The year may say 1990, but the films of this year feel very much like an extension of the previous decade, as the slasher genre runs on fumes and increasingly moves into the world of straight-to-video. The rest of the entries are a bit lacking in all-time classics, but this is still a quality lineup with a lot of variation, which is something you won’t be able to say for much of the 1990s. Increasingly, the films here are crossing over with action (Tremors, Darkman) and comedy (Arachnophobia, The Witches), as “true horror” begins to fall a bit out of vogue.
Perhaps most prominent of the non-Misery horror films for 1990 is Jacob’s Ladder, a totally surreal voyage into the subconscious of a Vietnam veteran suffering from intense PTSD, as he attempts to reintegrate into society and finds his days full of disturbing visions of the beyond. Heavily inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (although it’s a bit of a spoiler to say so), Jacob’s Ladder is a heady and hallucinatory film with David Lynchian overtones, obsessively exploring questions of memory, consciousness and the boundary between life and death. It’s not the kind of film you embark on viewing lightly.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, 1990 is home to plenty of films that are in the “fun” vein, from the superior (and spectacularly gory) sequel Child’s Play 2, to the original battle with the carnivorous, burrowing “graboids” in Tremors, to John Goodman’s hilarious turn as exterminator Delbert McClintock in Arachnophobia. For fans of Creepshow-style horror anthologies, there’s also Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, which borrows one of the stories from Kwaidan and features a charmingly silly framing device with a little boy who has been captured by a witch, telling stories to stall for time like it’s 1001 Nights.
We’re also happy to put in a word for Tom Savini’s occasionally maligned remake of Night of the Living Dead from this year, which very effectively translates George Romero’s 1968 original for a more modern audience, empowering its female heroine to a greater extent while leaving Tony Todd’s Ben relatively intact. The only real knock on the film is the sadly absent gore effects, some of which were intentionally left out to keep the tone similar to the 1968 original, while others were left on the cutting room floor. The loss of these effects steals a bit of thunder from moments that feel like they should be more impactful—especially considering Savini’s role as one of the greatest FX wizards of all time, you’d be forgiven for expecting more of a gory spectacle here. However, if you always just wanted to see Night of the Living Dead in color, with a less annoying Barbara, this is pretty much what you were asking for.
1990 Honorable Mentions:
Jacob’s Ladder, Tremors, Night of the Living Dead, Darkman, The Exorcist 3, It, The Witches, Arachnophobia, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, Child’s Play 2, Nightbreed
The Film: Misery
Director: Rob Reiner
Horror movie settings don’t get much more intimate or minimalist than that of Misery, given that almost the entire film takes place in a remote farmhouse—and often within a single small bedroom. Of course that’s par for the course with Stephen King, given that the guy also wrote the novel Gerald’s Game, which likewise takes place entirely within a single bedroom. Such modest settings have often served as the stages for the author’s most compelling characters, and there’s no doubting that Annie Wilkes of Misery is among them. Warm, unassuming and girlishly deluded upon first inspection, her bubbly exterior hides a cold-blooded malice that is capable of erupting forth at any moment.
Truly, Annie is a fascinating individual. She abducts unfortunate author Paul Sheldon in a scenario that is ultimately a function of simple, poor luck—unless she somehow sabotaged his car, of course. What makes her especially frightening, though, isn’t even the power she holds over the recuperating Sheldon (played with sweaty panic and fake smile by James Caan). Rather, it’s her total unpredictability—you never have any idea of what seemingly innocuous thing might set her off. A seemingly reasonable request might somehow light her fuse, igniting a rage that seems to happen almost against her own will. Afterward, Annie will often look sheepish and embarrassed by her own violent outbursts—not that it will do you any good, once she’s hobbled your legs or unloaded both barrels of a shotgun into your chest. She seems constantly at war with herself, torn between a desire to please her idol and the whims of her entitled psychotic compulsions.
The only area that the film could be said to skimp on characterization is Paul himself, who despite being the viewpoint character is a bit of a blank, perhaps because that makes it easier to imagine yourself in his position. We connect with him mainly through his physicality and suffering, which Caan communicates beautifully—even watching him struggle to reach the floor and pick up a bobby pin is agonizing for the audience. Arguably most sympathetic is poor Sheriff Buster, who goes above and beyond in giving the case special attention, right up until the moment he runs afoul of Kathy Bates for the last time. The fact that he has an adorable little wife back home just twists the knife.
Misery, of course, is ultimately a horror story about being unhealthily dependent upon own personal crutches; the things we use in our lives to prop ourselves up and distract us from our faults and failings. At the same time, it’s also a story about the ownership of art. To whom does a piece of art belong? To the artist, the creator of an idea, or the legions of fans who support those artists and give them a comfortable existence? It’s impossible to watch this story and not think of a modern comparison such as George R.R. Martin, who has repeatedly insisted that he doesn’t owe his fans any conclusion to the Game of Thrones series, seemingly content to let the TV version stand in for whatever he would have written, despite it being almost universally detested. Given the vitriol hurled in every direction when that series reached its conclusion, including the petition for HBO to reshoot the final season, which received more than 1.7 million signatures, it’s not too hard to believe there could be an Annie Wilkes lurking out there.
Kathy Bates of course deserves special credit for a performance that is one of the only Academy Award winners in the history of the genre, and the only Oscar ever collected by a Stephen King adaptation. She’s at her best when casually slipping red flags into her dialogs with Paul, as when she explains that “sometimes my thinking is a little muddy—that’s why I couldn’t remember all the things they were asking me on the witness stand in Denver.” As an audience, we know the relationship between these two is eventually headed for a savage final confrontation—one that ends up being darkly humorous as well—but the joy is in the suspense of the journey.
1991: The Silence of the Lambs
The horror genre had been slightly tapering off since the late 1980s, but 1991 is the year that things sort of fall off the map once again. The fact that the #1 spot is anchored by a classic like The Silence of the Lambs initially gives an impression of prestige, but once you get past the best few films on the list, you come up with slim pickings pretty quick, especially compared to some of the glory years in the mid-1980s.
Why did this happen? Well, it certainly feels like there’s a degree of fatigue with the genre involved at this point. The ’80s had been saturated by horror films to a point the industry had never seen before, and so defined by the slasher genre that the fortunes of those movies dictated public perceptions of horror cinema to some extent. And by the time we get to 1991, the legacy of the slasher genre is at a particularly low point—this year sees the release of such anti-classics as Child’s Play 3 and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, along with multiple Puppet Master sequels and the beginning of the Subspecies series in the direct-to-video world. The regular theater-going audience at this point could be forgiven for thinking that horror had jumped the shark a bit.
This is not to say that the 1990s are a horror decade without merit, but they’re considerably more sporadic than the decades that came before—some years have relatively decent horror crops, while others are comparatively barren. That’s just going to be our reality for a while, until the genre steadily recovers at the end of the decade.
