The decade that gave us dial-up internet and the “Rachel” cut remains one of the most fertile and influential eras in the development of horror cinema. Although the ’80s are easy to generalize as the era of iconic slashers such as Freddy and Jason, ’90s horror doesn’t lend itself to such convenient categorization.
From the self-aware genre deconstruction of Wes Craven’s Scream to the rise of the found-footage shocker spawned by The Blair Witch Project, originality and diversity were the hallmarks of ’90s horror. In this list, we’re looking back at 20 films that sent ’90s audiences screaming for the exits and continue to influence the genre today.
Directed by Takashi Miike, 1999’s Audition is a grueling exercise in depravity that will put the nerves of even the most jaded horror fan to the test. Ryo Ishibashi stars as Shigeharu Aoyama, a lonely widower who, with the help of a movie producer friend, sets up a series of fake auditions to find a new wife. He gets much more than he bargains for when the mysterious Asami, portrayed with sadistic glee by Eihi Shiina, wins the “role.” Both derided as misogynistic and hailed as a feminist masterpiece, Audition remains one of the most controversial horror films ever made.
The Blair Witch Project
One of the most divisive horror films of the last 21 years, The Blair Witch Project still inspires intense debate among horror fans. Conceived by filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the story of three college students who disappear while producing a documentary about the legend of a murderous witch had audiences questioning reality throughout the summer of 1999, thanks to a multimedia ad campaign that touted the events of the film as true. Although The Blair Witch Project was a smash hit, it proved to be a professional albatross for its cast, particularly star Heather Donahue, who has spent the intervening years distancing herself from the film.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola, best known for The Godfather, returned to his gothic horror roots with Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. No stranger to the genre, as Coppola’s first mainstream release was the Roger Corman-produced 1963 thriller Dementia 13, the director promised it was the most faithful adaptation of the classic novel ever committed to film. Despite his boast, Coppola’s film takes just as many liberties with its source material as any of the previous big-screen versions. Nevertheless, it’s a spectacle featuring beautifully rendered in-camera special effects, stunning set design and brilliant performances from Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins as Dracula and Van Helsing, respectively. A flawed masterpiece (Keanu Reeves is woefully miscast as Jonathan Harker), Bram Stoker’s Dracula is essential viewing for fans of pop culture’s venerable vampire.
Based on Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, Candyman stars Virginia Madsen as Helen Lyle, a grad student researching urban legends who stumbles on a series of murders committed by a vengeful ghost. Featuring one of horror’s last great slashers, Candyman’s eponymous killer, played by Tony Todd, is one of the few iconic horror characters to come out of the ’90s. An unusually thoughtful and intelligent genre film, Candyman’s brilliance lies in its use of horror to address serious social issues. Thanks to filmmaker Jordan Peele, fans can look forward to Todd’s return as the hook-handed killer in what’s described as a “spiritual sequel” later this year.
Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore)
Based on Italian comic book writer Tiziano Sclavi’s novel Dellamorte Dellamore, 1994’s Cemetery Man is a surreal and oddly philosophical take on the zombie subgenre. Directed by Michele Soavi, the film stars Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte (something of a prototype for Sclavi’s popular comic character Dylan Dog), the overworked caretaker of Buffalora cemetery, who, with his mute assistant Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), faces a nightly onslaught of the living dead. A funny, frightening and, at times, baffling cinematic experience, Cemetery Man is sure to satisfy both fans of artsy Euro-horror and Evil Dead-style comedy.
The first feature from the master of horror Guillermo del Toro, 1993’s Cronos stars Federico Luppi as Jesús Gris, an aged and pious antiques dealer who discovers a medieval device that can bestow eternal life hidden in the base of a statue. Although the mechanical device resembling a scarab imbues Gris with newfound vitality and youth, it also curses him with a hunger for blood and an aversion to sunlight. With the help of his granddaughter (Tamara Shanath), Gris must find a way to reverse the curse and keep the device away from an evil businessman (Claudio Brook) desperate to possess its secret. A masterfully realized film, Cronos is a unique take on the well-worn vampire trope with a fascinating mythology all its own.
Long before he brought Middle-Earth to the big screen, Peter Jackson was New Zealand’s prime purveyor of low-budget, gross-out horror comedies. The pinnacle of Jackson’s splatter period, which includes the alien invasion flick Bad Taste and the wonderfully tasteless puppet musical Meet The Feebles, is 1992’s Dead Alive. Released as Braindead in the director’s native country, Dead Alive stars Timothy Balme as the mild-mannered Lionel Cosgrove, a dutiful young man who serves as caretaker to his elderly mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody). When a bite from a Sumatran rat-monkey transforms Vera into a slavering, bloodthirsty ghoul, Lionel must face down a full-fledged zombie plague. Featuring nauseating special effects, the inspired use of garden tools and a kung-fu fighting priest who “kicks ass for the Lord,” Dead Alive is a gruesome masterpiece of slapstick horror.
