The 1970s represented a massive shift – and likely a creative zenith – in horror in cinema. While the 1980s lacked the creative synergy, it was the ‘Golden Age’ of the slasher and produced more than its share of classics. Following on the heels of the slasher, the 90s generally represented a downturn for the genre. Unlike previous (and subsequent) decades, no one style or subgenre characterized the decade. To some extent, horror struggled to find its footing until Wes Craven reinvigorated the slasher – and horror, more generally – with Scream. But a lot of other great horror movies came out in the flannel decade. In Part I of the Best Horror Movies of the 1990s, we count down from Number 25 to Number 16.
25 – Mimic (1997)
Guillermo del Toro is a visionary filmmaker responsible for some of the best genre movies over the last 30 years. And yes, del Toro has one more movie on this list. As compared to his overall body of work, Mimic falls short of most of his creative output. Studio constraints likely hampered del Toro’s tale of genetically engineered mutant bugs that can ‘mimic’ human beings. Yet even when his creativity is limited by studio constraints, del Toro still delivers a far better monster movie than anything else that was getting made at the time. First-rate creature effects set against a dark, murky background makes for engrossing, if not entirely scary, viewing. And while the movie feels a little long in the middle, Mira Sorvino, along with an impressive supporting cast, are more than capable to make the material feel less pulpy.
24 – Ravenous (1999)
In what was a big year for horror releases, Ravenous came and went from theaters quietly. Neither audiences nor critics were enthusiastic with Antonia Bird’s eccentric cannibal western. But its reputation has grown over the years amassing something of a cult following. Though it’s not an overtly scary movie, Ravenous is atmospheric, darkly humorous, and occasionally gory. In addition to strong performances from Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, it features a unique soundtrack jointly composed by Damon Albarn of Blur and Michel Nyman. It’s not a stretch to suggest we wouldn’t have Bone Tomahawk without Ravenous.
23 – The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Following the massive success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven had a few missteps in the 1980s including Shocker and the dreadful The Hills Have Eyes Part II. But Craven started the 1990s with a surprising success in The People Under the Stairs. Wonderfully weird, gory and disturbing, and darkly funny at times, The People Under the Stairs was kind of elevated horror before that term was being tossed around. Craven adopts a sociological lens in a movie that explores gentrification, capitalism, and classism while still checking off the requisite horror boxes. Often forgotten when discussing the master’s work, The People Under the Stairs was way ahead of its time.
22 – The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
By the mid-1990s, Giallo had lost most of its luster and Dario Argento’s last truly great movie, Opera, was almost 10 years in the rearview mirror. While Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome may not be among his best work, it marked something of a return to form. Certainly, it had all the hallmarks of classic Giallo from brutal and carefully crafted scenes of violence to a twisting plot. Leave it to Argento to base a movie around a rare psychological condition in which the afflicted enters a dissociative state when they see art. Featuring a brilliant opening and an Ennio Morricone score, The Stendhal Syndrome is a brutally violent affair – even for Argento – that’s ridiculously plotted in true Giallo style.
21 – Misery (1990)
With a spotty track record for adapting his work, Misery still stands out as one of Hollywood’s best Stephen King treatments. On one level, Misery offers some biting social commentary that has only become more relevant. Long before K-pop and Snyder fanboys, Annie Wilkes represented an early treatment of toxic fandom. Subtext aside, director Rob Reiner’s thriller is timeless even if it sterilizes some of the ‘horror’ embedded into the original novel. Nothing about the movie dates it. Misery’s psychological horror and restrained violence ensure it will find audiences for years to come. Throw in a strong performance from James Caan and a career-defining turn from Kathy Bates and Misery remains one of the best adaptations of King’s work.
20 – In The Mouth of Madness (1994)
The final installment of John Carpenter’s informal ‘apocalypse’ trilogy, In The Mouth of Madness stands out as one of the master’s more underrated works. Sam Neill plays an insurance investigator named John Trent who’s tasked with finding the missing horror author, Sutter Cane. Not to be outdone by Wes Craven, Carpenter plays with some big ideas in his own attempt at meta-horror. With references to H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, In The Mouth of Madness is often inventive and frequently scary. Both Neill and Jurgen Prochnow (House of the Dead) are in excellent form. And Carpenter’s theme is a fun, clever play on Metallica’s Enter Sandman. Do you read Sutter Cane?
19 – Interview with the Vampire (1993)
Almost immediately Interview with the Vampire is incredibly dated but still a visually arresting example of big-budget horror. On one hand, director Neil Jordan’s interpretation of Anne Rice’s novel often veers into unintentional humor. There’s a thick air of melodrama that hangs over the movie which often feels the opposite of what was intended. Some of the performances – Tom Cruise and Stephen Rea, in particular – feel like they’re in on the joke. It’s hard not to forget the fan anger over Cruise’s casting as Lestat. Other performances just double-down on some the movie’s worse tendencies. Yet Interview with the Vampire is a lush-looking movie whose visuals have aged quite well. Only a handful of movies since its release can match the grandeur of Jordan’s vision.
18 – Arachnophobia (1990)
Most people don’t like creepy crawlies. And fear of spider may not be universal, but there are enough people afraid of the eight-legged arachnids to warrant its own diagnosis – Arachnophobia. The 1990 comedy-thriller from Frank Marshall and starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman may be the quintessential gateway horror movie. Nothing about this movie approaches R-rated territory. Instead Marshall focuses on fun, edge-of-your-seat thrills mixed with healthy doses of humor to take the edge off. And the final showdown with the big South American spider in the wine cellar is proof that PG movies can be every bit as scary a something with an R-rating.
17 – The Exorcist III (1990)
Following up The Exorcist – one of the greatest horror movies of all time – was always going to be a daunting tasking. But who could have predicted just how badly John Boorman would miss the mark with Exorcist II: The Heretic? Not surprisingly, expectations were low for another sequel years removed from the sequel. While The Exorcist III didn’t light the box office on fire, it’s gained a much deserved following in recent years. Written and directed by William Peter Blatty himself, the sequel carries on the story of the original with a completely novel approach to the concept. Did I mention it’s a genuinely frightening thriller boast one of the best jump scares in horror history? Complete with powerful performances from George C. Scott and Brad Dourif, this is how you make a sequel to a classic.
16 – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Freddy’s Dead didn’t start the decline of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, but it was certainly nadir of it. Aside from diehard Elm Street fans, no one was asking for a sequel in 1994. But Wes Craven had other ideas. Aside from its storytelling innovation and subtext, a New Nightmare made Freddy Krueger scary again. Arguably, it’s the first truly scary Elm Street film since Dream Warriors. Craven crafts several frightening moments that call back to the first A Nightmare on Elm Street. Heather’s funeral nightmare and the image of Freddy pulling her son into a casket is haunting. Freddy’s later hospital appearance – a clever reference to Tina’s death is among the scarier moments in the franchise. Fortunately, horror fans and critics have re-discovered Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Elm Streetfans may still select the original film and Dream Warriors as the franchise’s best films. But the horror community increasingly recognized that Craven took a significant creative risk with a New Nightmare. Craven crafted a classic horror film that stands on its own by taking risks and experimenting.