As for the rest of 1991, we have the modern remake of Cape Fear, which falls into the same “is it really ‘horror,’ per se?” camp of the original, plus Wes Craven’s unequivocally horror (but memorably goofy) The People Under the Stairs. And, you know … The Addams Family, which is as funny and charming today as ever, but does it really belong on any kind of list with “horror” in the title? We’ll leave it to you to decide, while simply stating that as a comedy, the film is pitch-perfect, making 2019’s upcoming Addams Family seem particularly unnecessary.
1991 Honorable Mentions:
Cape Fear, The People Under the Stairs, The Addams Family, The Resurrected, The Pit and the Pendulum
The Film: The Silence of the Lambs
Director: Jonathan Demme
Director Jonathan Demme came up in the New Hollywood generation as a member of the so-called “Corman Film School,” working for the prolific B-movie producer’s New World Pictures and directing influential exploitation films such as the “women in prison” movie Caged Heat. It’s only fitting, then, that his best-known work also eventually revolved around women and law enforcement … and features a cameo from none other than Corman, playing the director of the FBI. With the help of author Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs was a breakthrough for both Demme’s personal fortunes and the idea that a horror film could transcend genre into the realm of “prestige” thriller/drama, ultimately taking home five Academy Awards (including Best Picture) in the process. The fact that some film writers still refuse to label The Silence of the Lambs as a horror movie speaks to the lingering bias that exists against the genre, and the idea that it shouldn’t ever produce awards contenders—a bit of cognitive dissonance where those who dislike these films struggle with the fact that this particular film is an undeniable masterpiece, despite clearly being one. For those who profess to hate horror, there’s a need to label The Silence of the Lambs as something else.
One runs the risk, with this movie, of reducing discussion of the film to rote impressions of its characters, and Hannibal Lecter in particular. Few horror films have ever inspired such vigorous caricature in the media at the time of their release and in the decades since, and the root cause lies in the striking qualities of the film’s instantly iconic characters, and the performances that bring them to life. If effective imitation relies upon having a distinct portrayal to emulate, then the likes of Hannibal Lecter are an impressionist’s dream. Performers salivate over the chance to take on this kind of role.
Of course, as has also been observed so many times, Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Lecter is all the more impressive for the fact that he’s so infrequently actually on screen. It’s one of the things that preserves Lecter’s aura of command—he sends Starling out on these little quests, seemingly deliberately wasting her time in digging up clues in the Buffalo Bill case, not because he particularly wants to put away a killer of women but because he’s curious what the quest to do so will awaken within the woman he seems to see as both protege and romantic interest. From the first, he senses quite a bit of potential in Starling—even when he’s belittling her and using his supernatural psychological intuition to pry at her insecurities. He seems to know she’s capable of great things, especially if she’ll be able to overcome the distractions of personal pride and ambition, which she uses as a shield against a system that is deeply misogynist.
There’s still no shortage of debate over whether the film’s depiction of that misogynist society and the structures of power within it make for a truly great work of feminist art, but there’s no denying that The Silence of the Lambs forces its audience to both consider and endure the daily subjugation Starling feels in her field. Every man in the film, to differing degrees, looks her up and down and considers her gender before making opening overtures. Some, like the insect researchers who reveal the existence of the “deaths head” moth, hit on Starling in an overt, clumsy way that she seems to regard as simply a mild annoyance. Others, like FBI profiler Jack Crawford, compound matters by using Starling’s sex as a means to an end, taking advantage of society’s reactions to her in a way that he believes is ameliorated by the fact that he actually respects Starling—something with which she strongly disagrees. The mere fact that he harbors no particular bias toward Starling does not excuse him taking advantage of the prejudices others might feel toward her for his own ends—it simply perpetuates the broken world as it is. As she says to him herself, “Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.” And it does.
Eventually, of course, there is no shortage of grand guignol to the film as well, especially in the operatic staging with which Lecter disposes of the guards in his eventual escape from confinement, into the nightmares of the theater audience. At no point is it particularly believable that the diminutive, bookish-looking Lecter, as played by Hopkins, would be capable of overcoming much larger, stronger men, or such feats as suspending one of them from his cell like a tattered Christmas angel, but such practical considerations hardly matter when the inherent menace of a character has been established with such an icily cerebral performance. Thanks to Hopkins, the viewer simply accepts that, like the devil incarnate, there is no feat beyond his cunning. You simply pray to be beneath his notice.
1992: Dead Alive, aka Braindead
From top to bottom, 1992 certainly represents a much more interesting and varied horror film lineup than 1991, but the odd thing about this particular frame is that it feels like one of the least obvious picks in this entire project. There’s no single film here that stands obviously head and shoulders above the competition—you could make a good argument for half a dozen of them, in fact, for vastly different reasons. The gorehounds in the audience, for instance, would presumably lean toward the comic ultraviolence of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which was our eventual selection. But you could just as easily advocate for the classic comedy and irresistible charisma of Army of Darkness, or the social satire and supernatural slasher/romance elements of Candyman. Or perhaps you’re taken with the big budget, gothic grandeur of the divisive Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or the faux documentary approach of Man Bites Dog. Or, you know … whatever the hell Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is. Point is, there’s no lack of viable options, and I’d be willing to listen to arguments for any of those films.
Candyman is certainly an interesting case, the rare film in the genre that both tackles serious socioeconomic and racial themes, and can be described as “romantic.” As we wrote in our list of the 50 best slasher movies of all time:
On the surface, the film is an exploration of an urban legend about the ghost of a lynched slave with a hook for a hand, but on a deeper level Candyman functions as both a sumptuous gothic romance (aided by its Philip Glass score) à la Crimson Peak and a biting condemnation of government negligence and urban decay in Chicago’s poorest slums. Sometimes Candyman is noir; sometimes it’s sexy; sometimes it’s just plain gross. Tony Todd, as the titular character, has a certain mesmerizing quality that waltzes daintily on the line between farcical and terrifying, while Virginia Madsen as the protagonist actually allowed herself to be hypnotized by her director on set to properly convey the sense of falling under the Candyman’s spell. In terms of uniqueness alone, Candyman earns its own strange, little corner in the slasher canon.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, on the other hand, is a bit of a confounding film—visually sumptuous, but overwrought in its dramatic aspirations, and hamstrung by a few actors (sorry, Keanu) who are badly out of their depth with the material. It’s an oddity for the level of care and polish that was put into many of its elements—horror rarely receives these kind of lavish, would-be prestige pictures—but it rarely comes together, aside from Gary Oldman’s winning presence as the title character. If everyone else around him had been on the same level, perhaps the film would have had the gravitas to carry it through, but watching it today, it feels both impressive and full of holes.
And as for Alien 3 … well, we’re still not ready to forgive them for what they did to Newt. It may be 1992, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s still too soon.
