Can you ever have too much of a good thing? Absolutely, and horror films are no exception to this rule. In the 1990’s, the grotesque masks, buckets of blood, and half-naked co-eds that had defined the genre during the preceding decade wore thin. The overindulgence of the Age of Excess was leading to a cultural tummy ache, and it nearly killed horror altogether. As in the 1940’s, repetition and over-sequelization meant that the original monsters introduced in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were now relics of their former selves. Once terrifying, they now elicited laughs either through ham-fisted wisecracking or their relentless returning from the dead to stab and slash again and again. Moving through the same old plot points ad nauseum, Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead, Chucky, and all the rest had become as dry as a mummified corpse. It was time for horror to slink back into the shadows from whence it was born to uncover something new.
As in all of the previous decades, horror in the 1990’s drew on real contemporary fears to create compelling fiction. The first Gulf War and the recession of 1990 set the cultural tone at the opening of the decade. The negative consequences of regulation and unchecked capitalism were beginning to show their effects. Though a small elite profited from the “greed is good” mantra of the 80’s, many were left worse off, and it would take some time before people realized just how badly. Major news events like the L.A. riots in 1992, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal were reported globally on the emerging 24/7 news cycle, making the apparent doom of a cracked society inescapable to the everyday person. With the L.A. riots, conflict was brought right to Hollywood’s front yard, causing shockwaves through the entire movie business. Even though the Cold War was finally over, people were still being fed plenty of reasons to fear, and increasingly, harm the Other: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disease, addiction, political ideology.
The decade also saw its horror movies reflecting fears about the approaching end of the millennium. Would there be truth to ancient, cryptic prophecies foretelling the end times? Would the year 2000 trigger a deadly sequence of global catastrophes resulting in the Apocalypse? Followers of the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate died en masse for their beliefs in 1993 and 1997, respectively. The intense coverage of both events centered around the simple but daunting question: were they right? Did they achieve early salvation? Were the rest of, left behind, damned for years of pain and suffering? As the world fretted about the future, many horror filmmakers looked to the past for answers, reinterpreting old narratives through a postmodern lens. A simpler, more authentic entertainment took the place of the comic excess of the 80’s. “Raw” and “real” were the monikers of the day, but that didn’t always allow room for fun. Horror films of the 90’s lean towards brown palettes and muted, earthy tones. New sorts of monsters were thus needed to match this somber mood.
At the beginning of the decade, Tim Burton was the most high profile filmmaker in the genre business, but his one true pure horror film of the 90’s didn’t come out until they were almost over, 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. All of his films still tended to deal with freakish outsiders, however, and were certainly heavy on dark, Expressionist imagery and atmosphere, whether it was the fairy tale-like Edward Scissorhands (1990) or the gothic dreamscape Batman Returns (1992) or even his very sincere biopic Ed Wood (1994). But it didn’t pay to do true horror, anyway. Franchises were floundering left and right, as demonstrated by The Exorcist III (1990), Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), Bride of Re-Animator (1991), Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (1992), and constant returns to Elm Street, Crystal Lake, and Haddonfield. All these series petered out in the 90’s, later to be revived, remade, or re-envisioned in the new century.
And yet, it was in the early days of the decade that horror made one of its strongest, most stylish impacts of all time in the form of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), adapted from the bestselling novel by Thomas Harris. The book is a sequel to Red Dragon, which Michael Mann had filmed as Manhunter (1986) without anyone really noticing, but Silence feels much like a standalone. It became the first horror movie not only to win Best Picture, but to sweep all of the Big Five categories at the Academy Awards. The topic of serial killing was not new to horror–characters like Dracula and Mr. Hyde are technically serial murderers, and Jack the Ripper was mimicked heavily in 1940’s efforts like The Lodger (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946). And that’s not even mentioning Norman Bates, Michael Myers, and the copious black-gloved slashers of Dario Argento’s gialli films. Through the 80’s, however, as the term “serial killer” became more widespread, more films began to tackle the subject in a clinical, realistic manner, notably John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which wasn’t widely seen until the 90’s. Silence was the first film to co-opt the serial killer as found in police procedurals with the inside-the-mind-of-a-madman drama and produce a horror film. In the process, Demme proved that the horror movie could be a matter of treatment as much as subject.
Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who combines elements of both Dracula and Renfield, became the boogeyman of the 90’s. A cultured cannibal psychiatrist, words away from any real life serial killer, he is witty, sensitive, charismatic, and very, very dangerous. Hopkins reprised the role in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001), from Harris’s sequel novel, and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002), a remake of Manhunter done in imitation of Demme’s style. As the cycle progressed, Lecter became less an uncontrollable psychotic and more a refined vigilante, dining on “the free-range rude.” There were, inevitably, imitations with increasingly bizarre genius murderers and neurotic profilers, from the aptly named Copycat (1995) to Kiss the Girls (1997) to The Bone Collector (1999). David Fincher’s Seven (1995) came from the Silence tradition, but it held water on its own strengths. The killer’s gimmick–grisly deaths themed to the Seven Deadly Sins–would have been right on point for Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes mode, but the film’s distinctive noir, rainy, twisted intensity helped it stand out, and has been copied copiously. Equally mimicked is the five-minute credit sequence of Seven, directed by Kyle Cooper–a montage of diary entries, classical paintings, crime scene photos, and other strange artifacts cleverly edited together that has been imitated in everything from Buffy to Mindhunter.
