It’s interesting, then, to note that the installments of those franchises that came out in the 1990s, looked to broaden their templates into often absurd realms. In Jason Goes to Hell, the man behind the hockey mask became not just an unstoppable killing machine but a being possessed by a demonic-worm who can only inhabit those in the Voorhees clan. Or something. Freddy’s Dead turned Mr. Krueger into a deadbeat dad attempting to connect with his daughter, jumping through time and dimensions, it would seem, to ensure the death of teenagers worldwide. And as for our brutish friend Mike Myers, he was turned into a kind of super-soldier project, and the series attempted to find more interest in the Illinois community where he lives, wrongly assuming that fans of John Carpenter’s unimpeachable original Halloween would care.
There were a few franchise installments that successfully riled dormant inventiveness – Hellraiser 3, The Exorcist 3, Army of Darkness, and Alien 3, to name just a few – but the very best of the decade build on the idiosyncrasies and perverse obsessions of key works of the 1980s, from Possession and The Shining to The Fly and From Beyond. Films like Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs legitimized the art form in ways that not even Kubrick could pull off, while The Vanishing and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer found resonant chills in depicting, detailing, and gazing without hesitation at the work of sadistic psychopaths. Serial killers, and the forensic sciences and psychology that ensnared them, were the bread and butter of the 90s, but the greatest works offered distinct visuals and thematic considerations embedded under the blood and gore. Alien 3 was meant to be a comment on AIDS; the French shocker Man Bites Dog lampooned the moral flexibility and opportunism of artists looking to make a big break.
A lot of these films could arguably be categorized as thrillers – specifically, Cape Fear, The Silence of the Lambs, and Misery – but horror has always shared DNA with the thriller genre. Looking back at the crucial works of Hitchcock or Tournier, the feelings are primarily terror and horror in the psychological realm, rather than in gushing wounds and severed limbs. This isn’t to say that blood and guts are any reason to take a film less seriously or to accuse it of being immoral simply on the basis of its subject matter. The 1990s were a time where horror solidified itself as an art form, not just capable of a few random works of genius but of dozens that wrestled with politics and societal attitudes in ways that mainstream Hollywood could not deal with without softening its edges and going for saccharine over skepticism, making way for the wildly imaginative genre landscape of the aughts and the 2010s.
In this spirit, we decided to gather up the 50 best horror films of the decade, to survey how horror regained its strength and bloomed into narrative vistas that the 1980s barely hinted at. Take a look:
10. The Dark Half
Though every one of his films is painted with his scathing brand of left-leaning politics, George Romero never got even half as personal as he does in The Dark Half, which was adapted from a Stephen King novel of the same name. Here, pulp horror novelist Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), who writes under the name of George Stark, attempts to go straight and publish a more mature work of fiction after years of working as a schlockmeister, until a violent creature, calling himself George Stark, begins killing off his friends and work colleagues. To a degree, The Dark Half is a far more mature and established vision from Romero than the Living Dead pictures, Knightriders, or Monkey Shines, but it’s also strewn with brutal, sanguinary deaths enacted by the demented Stark. Like more than a few entries on this list, Romero hashes out his feelings over being primarily a genre filmmaker here, both by facing the resentment that he will never be fully acknowledged for his artistry but also admitting that these violent, horrid ideas and images are inarguably a part of his essential being. By extension, he reflects King’s own frustrations that he has only recently began to break out of, but the film delights in its anti-authoritative dalliances, finally coming to terms that there is talent and indeed art in horror as much as there is in coming-of-age stories or tales of marital infidelity.
For the most part, this J-horror classic keeps to the same plot turns as Gore Verbinski’s exemplary remake: there’s a video out there that once you see it, you die an awful, unexplainable death via (seemingly) a cadre of menacing spirits. Where Verbinski hung his hat on the journalistic investigation into the source of the tape and its confounding imagery, Ringu leans on imagery itself to replicate the effect of the tape on its victims for the audience, smash cutting to more bewitching and disturbing visions of a young woman with long black hair who twitches and contorts in unexpected ways. Like most of the best J-horror films, Ringu is not entirely interested in the logic of its story but rather in expressing the utter eeriness and unexplainable happenings that one would imagine occur around ghosts and sinister forces. In this respect, Ringu counts as one of the most hypnotic and unforgettable works of the sub-genre.
8. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
If nothing else, this is the one that will keep you up at night. The one that will have double checking if you locked all your doors and windows, even if you live in a safe neighborhood. Heck, the one that might even drive you to buy a gun. Michael Rooker’s performance as the titular sadistic murderer and the bracingly brutal actions he enacts throughout this movie is the kind of story buried in the smaller passages of those large collections of real-life serial killer stories that the strange kid in your high school class was pouring over during lunch every day. Director John McNaughton, who completed the film in the late 1980s but didn’t get it released until 1990, edits with clever use of time gaps and switches in the graininess of the imagery, but mostly keeps this monster as bare and realistic as possible to an effect that goes way beyond chilling. To give much of any of this revelatory study of violent psychosis and sociopathic behavior would ruin the sheer terror of what Rooker and McNaughton conjure up here. Watch with an acquaintance, and then never speak to them again if possible.
7. Lost Highway
It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to concisely explain any David Lynch movie, but Lost Highway is a particularly challenging toss down the rabbit hole. At best I can tell, Bill Pullman plays an experimental saxophonist, who at some point is recast and played by Balthazar Getty, who comes in contact with a devilish creature, played by a terrifying Robert Blake in chalk-white make-up and enters a nightmarish state of being where very little makes logical sense. What I do know is that Blake is constantly holding a camera, and there’s a sense that Lynch is confronting the darkness that he taps into when he writes and shoots his magnificent experimental nightmare riffs, but even that cannot be backed up with much proof without revisiting the film enough times to constitute a thesis statement. Regardless, to say that Lost Highway is memorable and deeply effective in its wild, erratic, and aggressive assemblage would count as gross understatement, as would be the argument that Lynch is in total control of what he unleashes with this enigmatic, furious film.
Wes Craven’s masterwork shares some DNA strands with Alejandro Amenabar’s Thesis, but whereas Amenabar leaned heavier on the clinical tone, Craven indulges with colorful, anxious imagery that has denoted his pulpiest gore-laden delights, from A Nightmare on Elm Street to The Serpent and the Rainbow. The story itself, however, similarly toys with the moralism of enjoying horror movies, with Jamie Kennedy representing the giddy, know-it-all fanboy contingency and Skeet Ulrich representing the over-it seducer with Neve Campbell’s sanctified Sidney Prescott stuck in the middle as her friends and classmates are carved up by the now-famous ghost-face killer. Sure, there’s a minor kick in watching these stereotypes get gutted, cut-up, and, in one instance, crushed to death by a garage door, but Craven’s post-modern conception here brings an unfussy maturity to a genre that was always denoted for its general cheapness and impersonal feel. Scream marks perhaps the most personal and reflective of all the slashers, and represents a major turn towards big-budget horror as a place for burgeoning auteurs to hone their craft and flourish in distinct new directions.
5. The Vanishing
As with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the true horror of this Dutch chiller, which originally was released in the 1980s but didn’t hit stateside until the 90s, is the patience and confidence that the filmmakers show in letting the unnerving truth of what happened after a young woman goes missing at a gas station unfurl in its own unique way. The story is split between the search manned by the boyfriend she was arguing with before she vanished and the family man who abducted her and made her suffer psychological torment that not even your worst enemy deserves. Director George Sluizer would go onto remake the film for the American budget, making the killer more demented and the boyfriend more heroic while tipping towards a happier ending to abysmal effect. The original film, titled Spoorloos in its home country, gets at the torture of not knowing what happened, of not being able to have a meaningful goodbye to someone you care about. The devastating, outrageous final moments reflect the lack of catharsis that often typifies the way people pass away, whether friends, lovers, or family, and how that itself can be the death of you.
