible lawnmower accident is funny, then you’ll love this picture. The movie is silly, but also pretty damn creative along the way too as the hookers are killed in ‘explosive’ ways. The effects work is impressive and you’ll see plenty of dismembered body parts and creative monsters as our mad scientist, Jeffrey Franken goes crazier and crazier as the movie progresses. Frankenhooker herself doesn’t even appear in the film until around the 55 minute mark, but its well worth the wait.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990): This psychological horror film is directed by Adrian Lyne and stars Tim Robbins. Postal worker Jacob Singer keeps witnessing hallucinations and flashbacks to his first marriage, his dead son and his tour of duty in Vietnam. These visions continue to become increasingly more disturbing as Jacob starts to lose his grip on reality.
This flick is genius, a psychological horror which oozes style and atmosphere. Tim Robbins as Jacob is outstanding as he struggles with his insane visions and slowly looses his grip. The hallucinations and flashbacks are done really well and can be scary one second but then next, you’ll be an emotional wreak. This picture is much more than just a movie, its an experience that will have you on the edge of your seat until its clever and satisfying conclusion. Subsequent viewings are a must with this one as you’ll spot very subtle clues the second, third, fourth time you probably missed before.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991): Directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. This psychological thriller/horror tells the story of FBI trainee Clarice Starling who is asked to investigate a possible serial killer called, Buffalo Bill. But before Clarice can find this killer, she must earn the trust and confidence of Hannibal Lecter, an ex-psychiatrist turned murderer who who cannibalised his victims.
The writing, directing and acting in this film are top notch. The picture is full of suspense and tension that slowly boils away leading to one of the most tense and well directed ending scenes. Of course there is the legendary Anthony Hopkins whose calming and sedate performance just adds to the overall effect as Hannibal Lecter who is both charming and yet utterly scary at the same time. Not forgetting the serial killer, Buffalo Bill played by Ted Levine, who is based on real life killers, Ed Gein and Ted Bundy. The scenes between Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter are like watching a chess game of words as they both carefully think about their questions/replies trying to get as much information as possible while also holding back revealing too much.
Braindead (1992): AKA Dead Alive is an early film from writer/director Peter Jackson before he made it big in Hollywood. Lionel and his overbearing mother live in a small village in New Zealand. While on a secret date with a local shop girl at a zoo, mother follows Lionel where she is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey, becomes infected with a zombie-like disease and dies. Then soon after her ‘funeral’, all hell breaks loose.
You know how earlier I said how blood and gore was now being used for comedic effect? Well Braindead is a perfect example of this. The gore in this is so ridiculously OTT and you’ll spend just as much time laughing as you will being disgusted. The movie is almost cartoon like with special effects as absurd as the characters. With a zombie baby, a pair of horny zombies that have sex continually, a kung-fu priest and an evil mother that makes Norma Bates look tame. Part zombie movie, part comedy and part love story… all covered in a visceral and violent blanket that climaxes with lawnmower, dozens of zombies and gallons upon gallons of blood. Just try to get hold of a full uncut version as even the ‘unrated cut’ is edited down to 97 minutes, while the full version runs at 104 minutes. “I kick arse for the Lord.”
Candyman (1992): Based on the story; The Forbidden by Clive Barker and directed by Bernard Rose. Helen and her friend Bernadette begin researching for a thesis on urban legends. Helen becomes obsessed by the legend of Candyman who is said to appear if you repeat his name five times in front of a mirror. She soon learns that Candyman is much more then just an urban legend.
A slasher film with so much style and substance that does away with many of the outdated tropes. The acting is particularly great, especially for a horror movie. With Tony Todd playing the titular Candyman and being scary, but in a very calming way and Virginia Madsen as Helen is just as impressive. I read a review of this movie which stated that it “wasn’t a nice film”… that’s a compliment in my eyes. The film is dirty, grimy and certainly ‘not nice’ at all. This is a horror film for adults, not teenagers. Deliciously dark and decadent, this urban legend is a must watch.