1992 Honorable Mentions:
Candyman, Army of Darkness, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Man Bites Dog, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Alien 3, Dust Devil, Ghostwatch, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Innocent Blood, Single White Female
The Film: Dead Alive, a.k.a. Braindead
If a term like “splatstick” can’t be applied to the likes of Dead Alive, then one wonders if there’s any film on Earth that could qualify for the title. Peter Jackson’s magnum gore opus, released a mere 9 years before he would achieve the impossible by faithfully translating The Fellowship of the Ring to the big screen, essentially represents the high water mark of on-screen bloodletting used as a punchline. We may literally never see a film quite like this one again, with its complete reliance upon practical gore effects, zany transformations and unprecedented amounts of fake blood. It’s the apex of an entire style of horror films, niche though it may be.
The simple way of describing Dead Alive would be to say that it’s a zombie movie, but it’s also so much more. Its reanimated dead come about as a result of the bite of a “Sumatran rat-monkey,” and that name should clue one in to the fact that this is not a film that overly concerns itself with establishing mythology and rulesets for its universe. Anything can happen in Jackson’s gory corner of New Zealand, and anything frequently does, as in predecessors like Bad Taste.
The sheer originality of the on-screen violence in Dead Alive is enough to make one’s jaw drop, even today. Zombies with lightbulbs shoved into their heads, illuminating them from the inside out. A man’s entire rib cage being pulled out of his chest People ingesting their own severed body parts. A kung fu priest who shows up out of absolutely nowhere to kick zombie heads off their bodies and proclaim “I kick ass for the Lord!” It’s an overwhelming buffet of squishy effects that are intended to dazzle the senses and elicit guffaws, rather than any kind of genuine fear or unease. The events on screen are calculated to come off as ludicrous as possible, softening the edge of the violence and gore by adding a sheen of comic book fantasy. It’s the most you’ll ever laugh while watching a corpse be liquified.
Case in point: The infamous lawnmower massacre conclusion, in which protagonist Lionel advances upon an entire room full of zombies holding a spinning lawnmower blade, proceeding to pulp the lot of them into geysers of blood and rotten effluvia. Could one theoretically be offended by such a sequence, depicting a dozen human forms being reduced to puddles of wet meat on the floor of a Victorian mansion? Sure, but it would be impossible to make any kind of case for taking the content of Dead Alive seriously, and thus difficult to seriously critique it as somehow being morally deficient. This film exists entirely outside that sort of discussion, shielded by its own absurdity.
The film is ultimately so tawdry, so gross and so demented in its sense of humor that it becomes almost impossible to believe that this same man would be giving us the astoundingly well realized and still beautifully executed Lord of the Rings trilogy only a decade later. Maybe, if we horror fans are really lucky, Peter Jackson will return to this arena someday, to offer up one last gorehound classic in the vein of Dead Alive.
Compared to the year that just came before, 1993 is a very weak crop indeed—a good example of this decade’s tendency to be erratic in terms of horror quality from year to year. This is the kind of collection of films that makes you seriously consider giving Jurassic Park the top spot, before coming to your senses and putting such an idea right out of your head. There just aren’t any other genuine horror classics here, although there are some interesting oddities. In general, though, this is a moment when it feels like the traditional “horror film” has ebbed from the forefront of the cultural consciousness, where it will remain in reduced stature until the arrival of Scream at least.
If there’s one thing that stands out this year, it’s the wealth of family friendly, Halloween season classics that touch only lightly on the true “horror” genre, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hocus Pocus and Addams Family Values. That’s a strong lineup for any year of all-ages releases, although these movies are borrowing the iconography of the genre more than they’re trying to frighten anyone, even children. We’re by no means calling something like The Nightmare Before Christmas a sub-par film—it’s a classic that holds up incredibly well today—but it does little to assuage the feeling that this is a weak year for adult horror.
One offering that does stand out is Fire in the Sky, the fictionalized account of the supposed alien abduction of forestry worker Travis Walton in 1975. The film approaches its premise with cold, dispassionate seriousness, carrying itself like an attempt at documentary, which helps to make a situation that could have been laugh inducing into one that is genuinely terrifying at times. Some of the “abduction” tropes established here, such as a craft shooting a beam of light that levitates a person into its interior, became well established in the UFO/alien film genres, to the point that they’re now practically universal. The “probing” sequences, meanwhile, were among the first of their kind in film, and are truly disturbing in their clinical detachment—the aliens don’t look at Travis like he’s a living creature, but just a screaming piece of meat to be poked and prodded. If you’ve ever been at all creeped out by the thought of alien abduction, it’s guaranteed to make you squirm.
As for the rest of 1993, it’s pretty much a hodgepodge. You’ve got a prominent entry in the very specific horror sub-genre known as “melt movies,” in Body Melt—I think you can guess why the niche is called that—along with a 12-year-old Macaulay Culkin playing a surprisingly effective sociopath in the poorly received The Good Son. And who could forget the arrival of Warwick Davis as a comedy horror icon in Leprechaun? Still, a weak year.
1993 Honorable Mentions:
Fire in the Sky, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Good Son, Leprechaun, Body Snatchers, The Dark Half, Addams Family Values, Hocus Pocus, Body Melt
The Film: Cronos
Guillermo del Toro
The directorial debut of Guillermo del Toro shares some of the same thematic and stylistic DNA as his better known The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, but unsurprisingly doesn’t have the polish of his later Spanish language features. Here, in 1993, del Toro is still finding himself to some degree, but his modernization of classical vampire tropes helps give Cronos a distinctive personality of its own.
As in films such as Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro loves the visual aesthetic of biological life merging with mechanical complexity, and it forms the heart of Cronos’ macguffin—a scarab beetle-like device, invented by a 16th century alchemist, which can grant biological immortality to the user, at the cost of slowly transforming them into a vampire-like creature. Like the classical Western vampire, this pale-skinned creature craves blood and can’t abide the sunlight, but unlike the Western vampire, it still retains its mental faculties and human soul. The protagonist of Cronos, senior citizen antique dealer Gris, doesn’t so much fall into villainy as he slides toward rejuvenation, before learning that the cost is banishment from society. And of course, there are others who want the scarab device as well—most notably the dying businessman Dieter, who dispatches his brutish nephew Angel to track down Gris and the device. Angel is played by the square-jawed Ron Perlman, beginning what would be a fruitful working relationship between the actor and del Toro.
Like del Toro’s later works, Cronos stands out for its poignant relationships and undeniably human emotional core, especially in the relationship between Gris and his granddaughter Aurora, which serves as a metaphor for his remaining links to human morality, while inhabiting an increasingly inhuman body. It doesn’t make many overt attempts to frighten its audience, but you can reasonably call the film creepy in its visual aesthetic, which turns vampirism into something that seems like a precursor to The Borg of Star Trek. It’s a film that doesn’t condemn the vampiric way of life, seemingly acknowledging that life is life, regardless of how one sustains it. One’s biology doesn’t matter, but their actions follow them to the grave.
