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.
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
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.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.