Bat sin fan dim: Yan yuk cha siu bau (1993): AKA The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story. Based on the real Eight Immortals Restaurant Murders that took place on 4th August, 1985 in Macau. the film is directed by Herman Yau. The rotting remains of a human are found on a beach, the police investigation leads them to a local restaurant owner, Wong Chi Hang. Wong has only recently become owner of the restaurant and the previous owners have disappeared without a trace. His customers love his pork bao and keep coming back for more. But just what did happen to the previous owners of the restaurant?
You know how earlier I said how blood and gore was now being used for comedic effect? Well The Eight Immortals Restaurant: The Untold Story is a perfect example of the exception to the rule. This is no horror comedy, though there is some slight comic relief and this movie needs it. The Untold Story is brutally gory, how much so? Well Hong Kong film censors place films into numbered categories dependent on how severe the violence is and this film has been certified a category III. Category III movies are notorious for extreme violence or excessive sexual content and this film is no different. Extreme and excessive is just how to describe this one, its hard to watch and doesn’t shy away from its bloody, detailed violence. There is no mystery here and there isn’t meant to be, we know who the killer is right from the start. Its not who is responsible for the killings that is important but more so how the killings took place.
Body Bags (1993): An anthology film featuring three stories directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. The Gas Station is about a young college student who arrives for her first night shift at an 24 hour gas station. She learns that a serial killer has broken out of a mental hospital and is heading her way. Hair is a tale about a middle aged, egotistical business man who tries a ‘miracle’ hair transplant operation to save his thinning hair. Eye is a yarn where a baseball player is involved in a car accident and loses one of his eyes. Worrying his career is over, he decides to undergo an experimental surgical procedure to replace his eye.
The three tales are inter-cut and introduced by a morgue worker played briliantly by John Carpenter himself, using bad puns and cheap jokes. Also be on the look out for some great cameos from other horror directors like Sam Raimi, Wes Craven and Rodger Corman. There are plenty of in-jokes and nods too like the fact the gas station story takes place just outside Haddonfield… which is the fictional town Halloween (1978) took place. The three stories are all really enjoyable for very different reasons. An overlooked gem of a flick that is full of scares, surprises and a few laughs too. I particularly love the epilogue after the final story…
Schramm (1993): A German film from director Jörg Buttgereit and loosely based on true crimes of Carl Panzram. Lothar Schramm is a polite and friendly taxi driver, but he suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. Schramm’s disorder drives him to self-mutilate, rape and murder and we see all of this in a flashback as the film opens with Lothar Schramm dying in a pool of his own blood after falling of a ladder.
Director Jorg Buttgereit explained this film far better then I ever could: ‘Welcome to a trip into the mind of a serial killer.‘ This film is deranged and disgusting… yet beautifully shot and well wroth watching. Its only a short film running at a little over 60 minutes, but its a hell of an hour full of disturbing images and bloody gore. Most serial killer movies concentrate on the police POV as they track down the killer and finally stop them, this film does things very differently as we only see things from the killers POV. The things this guy gets up to are disturbing to say the least. From the murder and rape of females to hammering nails his own penis. Schramm is a bizarre and sometimes hard to watch but still worth a view regardless.
Dellamorte Dellamore (1994): AKA Cemetery Man, an Italian horror film directed by Michele Soavi. Francesco Dellamorte works at and lives near a cemetery. A beautiful widow attends the funeral of her husband and Dellamorte falls in love with her. The two eventually have sex on the late husband’s grave and he returns from the dead… yet this is only the start of the carnage.
A tongue in cheek zombie film with a lot of heart and even artistic style. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all ‘arty-farty’ crap as there is plenty of gore and even some gratuitous nudity. Its just that the film starts out like a bog standard zombie flick but soon evolves into something so much more. The plot is involving and the characters are brilliantly realised, but then there is the cracking zombie make up effects and quite possibly the best Grim Reaper on film ever. There is a love story in here as well as a philosophical look at insanity and loneliness. A zombie movie with a heart, brain and a delicious dark humour.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994): Directed by John Carpenter and starring Sam Neill. A Stephen King-a-like horror writer, Sutter Cane has gone missing. Insurance investigator John Trent is asked to look into Cane’s mysterious vanishing. Trent surmises that the disappearance is all an elaborate hoax to be used as publicity for Cane’s new book, but he soon learns there is much more to the writer’s strange vanishing act then he first thought.
