This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
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.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.