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