As a director, del Toro clearly has a passion for the macabre, and his filmography has been suffused in a fascination with ghosts and monsters in all the years since Cronos. Crimson Peak and The Devil’s Backbone offered visions of the afterlife, while Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and The Shape of Water all tackled different aspects of how one might define “monster.” All of these fascinations are present here in 1993, hinting at a career that would eventually land del Toro among the all-time greats. For fans of the director’s oeuvre, the film is indispensable.
1994: Interview with the Vampire
After being down in 1993, the horror genre rebounds once again in 1994, showing off the whiplash that one tended to experience year-to-year in the 1990s as a horror fan. This is another year where the #1 pick is a very, very difficult choice, thanks to the relatively similar quality of a handful of top contenders, which include Interview with the Vampire, Cemetery Man, In the Mouth of Madness and even Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. The pick simply comes down to a matter of taste, and we’re ready to go to bat for Interview, a film whose reputation has grown in the 25 years since its release.
That isn’t to slag the likes of Cemetery Man or In the Mouth of Madness, which would likely be the picks for several different contigents of the horror geek army. The former, Michele Soavi’s comedic horror fantasy, is another film whose esteem has grown over time, an utterly unique Italian combination of zombie tropes, Euro sexploitation and imaginative fantasy. It concerns a gravedigger whose secondary calling is putting to rest the zombified spirits of those who rise again in his graveyard, but this is no Evil Dead 2 screwball comedy, although it may occasionally look like one. Cemetery Man styles itself as a sexy, romantic fantasy at the same time, conjuring one of the most tonally off-kilter (and narratively bizarre) horror films of the era.
John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, on the other hand, is far more conventional and easier to recognize as a “horror movie,” but still wildly imaginative in its own way. Sam Neill stars as a straight-laced insurance investigator who is searching for cult horror author Sutter Cane, whose works have seemingly begun driving his devotees into acts of frenzied madness. What he finds is a mystery that calls into question the nature of reality and creation itself, in a plot seemingly heavily inspired by the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. Unloved in its initial release, this film has also garnered more of a following in recent years, appreciated by horror fans who enjoy its commentary on the act of creating horror fiction in the first place. It’s likely Carpenter’s most meta work, and is considered by a fair number of horror films to be his last great film.
Elsewhere in 1994, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave us the logical counterpiece to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, echoing back that film’s top-tier production design and big budget, but with less critical success to show for it, perhaps thanks to its overwrought plot and operatic tone. Wes Craven also returned to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise with the excellent New Nightmare, reinvigorating the character of Freddy Krueger at a time when interest had all but faded after Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Arguably the most frightening entry in the series outside of the 1984 original, New Nightmare focuses much more intently on making Freddy a genuine threat once again, abandoning some of the campy tone present in the fourth, fifth and sixth installments of the series. At the same time, its meta approach to setting the film in the “real world,” with actress Heather Langenkamp playing “herself,” feels like it presents the seeds of the idea that would later gestate in Craven’s subconscious and turn into the genre-reviving Scream.
Come to think of it, 1994 is filled with horror films whose reputations are more robust today than when they were first released.
1994 Honorable Mentions:
Cemetery Man, In the Mouth of Madness, Nightwatch, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, The Stand, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wolf, Brainscan, Serial Mom
The Film: Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles
Director: Neil Jordan
Some horror films have an odd way of being magnets for criticism, and Interview with the Vampire—in its original release, at least—was one of them. When the film hit theaters in the fall of 1994, critics and theatergoers found no shortage of bones to pick, harping on numerous aspects of casting, performance and effectiveness. In particular, audiences derided the film for Tom Cruise’s Lestat de Lioncourt, with fans of Anne Rice’s novels refusing to accept this particular characterization for the popular literary character. At the same time, the film was oddly hammered for its violence and bloodletting, despite the fact that nothing in it can hardly be said to compare to most slasher fare from the decade earlier. Oprah Winfrey even famously walked out on the film, apparently turned off by its tone, and later stated that she didn’t “want to be a contributor to the force of darkness” by interviewing Cruise about it. All that noise, for a vampire melodrama?
Where Interview with the Vampire succeeds, and where it now rightly receives credit from most critics, is as a sumptuous gothic romance, albeit one that is largely a story told between several male vampires, which led to yet more accusations from certain camps that the film was meant to be a homoerotic metaphor. Lestat does seem to turn young Louis into a member of the undead out of loneliness, suffering from the persistent dreariness of a purposeless life, although this is surely something he would deny. As Lestat would tell it, the life of a vampire is grand; an unending tribute to one’s own power, potency and enduring nature. To audience proxy Louis, though, the “dark gift” is a curse from the start, and a weight he must bear that makes life that much more painful. The film endenders quite a lot of sympathy for Louis for how atypically he reacts to his transformation into a vampire, and his initial refusal to kill for blood. Of course, a vampire can only deny the core of his being (and live on rats) for so long. Louis eventually falls from grace, indirectly creating another precocious young vampire (the scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst) in the process. Such are tragic lives of these vampires, so rarely portrayed before this point as protagonists, or even anti-heroes.
And furthermore, Cruise isn’t just serviceable as Lestat—he’s great, and he’s the engine that makes the whole movie run. His raw charisma effortlessly outshines the morose portrayal of Louis by Bad Pitt, and his zest for life carries the film through segments that are both delightfully sardonic and genuinely macabre. And when he wants to—such as the dramatic reappearance after seemingly having been murdered by Claudia—Cruise can also make Lestat a properly ferocious beast as well. His over-the-top speechifying as he plays the piano, explaining how he survived by consuming the putrid life of the Mississippi River, is an all-time way for a vampire to make an entrance.
Interview with the Vampire is perhaps a little overambitious in its artistic aspirations, with a story that peters out after Louis and Claudia travel to France, but it’s also still a spectacle for its unique nature as both a prestige drama/period piece and a legitimate horror film, two genres that so rarely come into contact with each other. Its unmatched production design set a high-water mark for big-budget vampire films that has yet to be surpassed, and very well may never be. Foppish though it may be at times, it possesses a certain mesmerism that has aged well.
1995: Se7en, a.k.a. Seven
We just can’t build up any momentum in this decade, can we? Every time there’s a year with a good number of high-quality releases, the next year seems to recede in quality and quantity to balance things out. It’s as if Hollywood producers of the era weren’t quite sure of horror’s status as a bankable entity, and we see releases on a few different tiers of production value as a result. At the top of the pile, there are big-budget films that blend horror in with other genres, such as The Silence of the Lambs, Interview with the Vampire and Seven. But at the same time, horror is living a double life, with direct-to-video releases such as Castle Freak or Subspecies keeping the 1980s horror geeks happy. It’s almost as if these two sides of the horror coin are fighting for supremacy in this decade.
Like other recent years, 1995 is lucky to be anchored by a sole classic in the form of Seven, even if it’s another one of those films that some critics didn’t want to deign with the embarrassing title of “horror.” Moving past the #1 pick, things drop off pretty quickly.