The third in John Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ with the first two being The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987). I have a feeling that the writer of this film, Michael De Luca may have been inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This film is very diverse, you’ll find people either love it or outright hate it. I personally love this flick and think its a massively overlooked Carpenter masterpiece that seemingly gets lost in his other works. Its quite an intelligent and insightful horror picture and will leave you scratching your head by the time the end credits roll. Not really a blood and gore film, though there are a few great make up effects shown. This is more of a psychological horror that plays on your mind much more. The story can be scary and gets a little dark but the script is as sharp as a tack and yet it never takes itself too seriously. I’m going to make a very bold statement here, in terms of directing I think this is John Carpenter’s best work, better than Halloween, better than The Thing.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994): The man that created Freddy Krueger, Wes Craven, gets back in the director’s chair to destroy his most famous creation. Bringing back Heather Langenkamp from the original to face her nemesis one last time. Heather Langenkamp starts receiving strange phone calls from someone sounding a lot like Freddy Krueger. This comes about around the same time she is asked to return to the franchise that made her famous as its revealed that Wes has been writing a new movie… coincidence?
This is Wes Craven’s masterpiece, his opus and yet the movie is always overlooked in favour of the less interesting, poorly made sequels in this franchise. Now I love the original Nightmare flick and think part 2 is a underrated horror film too. Then after that, from 3 onward, things just go downhill fast. Its quite poetic how it took the creator of Freddy to get things back on track after 10 years since the original. This picture is so clever and meta, I feel this is why most don’t enjoy it, they want the simplicity of the other sequels, they just want Freddy running around killing stupid teenagers and making bad puns. But for me, I got tired of this formula pretty quickly. This is a movie about making movies and the effect(s) violent films may have on the audience. This isn’t your stereotypical ‘slasher’ flick that the sequels became, this is a psychological horror that gets the brain ticking over. Heather Langenkamp who became known as Nancy from the first film is back… only she is playing Heather Langenkamp in a life that mirrored her real life at the time. Robert Englund is also back as Freddy and playing himself at the same time in a dual role. There are a ton of references to the original film as well as other actors from the franchise popping up. Cerebral is the word to use when describing this picture. Its plot is both simple and multilayered at the same time with Wes Craven himself even appearing in the film, writing/directing a film about making a film, which is the film you are actually watching. Watch the first film and then watch this directly afterwards and you’ll see just how irrelevant the sequels really are. This is why I miss Wes Craven, he was the thinking man’s horror writer/director who wasn’t afraid to break the rules now and again. Despite this flick getting high critical praise at the time, it tanked at the box office because the studio thought it would be a good idea to open against a little known film called Pulp Fiction…
From Dusk till Dawn (1996): Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by his best buddy, Robert Rodriguez. Starring George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis. The notorious Gecko brothers go on the run after a bank heist. They kidnap a preacher and his family to use them and their motor-home as cover to escape into Mexico where they will meet a contact at a bar called The Titty Twister, but it seems that meeting at this bar was not the best idea.
One of the best twists in a film ever. This film is glorious, you have the snappy dialogue and interesting characters thanks to Tarantino’s writing, blended with the kinetic and stylised directing of Rodriguez. The film is really a film of two very distinctly different halves (which I’m trying not to spoil) and yet they seem the blend together seamlessly. I quite honestly do not want to say too much about this one as I feel going into it blind is the best possible way to approach it. If you have never seen this flick then don’t read any reviews, don’t even look at the cover (if possible). Just pop the DVD/BluRay in and sit back. I do have to mention how awesome Clooney is in the film, his breakthrough film performance. He is subzero levels of cool and yet a total badass with buckets of charm too.