The Exorcist III
Largely unappreciated at the time of its 1990 release, The Exorcist III has since become a revered cult classic. Written and directed by author William Peter Blatty, adapted from his 1983 novel Legion, the third installment in the Exorcist series stars George C. Scott as detective William Kinderman, a relatively minor character in the first film, who’s investigating a series of murders that are suspiciously similar to crimes committed by a long-dead serial killer. Marred only by a tacked-on exorcism sequence imposed by the studio, Blatty’s film is expertly paced, beautifully lensed and filled with stunning performances from Scott and co-stars Ed Flanders, Jason Miller and Brad Dourif. A moody contemplation of faith in the face of a violent and indifferent world, The Exorcist III is a smart and disturbing film worthy of its celebrated predecessors.
From Dusk Till Dawn
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were riding high as indie film superstars when they joined forces for their 1996 Mexican vampire opus From Dusk Till Dawn. Directed by Rodriguez from Tarantino’s script, From Dusk Till Dawn begins as a typically Tarantino-esque crime story about two bank robbers on the run that morphs into a hyperviolent survival horror movie halfway through its running time. Packed with Tarantino’s trademark dialogue flourishes and Rodriguez’s kinetic camera moves, From Dusk Till Dawn never quite lives up to the promise of its creative team or its stellar ensemble cast headed up by George Clooney and Harvey Keitel. Nevertheless, it’s a visual feast for action and gore fans and a unique variation on the vampire myth.
In The Mouth Of Madness
John Carpenter’s Lovecraftian pastiche, In The Mouth Of Madness, is the third and final chapter of the director’s thematically connected “apocalypse trilogy,” which also includes 1982’s The Thing and 1987’s Prince Of Darkness. Sam Neil stars as insurance investigator John Trent, who’s hired by a publishing house to investigate the mysterious disappearance of its star client, horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow). As Trent gets closer to unraveling the writer’s sinister secrets, he finds fiction melding with reality in an ancient plot with dire circumstances for all of humanity. Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, In The Mouth Of Madness captures the mind-bending tone, oppressive atmosphere and overall existential dread of the late pulp author’s patented cosmic horror far better than most direct adaptations of his work.
Tim Robbins is Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran coping with bizarre hallucinations and gaps in time, in Adrian Lyne’s chilling 1990 shocker Jacob’s Ladder. In one of the most disturbing horror films of the ’90s, Lyne expertly crafts a potent metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder out of imagery both sacred and surreal. Relentless in its barrage of terrifyingly hallucinogenic sequences, Jacob’s Ladder is a difficult horror film that demands much from its audience but delivers a thoroughly grim, emotionally draining and ultimately satisfying cinematic experience. Seek out the original and avoid the toothless and wholly unnecessary 2019 remake.
Misery, released in 1990, stands as one of the best ever cinematic adaptations of a Stephen King novel. Directed by Rob Reiner, who had a previous hit with a King story in 1986’s Stand By Me, Misery stars James Caan as Paul Sheldon, the author of a series of best-selling Victorian potboilers featuring the Jane Eyre-inspired heroine Misery Chastain. The writer, looking to leave his most popular creation behind for more serious literary aspirations, decides to end the series with Misery’s death. Following a near-fatal accident on a snowy backroad, a gravely injured Sheldon is rescued by his self-proclaimed “No. 1 fan,” Annie Wilkes. Wilkes, portrayed by Kathy Bates in a delightfully deranged Oscar-winning performance, initially dotes on the injured author. However, when she discovers that Sheldon has killed off her beloved Misery, Wilkes unleashes her psychotic wrath on the crippled author.
Nightbreed, written and directed by Clive Barker from his 1988 novella Cabal, is a sublime dark fantasy that upends the standard horror paradigm by casting its monsters as noble heroes facing extermination at the hands of diabolical humans. Suffering from studio indifference and a horribly misguided ad campaign, the film opened to dismal reviews and poor box-office receipts upon its 1990 release. Like all great cult films, Nightbreed slowly found its audience and has been reevaluated as a genre classic, thanks to the long-awaited 2014 release of Barker’s approved cut. A twisted parable for outsiders and misfits, Nightbreed’s rich mythology and subversive subtext make Barker’s tale a gothic fable for the ages.