4. Man Bites Dog
You could label this French wonder as a mockumentary of sorts, but that descriptor seems too small for such an extravagantly depraved tour of hell. In essence, Man Bites Dog reimagines Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a pitch-black comedy, with a film crew following around the intensely charming and aggressive Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde), a serial killer who haunts the streets of France and flies into sudden, murderous ranges for seemingly no reason. Poelvoorde’s performance is a thing of sublime daring, inventive in its comic twists and unsettling in its more quiet, angry moments, but the film goes beyond the bravura acting to comment on the moral duty of filmmakers, specifically documentary directors. The director, who is seen on screen a handful of times, excuses and even joins in on murders, rapes, beatings, and even the execution of his crew members in the name of finishing his masterwork, aligning him with the immoral instincts of Ben but only worse because he sees some batshit righteousness in his ability to endure such horrors. Poelvoorde is actually credited as a co-director alongside Remy Belvaux and Andre Bozel, who appear in the film and co-wrote it with Vincent Tavier, which gives the entire project a potent reflexivity that still packs an ideological wallop some two decades after this wild thing was released stateside.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa remains one of the best directors currently working out of Japan, alongside Ozu disciple Hirokazu Koreeda, Koji Wakamatsu, and Hayao Miyazaki, but even if he had only released Cure, he’d have to be celebrated as one of the great masterminds of the horrific thriller. This supernatural curiosity begins with a series of murders, done for seemingly no reason, at least that’s the opinion of the man who is investigating the killings (Kurosawa axiom Koji Yakusho). The murderers have no explanation for their violent acts after they commit them, even though they readily admit to their deeds. When he thinks he’s found a suspect, he is blocked by the suspect’s inability to remember where he is, which day it is, and anything about his past. It’s no fair to divulge what happens from here, but Kurosawa’s filmmaking utilizes quiet and the shocking ordinariness of murder to striking effect in Cure, to the point that you don’t even fully realize what’s happening until its over. The bloodcurdling simplicity of killing is something that Kurosawa has returned to throughout his career, and he similarly never over-explains that supernatural bend of his narratives, keeping the viewer perched permanently at the edge of their seat.
David Fincher’s films often pivot on a central, cooperative relationship that is symbolic of the partnership between the writer and the director; one character is obsessed with facts, writings, and codes while the other seems to be obsessed with images and the look of things. In Se7en, his masterful second feature, that delineation is muddled a bit, as Brad Pitt’s wet-behind-the-ears detective seems to be more a moral reactionary to the heinous murders he follows with Morgan Freeman’s wise, cynical Somerset. Freeman’s detective knows the ropes, and sees the killings in terms of texts, as storytelling painted on a vibrantly violent canvas, whereas Pitt’s character sees the human side of things, the outrageousness of any person doing these things to another person.
In Fincher’s perpetually stormy metropolis of the damned, these two men come to hunt down the deadly-sins-obsessed serial killer who comes to be known as John Doe, played with bone-chilling restraint by Kevin Spacey, who offers another crucial perspective. While Pitt’s Mills is disgusted with the crimes, John Doe is disgusted by the acceptability of society, the way we’ve come to allow immoral and amoral people to thrive and live within. This configuration reaps a variety of dazzling insights into the nature of morality and godliness, and the pitfalls of cynicism, but this is all ultimately minor in comparison to how staggering Fincher’s technical abilities are, and how beautifully they drape around Andrew Kevin Walker’s script. There’s a great conceptual and philosophical backbone to Se7en, but that simply does not compete with sheer joy of watching the movie in all its gleaming grotesqueries.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
Jonathan Demme can do anything. That sounds like a bold statement, but if you take a close look at his track record, the man has made some of the best films of the decade for the last three-to-four decades. This is true of his work perfecting the romantic comedy in Something Wild or putting some much-needed blood into the timely political drama with Philadelphia or redesigning the Altman-esque multi-character melodrama with Rachel Getting Married. Yet none of these successes are within the realm of his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, an almost operatic treatment of the horror genre.
Not for nothing is The Silence of the Lambs also a work of layered psychological confession and warfare. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter gets fleeting but substantial kicks out of breaking down the psychological walls that Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a talented FBI cadet, has been building up in the fallout of her father’s death. And yet, it’s his needling of the cadet that brings her to become the stellar agent she becomes, through both offering her his opinion of the crimes and liberating her from her conditioned wanting for masculine security and dominance that she’s been looking for after her father’s death. The influence of Hannibal, another man, may signal a complication but Hopkins’ devious creation is a thing beyond power over others and when he’s done pressing the anguish out of Sterling, he relinquishes his power, leaving her calling after him, as if calling after her father one last time.
This is just one angle to take on this superb film – its views on sexuality are far more knotty subject matter – but like Se7en, the pleasures of the artistry on every level here supersede its vast intellectual applications. The acting, from Foster and Hopkins to Scott Glenn and Ted Levine, is continuously daring, attuned to physical and emotional nuances, and riveting in every sense of the word, and Demme’s direction is the kind of expert work that looks effortless on the outside and yet attains a kind of grace that few other films of any year can cop to. Over two decades later, I’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs well over 50 times and still don’t get tired of its visual and dialectical details, its contours never particularly predictable despite knowing nearly every line that is spoken. This is what progressive horror looks like, and it’s a shattering realization that only a handful of films have come within its sanctum since its release.