The Frighteners (1996): Director Peter Jackson’s first American film and starring Michael J. Fox. Frank Bannister develops psychic abilities allowing him to see, hear, and communicate with ghosts after a car accident in which he was injured and his wife was killed. Frank befriends some of the ghosts and uses them as stooges to set up his own ghostbusting business. Frank encounters a spectre very similar to the Grim Reaper who seems to kill people (and ghosts) at random. Its up to Frank to stop this spectral killer before it kills of the entire town.
Originally intended to be a story for the Tales From The Crypt TV show, producer Robert Zemeckis decided this would work better as a feature film. This starts out as a pretty goofy comedy, but it turns into a really effective and scary ghost story with a great sense of humour. The visual effects are amazing and still stand up today, especially the Reaper ghost who flies around town killing people and offers some genuine scares. Sadly, this was Michael J. Fox’s final starring film role before he had to semi-retire from acting due to his Parkinson’s disease. Also be on the look out for iconic horror stars like Dee Wallace and Jeffrey Combs, even Peter Jackson himself makes a cameo. A great , chilling and yet funny film that stands up well today.
Scream (1996): Director Wes Craven is back to demolish the very genre of film that made him famous. One year after her mother’s murder, Sydney Prescott starts to receive strange phone calls from a crazed serial killer. As her classmates die off one by one, Sydney realises she is next in line and considers the possibility that this killer could have had something to do with her mother’s murder one year ago.
This is another one of those 90s horror films that tries to be clever, it breaks down many of the ‘slasher’ movie clichés and pokes fun at them. It takes the overused and stale ‘teenagers getting drunk and being killed off by a maniac’ trope and turns it on its head. Ironically, this film single handily managed to breath new life into the ‘dead on its feet’ sub-genre of horror film it was making fun of as there was an influx of teen slasher films released after the success of Scream that all had the same looking characters, same set ups and pay offs, similar 90s rock soundtracks and even pretty much the same posters. For me, I really do not think this one hold up all that well and certainly not as clever or cerebral as New Nightmare was and still is. The way this picture pokes fun at the ‘slasher’ clichés soon become cliché in of themselves and the film just does not hold the same appeal as it did back in 96. Its still a decent romp, but its cleverness became stale way before the asinine and inevitable sequels came about a few years later.
The Devil’s Advocate (1997): Based on Andrew Neiderman’s novel of the same name, directed by Taylor Hackford and starring, Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino and Charlize Theron. Kevin Lomax is a ruthless young attorney working in Florida who has never lost a case, he is hired by an even more ruthless law firm from New York. Kevin and his wife relocate to New York in spite of strong disagreement by his mother. His wife starts to witnesses devilish apparitions as Kevin becomes more engrossed in his work. Is there more to his new boss then Kevin realises?
I debated putting this on the list, not because its bad… its not, this is a great film. But because I wasn’t sure if this qualifies as a horror film, I don’t think that many do consider this a horror film at all. In many ways, its not a horror film, at least not in the most common sense. Yet this an horrific tale being told, one of neglect, power and greed. There are plenty of scary/horrific imagery too especially with the visions Kevin’s wife has, plus the film has a pretty decent amount of blood and death along the way. The film builds and builds as we learn more about Kevin’s new boss, John Milton, played brilliantly by Al Pacino until the climax where he gives one of cinema’s great monologues. Where John Milton tears apart the whole theory of religion and presents the inherent contradiction of it all… nobody can do a speech like that as well as Pacino can. I really do not want to delve too deeply into this movie out of fear of giving away too much. Its a cracker with plenty of twists and turns. Is it a horror film though? For me, yet it is.
The Faculty (1998): Directed by Robert Rodriguez. In a small town high school, the teachers and some of the students start acting a little strange. While hiding in a closet, two of the students witness the school’s nurse being strangled by two other teachers. After the students escape, they find the nurse is very much alive but also now acting strange.