The Prophecy, at least, has a lot of potential, although you might say that the execution is a little wonky at times. The story of a renegade angel trying to bring about doomsday, it stands out for a couple of mesmerizing key performances—Christopher Walken as primary antagonist Gabriel, and Viggo Mortensen as tertiary antagonist/unlikely human ally Lucifer. As we recently pointed out in our list of the greatest film portrayals of Satan, Mortensen’s Devil is an all-timer. He only appears in a few scenes, but his performance is so electric, and so totally unnerving, that it’s worth watching the film just to see him work. Whether he’s eating angel hearts or threatening to “fill your mouth with your mother’s feces,” it makes you wish there was an entire film about this particular version of Lucifer. He would have been a spectacular choice for Netflix’s upcoming Sandman adaptation, if they choose to include the renegade angel.
Also notable is Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight, the superior entry in the HBO series’ transition to the big screen, the other film being the lesser vampire story Bordello of Blood. Demon Knight, on the other hand, is a kooky combination of Night of the Living Dead-style “trapped in a building under siege” tropes and horror-tinged Christian mysticism, with more than a little comedy as well. Frank Darabont regular William Sadler stars as the guardian of a mystical Christian object that has the power to ward off demons, but is pursued by a demonic Billy Zane (yep, it’s the ’90s), who will bring about the end of the world if he gets his hands on it. Featuring a performance by a young Jada Pinkett that has made the film a significant object in black horror cinema of the 1990s, the cult of Demon Knight fans has grown pretty steadily in the 2000s and beyond.
The rest of the year gives us the influential urban horror anthology Tales From the Hood, along with John Carpenter’s rather unnecessary Village of the Damned remake, mostly notable for being Christopher Reeve’s last starring role before his spinal injury. Also: The incomprehensible low point that is Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers, which is equally problematic in EITHER the original version or so-called “producer’s cut.” Donald Pleasence deserved better for his final appearance as Dr. Loomis.
1995 Honorable Mentions:
The Prophecy, Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight, Tales From the Hood, The Addiction, Village of the Damned, Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers
The Film: Se7en, a.k.a. Seven
Horror films had several high-profile crossovers with the crime/psychological thriller genres in the 1990s, with Seven as a prime example of the potent offspring of this union. Adding in a twist of nihilistic, world-weary neo-noir, the film endured the same indignities as The Silence of the Lambs when it came to the desire to strip the term “horror” away from it. Owing to the film’s A-list casting and strong performances, many critics seemed to want to call it anything but horror, but one look at the grotesque imagery of Seven should be all you need to classify it as such. You can make the argument that any film centered around a serial killer doesn’t necessarily qualify automatically on the horror front, but any film as grisly as this one merits inclusion.
And truly, grisly is the right word for the story here, one of the darkest that Fincher has ever presented, and that’s including his work on Netflix’s Mindhunter. Each of the mangled bodies left behind by serial killer “John Doe” is arranged in a way that is truly theatrical in nature. It’s as if Doe took it upon himself to act as a set designer for how he wanted the film’s two detectives to behold and process each crime scene, arranging every aspect of the murders for maximum charnel house gruesomeness. Each one is a tableau that would no doubt make the likes of Mario Bava or Dario Argento proud—especially the “sloth” victim, who has been ceaselessly confined to a bed for a year until his body has almost completely withered away from inactivity. The “he’s alive!” revelation of that particular victim is one of the best pure jump scares in all of 1990s horror.
Morgan Freeman’s detective William Somerset is the film’s emotional core, turning in an excellent performance as a jaded, retiring cop who has to be coaxed into reaffirming his duty and sense of responsibility to those he is sworn to serve. Conversely, Kevin Spacey is electric in his limited screen time as Doe, a mastermind villain who feigns detachment but secretly seems to be reveling in the attention he’s generating—a perfect hypocrite who is insufferable in exactly the right way. We want to see him shot, long before Brad Pitt has to ask about the contents of that fateful box in the film’s conclusion.
Featuring some wonderfully gritty, rusted-over production design from Oscar-nominated Arthur Max, Seven also manages to beautifully encapsulate the more mundane horrors of urban life. His New York City is a hopeless landscape—it looks utterly depleted, swept clean of any virtue, decency, warmth or joy. The people who live there don’t really “live,” so much as they just shuffle through the motions and die a little bit inside each day. It’s no wonder that Mills’ wife is seriously considering having an abortion rather than telling her husband that she’s pregnant—the place where they live projects such an innate aura of hopelessness and contempt for human life that to do so seems almost like a mercy. The city is overwhelmed by darkness both literal and figurative.
So the next time someone tries to refer to Seven as something other than a horror film, go easy on him or her in your rebuke, lest you fall squarely into the camp of “wrath.”
This is a pretty weak year no matter how you slice it, with fewer films that demand deep discussion, outside of the obvious game-changer of Wes Craven’s Scream at the top of the docket. That film went on to become a cultural touchstone of the decade, essentially dividing 1990s horror into the “pre-Scream” and “post-Scream” eras, but once you look beyond it there are only a handful of other 1996 films that have held up well today.
Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn plays like such a Tarantino film that many viewers still seem to be under the impression that QT directed the movie himself, rather than simply writing its script—and starring in the thing, in one of Hollywood’s greatest moments of aspirational writing, casting himself as George Clooney’s brother. Regardless, its languid pace and seedy, criminals-on-the-run aesthetic are designed to lure the audience into a grounded worldview before the second half suddenly springs a strip bar full of vampires on its characters in a bloody case of “got ya.” In this case, Rodgriguez arguably takes the concept a bit too far, so intent on a big surprise that an inordinate amount of the film is simply spent in transit. Once the gang arrives in Mexico, though, you can’t help but be charmed by the goofy stupidity of a leather-clad Tom Savini, playing a character named “Sex Machine,” complete with an extending crotch-gun. Still, you might end up with some tonal whiplash.
Of the horror films released this year, it’s probably The Craft that sees the most half-ironic repertory screenings these days, thanks to its status as a perfect time capsule of MTV-era, Daria-esque teen angst and hormone-fueled magical freak-outs. Its mythology is a bit on the wonky side, but the film remains a potent modern fable on the corruptibility of power, especially when used by the downtrodden for petty vengeance. That, and it’s a fun reminder of a specific moment in pop culture when Fairuza Balk was a household name.
Also notable in 1996 is Peter Jackson’s hyperkinetic American debut The Frighteners, which toned down the ultraviolence of the likes of Bad Taste or Dead Alive, but benefits from the doggedly charming performances of Jeffrey Combs and star Michael J. Fox, who retired from live-action starring roles shortly thereafter. And as for the year’s most “underrated” film? That honor goes to the oddly unknown Bad Moon, a surprisingly vicious werewolf flick that features a family being menaced by none other than their sleazeball werewolf uncle, and protected by the family dog, who becomes the de facto protagonist over time. It’s a film that more horror fans should see today, and holds a prominent spot in our list of the best werewolf movies of all time as a result.