Hopkins moved from Lecter to Van Helsing for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), one of the most significant gothic revivals. The film promoted itself on its faithfulness to Stoker’s text right in the title, but reworked the story in ways that its author would have found ridiculous. With the slogan “Love Never Dies” hanging over the film, our beloved Count (Gary Oldman) seeks not to bring a vampire plague down upon Victorian Britain, but to reunite with the reincarnation of his lost love (Winona Ryder). Though it didn’t quite blow anyone out of the water, the film opened the way for a number of big budget gothic horror romances: Anne’s Rice long-in-development Interview with the Vampire finally made it to the big screen in 1994, with Neil Jordan directing a pouty Brad Pitt and a hissy Tom Cruise as the louche vampires Louis and Lestat; Kenneth Branagh tried to wrestle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) into a tale of passion rather than rejection, with Robert De Niro giving an especially disappointing performance as the Monster; Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994) saw Jack Nicholson as a meek publisher who becomes an alpha male werewolf in pursuit of Michelle Pfeiffer; and Stephen Frears ended the cycle with the much maligned Jekyll and Hyde variant Mary Reilly (1996), adapted from Valerie Martin’s novel where Stevenson’s story is seen from the point of view of a maid (Julia Roberts) in the household of Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich). As is often the case, the most reviled of the cycle is also the most interesting–Frears takes Stevenson and Martin seriously rather than paying lip service in an effort to churn out a gothic date movie.
Auteurs committed to the genre were struggling. George Romero and Dario Argento collaborated on a Poe project, Two Evil Eyes (1990) before Romero made a decent Stephen King adaptation with The Dark Half (1992) and went silent for over a decade. Argento made a string of disappointments mostly starring his daughter Asia. Larry Cohen directed a Hitchcockian thriller, The Ambulance (1990) then reverted to peddling spec scripts, one of which became Phone Booth (2002). Sam Raimi did well with Darkman (1990), a superhero monster movie, and Army of Darkness (1992), the third Evil Dead movie. He then tried his hand at a Western (The Quick and the Dead, 1995), a sports movie (For the Love of the Game, 1999), and a thriller (A Simple Plan, 1998). David Cronenberg dabbled in literary adaption with Naked Lunch (1991) and M. Butterfly (1993). Clive Barker let the Hellraiser franchise slip away from him and followed it up with the very interesting if botched Nightbreed (1990) and the makeshift Lord of Illusions (1995). He did maintain a strong presence in the genre as the original author of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), which became a minor franchise of its own and a turning point for Black horror. John Carpenter had steady work with In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Village of the Damned (1995), and Vampires (1998). Though they are on the weaker side of Carpenter’s resume, all of them are better than Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion (1990), Night Terrors (1993), and The Mangler (1995). Brian De Palma had found his way into mainstream affairs like Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), and Mission: Impossible (1995), but he still found time for one underrated, very personal horror feature, Raising Cain (1992).
David Lynch, meanwhile, had an iffy decade commercially, but continued to maintain a reputation of being at the cutting edge of…well, everything. Twin Peaks (1990-92), an ambitious TV series Lynch co-created with Mark Frost, began as a mix of small town melodrama, quirky comedy, murder mystery, and psycho-horror, morphed into quasi-Lovecraftian terror thanks to its nightmare-inducing boogeyman “BOB” and the constant bleeding of the supernatural into the lives of a peculiar, isolated community. Twin Peaks drew on Stephen King, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Thomas Harris, and was itself a massive inspiration for The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018), Lars von Trier’s Danish haunted hospital TV soap The Kingdom (1994-97), and a surprising number of mainstream horror films. Lynch’s big screen prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), wasn’t as beloved by fans at the time, but is arguably the scariest movie of the decade. Lynch went on to do Lost Highway (1997), another mixed genre affair with some truly terrifying material, then pivoted to The Straight Story (1999), which showed he could tell a softer kind of tale. All of Lynch’s films have proven more rewarding with multiple viewings. Mulholland Drive (2001) is another touchstone, a film that countless horror films of the new century look to for ideas in casting, stone, and subject matter.
Wes Craven borrowed a Twin Peaks couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) for his monstrous landlords in The People Under the Stairs (1991), an underrated social cartoon that mixed Scooby-Doo chases with a horrific rumination on class and race in contemporary America. He then moved on to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1992), a meta-meditation on the Elm Street films which takes place in “our world” and is an ingenious, postmodern think piece that still remembers to be quite scary. And yet, neither of this reflective pieces worked with audiences at the time. They much preferred Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an Eddie Murphy vehicle that was severely lacking soul. After this, Craven signed with Dimension, Miramax’s genre outfit, to direct a script called Scary Movie, written by horror enthusiast Kevin Williamson. During production, it was retitled Scream (1996) and the resulting film clicked in a way Craven’s other 90’s films–and really, anyone else’s 90’s films–hadn’t. Scream revived not only Craven’s career but the slasher sub-genre as a whole. It was postmodern, yes, but far more approachable than New Nightmare, and it has a feel for the callous hipness of 90’s American teens that gives it an uneasy undercurrent. Craven spent the rest of the decade on for Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), making sure that Williamson’s clever concepts and smart dialogue paired well with perfectly calibrated stalk-and-scare sequences. The Scream trilogy displays Craven’s penchant for timing and his knack for turning potentially hackneyed scenes of people menaced by masked killers into textbook exercises in shock and shiver.