I think this film may be Robert Rodriguez’s love letter and throwback to sci-fi horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/78) and The Thing (1982). It has one of those stories of alien assimilation blended with that slick 90s attitude towards horror films sparked off with Scream (1996), well the screenplay was by Kevin Williamson after all. There is a pretty good cast here including; Josh Hartnett, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Robert Patrick and Elijah Wood. The film features a nice slow build of paranoia before the inevitable reveal of the the aliens. An interesting modern twist on the sci-fi horror films from the past that manages to keep things fresh with plenty of in-jokes and references for sci-fi horror fans to spot.
Ringu (1998): AKA Ring, a Japanese psychological horror flick from director Hideo Nakata. Based on the novel of the same name by Kôji Suzuki, which itself was inspired by the Japanese folk tale, Banchō Sarayashiki. A journalist investigates a series of deaths that occur after the victims watched a supposedly ‘cursed video’. Her investigation leads her to a holiday cabin where she discovers the tape for herself…
No one does scary and effective ghost stories like the Japanese and this movie is one the best examples. Far superior to the American remake is every way. The direction here is both intense and gritty as it makes its way to one of the best, most creative and scariest endings to a horror film that I have ever seen. Most of the time, people recommend watching a film on the big screen, yet with this, you really have to watch it on TV at home with the lights off. The whole production feels very ‘documentary’ like and the characters are played perfectly which helps you fear for their own safety and sanity. The taught and bittersweet relationship between the two leads is really well done. Its a film based on one simple principle, that often broken rule we were constantly told as kids by our parents… ‘don’t do that’, which only spurred us on to do the exact opposite of what we were told. So DON’T watch Ringu…
The Blair Witch Project (1999): This found footage psychological horror film is written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. Three film students travel to Maryland to explore a local urban legend known as The Blair Witch. The students were never heard from again and completely disappeared, but their video camera were found…
Right, I don’t like this film, I think its just plain boring and god awful… and I’ve seen some terrible horror films over the years. Its not scary, most of the film is shot in darkness while running through a forest and I stopped being scared of the dark from the age of five. I also detest how people claim this film created the found footage sub-genre. It didn’t as I proved in the previous part with Cannibal Holocaust (1980), even more so, The Last Broadcast (1998) did what this film did the year before… and did it better too. So why is it on this list? Because I think the publicity and fiction they created to make this film appear ‘real’ is some of the best marketing for a horror film ever. The ‘missing’ posters for the characters in the film that began to pop up in our world, The Curse of the Blair Witch mockumentary broadcast on the SciFi Channel before the release of the film, the website set up that detailed the legend of The Blair Witch and featured police reports, etc. The marketing for this film was amazing and in many ways, it was far better then the film itself. IMDb even got in on the fun and listed the people in the cast list as ‘missing, presumed dead’ for the first year of the film’s release. Didn’t like the film in 1999 and I still don’t like the film in 2016, but I will always praise the marketing for this flick as being pure genius.
Terror Firmer (1999): Directed by and starring Troma legend, Lloyd Kaufman. A low budget film crew led by their blind film director, Larry Benjamin are making a high art film when they come across a homicidal maniac only they can stop.
This is a Troma film and if you don’t know what that is… then avoid this film. Troma is an independent film production company famous for making very low budget OTT gore-fest, exploitation films full or sex, nudity and gallons of blood. They don’t try to make deep and meaningful entertainment, their aim is to make entertaining trash with films like; The Toxic Avenger (1984), Troma’s War (1988), Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1990) and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006) as well as dozens of others. For me, this is the best film from Troma ever. Its a clever satire of the films they make and (co-founder) Lloyd Kaufman manages to poke fun at himself and his company while still providing a hell of a film along the way. Its rude, crude and full of immature scenes… as well as stupid violence and gore. There are plenty of cameos to look out for, multiple references to some of Troma’s other films and characters. Its stupid, puerile and cheap… but its a low budget film about making a low budget film featuring a blind director… so what are you expecting?
Time to end the 90s here and take a look at modern horror films of the 2000s in part VII, the final part of my Incomplete History of Horror.