1996 Honorable Mentions:
From Dusk Till Dawn, Bad Moon, The Frighteners, The Stendhal Syndrome, The Craft, Thinner
The Film: Scream
Director: Wes Craven
The runaway success of Wes Craven’s Scream was both a testament to its clever script and a perfect illustration of what in the pro wrestling world is referred to as the “seven year rule”: The working assumption that tired tropes and storylines become fresh and can be used again, if only you wait a little while in between iterations of the same material. And after a handful of years had passed since the heyday of the slasher era, that’s exactly the scenario that Scream exploited, getting people talking about the genre in a way they hadn’t since the early 1980s. Even a device as simple as the mystery of “who is the killer?” seemed oddly novel to audiences at the time—especially teenagers who were too young to watch most of the classic slasher films during the genre’s golden age. Here, the past was gloriously reborn, and with a modern, acerbic edge to boot.
Because really, when you get right down to it, Scream both innovated and made slavish imitation its central tenets, all at the same time. Some of its most popular and memorable elements, like Ghostface’s penchant for harassing his victims with flirtatious and then menacing phone calls, are borrowed straight out of vintage horror features like Black Christmas or When a Stranger Calls. Where it innovates, meanwhile, isn’t in any of the nuts and bolts—it’s in the way its characters perceive their situation with the context of living in a world where “horror” has already been a popular film genre for the last 70 years. Finally, a horror film was happening in a world that was aware of the genre’s tropes, rather than utterly blind to them—an idea that seems obvious now, but one that turned the horror landscape on its head in 1996.
Much of this meta-flavoring is contributed by the character of Randy, the horror film geek who exists in a VHS-laden, video rental store strata of society that no longer exists, but is increasingly memorialized via nostalgia—look no further than the hubbub around Captain Marvel’s Blockbuster Video cameo earlier this year. He was clearly meant on some level to represent the film’s intended audience; those horror fans who would be griping that of course Mrs. Voorhees is the killer in the first Friday the 13th rather than Jason, but Scream ultimately reached far beyond the consumers who would typically be browsing the shelves of your average Blockbuster, sifting through faded copies of The Burning or Sleepaway Camp. It was a horror film that reached a decidedly non-horror audience, aided by key casting of established and rising stars of the decade: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Rose McGowan and Drew Barrymore in the much-ballyhooed opening sequence.
Obviously, it’s Campbell who is the heart and soul of the series, though, constructed from the ground up to essentially be the ultimate “final girl,” exactly because she knowingly shuns so many of the supposed conventions of the label. In Scream, she survives the loss of her virginity (to the killer no less!), which is meant to be fatal. In Scream 2, she survives a scenario wherein “those who survived the first movie are no longer safe.” And in Scream 3 and Scream 4 … well, each film has its moments, at the very least. Ultimately, Sidney manages to survive even the entropy of the Scream series itself, remaining likable in her willingness to learn from and thwart genre convention. There’s no moment more “Sidney Prescott” than her putting a bullet in the head of a downed foe at the end of Scream 2, “just in case.”
Ultimately, it was Scream’s script and casting decisions that had the deepest impact on the American horror genre in the years that followed, and particularly through the rest of the 1990s. It catalyzed the trend of casting young, recognizable teen idols in quasi-retro horror fare, which would go on to deeply inform the likes of I Know What You Did Last Summer—an important deviation from the slasher films that inspired it, which typically featured casts of unknowns. At the same time, its pop culture-referencing, meta-laden screenplay served as clear inspiration for other films such as Urban Legend. Ultimately, it was difficult for any of the quasi-slashers in the years that followed to avoid comparison with Scream—it was the example against which the competition compared or contrasted itself for the span of the next decade. And considering that’s exactly how Scream contrasted itself against the generation that came before, it seems entirely fitting.
1997: Perfect Blue
1997 is an intriguing year, and one that is deeper than it may initially appear. It presents us with an array of variety that is unusual for the 1990s in horror, including a top-flight anime example in the form of Perfect Blue, the artsy reinvention of a former blue-chip franchise in Alien: Resurrection and more A-lister horror drama in The Devil’s Advocate. You certainly can’t accuse this year’s films of not taking any chances.
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games provides an unsettling twist here on the framework of home invasion thrillers, going out of its way to play against audience expectations in its most crucial moments. This is perhaps best exemplified by the confounding “rewind” scene, when wealthy housewife Anna briefly gets the upper hand on her invaders by blasting one in the chest with a shotgun … only for the other invader to simply pull out a remote, rewinding events to before she grabbed the gun. The breaking of the fourth wall is a shock, but the message is clear: It’s nothing less than a direct refutation of Hollywood-style heroic convention. In Haneke’s world, there will be no improbable, last-minute heroics—things will simply play out as they likely would in this situation in real life, which leaves the film’s closing moments all the more terrifying. It removes the greatest weapon possessed by so many cinematic protagonists; that they are fated to emerge victorious simply by virtue of being protagonists. Notable is the fact that Haneke very faithfully remade the film in the U.S. in 2007—the two versions are honestly so similar that either will suffice, but we’d lean toward the more naturalistic performances of the original.
One film from this year that has seen a fair amount of modern appreciation is Event Horizon, a thrillingly twisted sci-fi descent into the mouth of hell, starring In the Mouth of Madness’ own Sam Neill. The fact that the director was none other than Paul W.S. Anderson, eventually associated with bad videogame adaptations in the Resident Evil series, seems oddly fitting: Despite not being a videogame adaptation itself, the content of Event Horizon seems both inspired by classic shooter Doom and a deep inspiration on the later videogame franchise Dead Space, which likewise features decaying spaceships filled with demon-like antagonists. Regardless, Event Horizon managed to bring together elements of both spacefaring, “hard” sci-fi and supernatural horror in a potent cocktail that isn’t easily dismissed.
Other notables from 1997 include the sadistic puzzle box challenge of Cube, the superior first sequel to Scream, Guillermo del Toro’s arty monster movie Mimic and the uniquely canted visual style of Alien: Resurrection, shot with fantastical verve by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a director much better known for The City of Lost Children. And of course, there was I Know What You Did Last Summer, which cribbed Scream’s casting of hot young Hollywood talent as its main selling point, en route to huge box office numbers. This formula would prove particularly popular through the remainder of the decade, and into the 2000s.