Night Of The Living Dead
Directed by makeup effects master Tom Savini and written by creator George A. Romero, 1990’s Night Of The Living Dead is the only authorized (and worthy) remake of the groundbreaking 1968 classic. Although interference from the studio compromised Savini’s grand vision for reinterpreting Romero’s masterpiece, the final product hits exactly the right notes by expanding on the original film’s premise with more clearly realized characters. The most radical (and welcome) change is Patricia Tallman’s updated Barbara, who’s far from the near-catatonic basket case portrayed by Judith O’Dea in the 1968 film. A badass woman in the tradition of Alien’s Ellen Ripley, the ’90s Barbara adds another layer of subtext to Romero’s celebrated use of the genre as socio-political allegory.
The People Under The Stairs
Of the many great genre directors who built their reputations in the ’70s, the late Wes Craven was arguably the only one to maintain both a high level of prolificacy and quality throughout the ’90s. The People Under The Stairs is among Craven’s best ’90s offerings. A surprise hit with audiences in 1991, the film stars Brandon Adams as Fool, a 12-year-old kid roped into helping a couple of small-time criminals rob wealthy weirdos Mommy and Daddy Robeson, portrayed by Wendy Robie and Twin Peaks’ Everett McGill, respectively. However, the would-be crooks’ dreams of easy money are dashed when they stumble on the crazed couple’s terrifying secret. A pointed satire of late-stage capitalism and Reaganite conservatism, The People Under The Stairs is a superb blend of black comedy and horror that remains relevant nearly 30 years after its release.
A cursed video holds deadly consequences for all who view it in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu. Based on Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel of the same name, Ringu was a runaway box-office hit in its native Japan, instigating a pop culture tsunami of sequels, remakes and manga. Responsible for inspiring a worldwide fascination with Asian horror, Ringu’s popularity caught the eye of Hollywood, resulting in the excellent 2002 Westernized remake The Ring from director Gore Verbinski. Although the film’s horrifying use of Japanese folklore’s yūrei, the pale, stringy-haired ghost that appears in various guises throughout much of J-horror, has passed into genre cliché, Ringu’s power to frighten is undiminished. If you’ve only seen the remake, you owe it to yourself to seek out the film that terrified half the world.
Director Wes Craven upended the very genre he helped create with 1996’s Scream. Written by Kevin Williamson, who would later strike TV gold with his coming-of-age hit Dawson’s Creek, Scream is the ultimate post-postmodern deconstruction of the slasher subgenre. The first film of its kind to openly articulate the unspoken rules of horror flicks, Craven’s film revels in examining the conventions of the genre in the context of characters who are aware of horror’s role in popular culture. Aside from its rich subtext, Scream also functions as a brilliant and effective horror film. Although Craven and Williamson’s intent was to bury the slasher film under the absurdity of its often misogynistic tropes, Scream nevertheless opened the floodgates for a new wave of slashers at the close of the decade.
The Silence Of The Lambs
Based on Thomas Harris’ best-selling 1988 novel, The Silence Of The Lambs stars Jodie Foster as rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling, who’s assigned to investigate the sadistic serial killer known only as Buffalo Bill. Hoping to gain insight into the killer’s methods, Starling enlists the aid of imprisoned murderer and cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). Lecter, a former psychiatrist and master manipulator, agrees to assist the desperate Starling, but she soon discovers the price of the brilliant sociopath’s help may be her sanity. The only horror film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, The Silence Of The Lambs also garnered Best Actor honors for both Foster and Hopkins. Perfectly paced and magnificently acted, The Silence Of The Lambs is a near-perfect psychological thriller.
The Sixth Sense
Almost two decades after its 1999 release, The Sixth Sense remains director M. Night Shyamalan’s best, most cohesive and most coherent film. Haley Joel Osment stars as Cole Sear, a disturbed young boy with the power to communicate with the dead. Overwhelmed by haunting visions of the deceased, Cole finds solace in child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) who, despite facing his own demons, is determined to help the boy understand his gift. The Sixth Sense was a huge hit with both critics and audiences, coming in second to Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace in total box-office receipts. Featuring one of cinema’s most shocking twists, Shyamalan’s film is a landmark horror movie which, sadly, its gifted director has yet to match.
A fun throwback to ’50s-style drive-in monster flicks, 1990’s Tremors stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as good ol’ boys Val and Earl, whose plans to escape their dull lives in the dead-end desert town of Perfection, Nevada, is thwarted by the sudden invasion of giant, man-eating sandworms. Taking place almost entirely in broad daylight, Tremors is a special effects extravaganza that never relies on darkness and shadow to obscure its monsters. The film’s menacing sandworms, branded “graboids” for their habit of grabbing unsuspecting victims from below, are marvels of practical effects magic, with a weight and menace absent in the CGI creature features of the last two decades. Featuring an engaging supporting cast that includes country music star Reba McEntire and ’80s sitcom dad Michael Gross as married, machine gun-toting survivalists, Tremors is a crowd-pleasing celluloid thrill ride filled with action, suspense and laughs.