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