1997 Honorable Mentions:
Funny Games, Event Horizon, Scream 2, Cube, The Devil’s Advocate, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Mimic, Alien: Resurrection, The Night Flier, Wishmaster
The Film: Perfect Blue
Director: Satoshi Kon
The aspiration toward attaining celebrity status—the lust for stardom, in other words—is a cinematic device as old as the medium itself, and one that has been applied toward the horror genre on numerous occasions (Starry Eyes comes to mind). It’s about as universal a motivator (and a universally horrific undertaking) as any cross-cultural experience can be, equally relevant in any film or entertainment industry, even one as insular and unique as that of Japan. Indeed, the entertainment world is the perfect setting for a horror film, whether the protagonist is an average consumer or a wannabe star—both get treated by society like expendable pieces of meat just as often.
So it is with Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, a daring, feature-length anime film that feels like a cross-pollination between old-school Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, Argento proto-slashers and Darren Aronofsky overdose freakouts. It’s a film that fearlessly throws itself into the deep waters of a personal identity crisis and the subsequent crumbling of reality around its protagonist, while also making time for brutal violence that will leave audiences wincing even to this day.
Perfect Blue is the story of Mima Kirigoe, the pop-idol frontwoman of a semi-successful J-pop trio, who decides to leave her old career behind in order to pursue a new path as a serious actress. Standing in her way, however, are both the deeply ingrained societal expectations of what a “pop-idol” can and cannot achieve, and the more concrete hurdle that is her own dissatisfied fanbase, expressing their frustrations at her change in appearance and public image. The film takes the “ownership of art” question we also mentioned in Misery to its illogical extreme in the process, with deranged fans who honestly believe Mima belongs to them, body and soul, due to the time they’ve invested in worship of her. Toxic masculinity also abounds in both this fandom, and in the cadre of handlers and managers who seem intent on directing Mima’s career in the most profitable direction, regardless of what she wants out of life.
Of course, all these problems seem small, once Mima discovers a website that appears to be logging all her daily thoughts and actions in unnatural detail, presented as diary entries from the performer to her fans. This loss of agency begins Mima’s spiral toward genuine madness, as the disconnect between the written words in her name and the uncertainty of her new life as an actress causes Mima to begin experiencing disturbing hallucinations. The ambiguity of these sequences is presented with maximum disorientation in mind, something that might eventually become taxing to the viewer if it became interminable. At only 80 minutes in length, however, Perfect Blue moves with such alacrity that even the purposely confusing aspects never have a chance to outstay their welcome. It sets its hooks in you and then pays off, in short order.
The film’s violence, at the same time, is nothing short of breathtaking in the way it vigorously splashes blood onto seemingly every available surface. A series of murders throughout unfold very much like the splashy giallo killings of films by Argento or Michael Soavi, especially 1987’s Stage Fright, with which Perfect Blue shares a bit of creative DNA. Ultimately, this is a film that packs an old-fashioned thriller story into a tight package, while inserting avant garde reality warping that Christopher Nolan would be proud to call his own.
1998: Ringu, aka Ring
No one is going to volunteer this as a historically great year, but 1998 at least manages to mostly break the “odd year/even year” pattern of variable horror film quality that had been plaguing the genre throughout the 1990s. From the start of the decade, odd years had proven to yield substantially stronger lineups than the even ones, but 1998 is actually pretty solid, even if it can’t claim any indisputable classics. What it can claim is a combination of competent comic, novel and TV adaptations, along with a few influential outliers.
Certainly, Blade is a film that somehow turned out better than most anyone would have expected from an adaptation of a B-tier Marvel character, several years before X-Men and Spider-Man announced the arrival of the modern comic book movie. Adopting the mission of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing for a modern generation on the eve of The Matrix, Wesley Snipes’ Blade possessed an unexpected cool that was enhanced by above-average choreography and dynamic cinematography. Most genre fans will still swear by Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II as the height of the series, but the original also possesses strength in simplicity.
The Faculty, meanwhile, is perhaps the “most ’90s” of all the films to be spawned by the lessons learned by the industry in the post-Scream era. Crawling with buzzy teen talent and supported by a plethora of recognizable faces, it’s one of the strangest and most glorious ensemble casts ever assembled in a film that can legitimately be referred to as horror. It’s also one of those films that has aged into something that is more satisfying to consume now than it was in 1998—a living time capsule of the era that can be enjoyed both ironically and sincerely, thanks to a witty Kevin Williamson script and a story that updates the DNA of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with an injection of Gen X cynicism. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s never anything short of fun.
Other notables for 1998 include the surprisingly straight-faced Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, which injected real scares into the animated framework of the classic series while boasting what is by far the best animation that Scoob and the gang have ever seen, and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, which attempted to revive Michael Myers in a post-Scream world, with limited success. The latter is curiously bloodless, lacking in the scares department and felt a bit dated even in 1998, seemingly failing to adapt to a sea-change event that had shifted things substantially even since 1995’s Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers. By this point, audiences expected something different from their slasher icons, and the Halloween series slouched onward, in the direction of 2002’s abysmal Halloween: Resurrection.
Finally, this year’s The Last Broadcast is notable for being the far less known precursor to The Blair Witch Project in the found footage horror department, similarly depicting the “people in the woods with a camera” plotting of the original Blair Witch, but lacking that film’s extraordinarily effective marketing. Still, credit where credit is due: Unless you count the likes of Cannibal Holocaust, you might be able to call it the first full-on, found footage horror feature, a gimmick that would become ubiquitous in the late 2000s.
1998 Honorable Mentions:
Blade, The Faculty, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, The X-Files, Apt Pupil, Fallen, The Quiet Family, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Urban Legend, The Last Broadcast
The Film: Ringu, aka Ring
Director: Hideo Nakata
Ringu is a clear case of simply taking an older cinematic structure and reapplying it to a more modern era, rediscovering what makes old tropes work in the process. The idea of a “cursed item” that kills its user is as old as the concept of horror cinema, stretching back into distant folklore—Ring simply appropriated that structure and chose a new item emblematic of its era: The VHS tape. It was a perfectly chosen symbol of the age, even coming as it did at the tail end of the VHS home video era, in the sense that the audience couldn’t help but consider the presence of that very “cursed object” in their own home. The fact that many home viewers were consuming Ringu via their own VCR sets was a powerful element of the experience that is easy to overlook in the streaming age.
At the heart of this tale, we have what is essentially a campfire urban legend—those who transgress by doing this forbidden act (watching the cursed tape) will inevitably die in seven days. There’s theatricality inherent to this curse, as watching the tape doesn’t simply cause one to drop over dead the instant it ends. Rather, you’re left to stew with your worry and guilt. An obvious ticking clock has been started, giving us all of the dramatic impetus we’ll ever need.
Ringu was a big success in Japan, with its modernization of traditional yurei (essentially the equivalent of Western ghosts) tropes supported by fine performances and memorably dour production design and drab colors that give the film an oppressive feel. But it’s the film’s effect in the West that ultimately proved to be its most influential legacy. Enough adventurous viewers eventually saw Ringu to lead to the development of DreamWorks’ The Ring with Naomi Watts, which proved to be a true cultural phenomenon—it actually made even more at the box office in Japan than the original did. And with the runaway success of The Ring came a fresh wave of what soon became termed as “J-horror” remakes, despite the presence of countries such as Korea (A Tale of Two Sisters) and Hong Kong (The Eye) as well. These films became one of the prevailing aspects of 2000s horror in the U.S. in the process, from The Grudge series and Dark Water, to Shutter, One Missed Call, Pulse, The Uninvited and more. At the same time, the trend toward producing these films in the West only encouraged more horror production in the East as well.