Williamson went on to script I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), which kept the slasher renaissance alive and earned its own disappointing sequels. He also wrote The Faculty (1998), a high school take on the body snatching sub-genre, then directed Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999). The runaway success of Scream encouraged both new gimmick, meta slashers like Urban Legends (1998) and Cherry Falls (2000) and also helped old properties get better funding. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998), which Williamson contributed to, achieved a much higher profile than the sequels between Halloween II (1981) and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), aided of course by the return of Jamie Lee Curtis to the franchise. Williamson’s writing style was catchy and smart, similar to his contemporary Joss Whedon, who had written the run-of-the-mill teen horror comedy Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). Whedon was still able to somehow relaunch the story as a long-running, successful TV series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar–a victim in both Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Buffy (1997-2003) spun off a vampire detective series, Angel (1999-2004), and encouraged a slew of similar shows like Charmed (1998-2006) and Smallville (2001-2011). Many of the stars and supporting actors from these shows soon found themselves in quickie, teen-themed horror that all sought to capitalize on the success of Scream.
The Faculty was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who handled another script from a 90’s hot name in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), a road movie/vampire story from Quentin Tarantino, originally planned to be an entry in the Tales From the Crypt film series, as was Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996). The 90’s saw an influx of video-store-clerk horror filmmakers, many who imitated Tarantino’s style and wanted to honor the exploitation films they had grown up with. Jackson, who had come on the scene with Bad Taste (1987), honored the splatter style with Braindead/Dead Alive (1992), a zombie comedy with a sweat streak and a willingness to go for the extreme which seems odd in light of Jackson’s later Tolkien-powered enthronement as an Oscar winning A-lister. Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro went from Cronos (1993), an unusual Spanish-language vampire film, to Mimic (1997), a New York-set giant insect picture. As with Sam Raimi, these directors waffled between big budget studio fare and down and dirty projects, but solidified their reputations as being handle hundred million dollar spectacles with an eye on box office records and/or Academy gold.
The countdown to the millennium brought with it thoughts of the end of all things and, eventually, religion. The potential apocalypse included a revival of the alien invasion/disaster genre thanks to Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day (1996) and Tim Burton’s retro Mars Attacks! (1996). Michael Tolkin had produced a quieter, creepier effort several years earlier with The Rapture (1992), which at once depicts and criticizes the fundamentalist Christian vision of the End Times. Later, the direct-to-video market became swarmed with character actors like Mr. T, Caspar Van Dien, and Gary Busey doing battle against the Antichrist in films like Apocalypse (1998), The Omega Code (1999), and Left Behind (2000). The tone of these Protestant films isn’t all that different from the run their Exorcist-style Catholic counterparts from the same era: Stigmata (1999), End of Days (1999), Bless the Child (2000), and Lost Souls (2000). The Devil was back in business, but audiences were by and large attracted to more tangible menaces. A more sustained, unusual kind of apocalypse was keyed to a prescient finale in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), a canny rethink of Jekyll and Hyde for changing times that reflects on masculinity, identity, and unrestrained impulses.
In the closing days of the century, three horror films became global, cultural phenomena. From Japan, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) was the breakout entry in a run of Asian ghost stories that had quietly begun with the Korean haunted school effort Whispering Corridors (1998). Drawing from classical Eastern ghost stories of melancholy, lank-haired, girl specters, Ringu brought a fresh angle to urban legends with its cursed videotape that brings doom within a week to anyone who watches it. A box office hit, Ringu took a minute to connect internationally but became hugely influential, spawning several sequels and an effective American version in 2002. Meanwhile, another ghost story took the States by storm. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) was a subtle, affecting, genuinely scary peek beyond the veil. Along with Fight Club, The Sixth Sense made an instant cliché out of its twist ending. Shyamalan made films on the same pattern in the new century with varying degrees of success, but none resonated with filmgoers the way The Sixth Sense did. The third hit of the millennium’s finale year was even more unexpected: Edward Myrick and Daniel Sanchez’s micro-budgeted, ingeniously marketed The Blair Witch Project (1999), a mockumentary with a keen sense of the unappealing way people actually behave in dire situations. The film’s atmosphere oozes dread, accomplishing a great deal of terror while showing next to nothing. The Blair Witch Project launched the found footage sub-genre into a nigh unstoppable beast in the new millennium, a symbol of the shifting nature of the horror film and a harbinger of the innovation and change that was to come.
Next up, found footage and J-horror help usher the genre into a new era, while teen slashers and new gothics mingle with emerging creatives
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.
Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.
Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.