Back in 1998, however, Ringu mostly gets by with slow-burn subtlety, shattered by effective moments of catharsis. It’s a slow, patient film, only occasionally turning to VFX to get its point across. Those brief CGI sequences used here aren’t as impressive as the more polished stuff in the American remake, but the gritty practical effects, such as the fingernails peeling off Sadako’s ghostly, gnarled hands, are even more disturbing.
All in all, Ringu can accurately lay claim to being one of the most influential horror films of the last two decades, in both the Japanese and U.S. markets. Even today, in films like the Ring/Grudge crossover Sadako vs. Kayako, it continues to bear fruit.
1999: The Sixth Sense
The decade comes to a close in decent enough fashion, featuring several films that made outsized pop cultural impacts, especially in terms of box office figures. In fact, until it was overtaken by 2017’s It, The Sixth Sense had clung doggedly to the title of the highest grossing horror film of all time (not adjusted for inflation), with a muscular $672 million. And considering that The Blair Witch Project took in $248 million earlier the same summer, that made 1999 one of the biggest years ever for the genre at the box office.
Of the other contenders this year, then, you have to give special attention to Blair Witch, a true case of audiences being utterly captivated by a new method of presentation. “Found footage” as a concept had existed for quite a while, at least since 1961’s The Connection and used to an extent in 1980’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, but for most audiences, The Blair Witch Project was their first exposure to the idea of a feature film being presented as a recovered artifact. Combined with an extremely effective marketing campaign that established precedents for covert online advertising, where rumors were spread of the film’s veracity, otherwise rational human beings went to see Blair Witch genuinely believing that they were watching a snuff film being distributed by a major Hollywood film studio. The film became a sleeper sensation, with enthusiastic word of mouth ultimately making it one of the most profitable independent films of all time, despite a largely plotless runtime that mostly just consists of its characters wandering around in the woods. The brilliance of its closing sequence, however, along with the unresolved nature of the story’s central mystery, would go on to preserve its infamy, while providing obvious inspiration to all the prominent found footage films that would follow, from Paranormal Activity and REC to Cloverfield or Chronicle. The gimmick would gain strength in the late 2000s, peaking in the early 2010s.
Takashi Miike’s Audition likewise caused quite a stir in 1999 for its sadomasochistic-seeming approach toward cinematic violence, with content that had some critics calling for obscenity charges. Ultimately a story of extreme, inhuman romantic obsession, the film has since inspired perspectives that claim it is either a feminist or deeply misogynist work, but no one will argue that its final act torture scenes are anything other than difficult to witness.
The ferocity of Audition is nearly matched by the appetite of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, which features an unforgettably toothy performance by a cannibalistic Robert Carlyle and a captivating score from Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn. In general, this was a solid year for bigger budget, quasi-horror fare as well, from Kevin Bacon’s Stir of Echoes, to the rollicking (and increasingly championed) action-horror hybrid of The Mummy, to Tim Burton’s particularly Burtonesque reimagining of Sleepy Hollow.
After a decade that was particularly erratic in the quality of its horror offerings, it seems like we’re heading into more reliably strong territory.
1999 Honorable Mentions:
The Blair Witch Project, Audition, Ravenous, Stir of Echoes, The Mummy, Sleepy Hollow, Storm of the Century, eXistenZ, The Ninth Gate
The Film: The Sixth Sense
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
It’s a shame that discussion of The Sixth Sense is today often reduced simply to mention of its famous twist ending, and its role as the film that overinflated public expectations for M. Night Shyamalan’s directorial career. To focus in on just these aspects of its legacy ignores the expert craftsmanship that makes The Sixth Sense one of the best pure supernatural horror films of the last few decades, and one of the most emotionally poignant to boot. Have the last 20 years always been kind to Shyamalan? By all means, the answer to that question is “no,” but it doesn’t diminish the fabulously well realized suspense he achieved in The Sixth Sense.
The heart of The Sixth Sense is its portrayal of wounded, frazzled people who are all either in some state of grief, or actively fraying at their edges. Bruce Willis’ child psychologist is haunted by his failure to help a former client and the slow deterioration of his marriage. Cole Sear is an elementary school boy grappling with a “sixth sense” that must surely have made him question his own sanity at an age when most kids barely have a conception of sanity. Cole’s mother, Lynn, is profoundly alone and powerless, attempting to raise a son she’s afraid is experiencing some terrible trauma he’s afraid to share. She has no idea where the turn, and the constant anxiety is etched into Toni Collette’s gut-wrenching portrayal.
And we haven’t even mentioned any ghosts yet, have we? The ghost sequences of The Sixth Sense are utterly terrifying and crafted for maximum suspense—not only because we’re afraid of what they might do to Cole, and because we’ve already seen evidence that he’s been physically marred by these encounters in the past—but because in his mind, he has absolutely no recourse. He’s well aware that no one else can see the things he sees, and he’s painfully mature enough to know that his mother is already at wit’s end with worry over him. He desperately wants to shield Lynn from pain, even as he prays in his makeshift religious shrine for some kind of deliverance from his terrifying nightly encounters. Cole seems to understand, even as a child, that the most likely result of him divulging his secret would be ending up on medication in some kind of institution, and he’s rightly frightened of that possibility just as much as he is of the ghosts. He’s been backed into a corner, and there’s a sense that something needs to change before he simply snaps.
Haley Joel Osment conveys all this and more in a wonderful performance, all the more impressive for the fact that he was only 10 when it was filmed. He earned an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor, fittingly paired alongside Toni Collette’s Best Supporting Actress nomination, although the film ultimately took home none of the awards it was nominated for—despite being the rare instance of a horror film that was also nominated for Best Picture. This fails to diminish the emotional resonance of the scenes they share together, particularly the incredibly patient, nuanced car scene wherein Cole finally admits his secret to his mother, slowly turning her from a disbelieving woman worried about her son into a relieved co-keeper of his secret. It’s a moment of pure catharsis, as the weight of worlds comes off Lynn’s shoulders and she’s admitted into her son’s trust, bringing the pair together with hope for the future. It’s also by far the most effective emotional payoff in any of Shyamalan’s films, although this isn’t necessarily saying much.
In the wake of The Sixth Sense, pop culture got caught up in parody—endless rephrasings of “I see dead people” and “he was dead all along!”—which seem to have caused some to forget just how chilling Shyamalan’s work could be at its best. Although it’s difficult to now approach the film from a place of ignorance when it comes to its twists, we can still appreciate the power of its performances, 20 years later.