Everybody likes horror movies, but not everybody has the time to really delve into them and explore the genre. There are just too many, and unless you’re actively making your living as a film critic, it is entirely understandable if you don’t have the time. But that’s how misconceptions get started, those misleading observations based only on the most visible motion pictures in a genre, like the frequently expressed belief that the 1990s were a terrible decade for horror movies.
That’s not really fair. The 1990s were, if we take a serious look at it, an exceptionally interesting time for the horror movie genre, although that does perhaps have something to do with the fact that it was going through an identity crisis. The 1980s were easily defined as an era of slasher thrillers and ambitious gore films, but those trends were already dying out by the time the 1990s came around and it took quite a few years for the genre to find a new persona. The late 1990s would eventually be defined by Scream and the ironic genre commentaries that emerged in its wake, but the majority of the decade was an amorphous time period in which filmmakers experimented with new ideas, toyed around with the old ones, and produced a lot of exciting movies as a result.
Of course not every horror movie from the 1990s was great, and many of them really were just plain awful. A couple of the most popular ones didn’t even make this list, and we’ve already produced an entire downloadable commentary track, available free of charge, that explains why Event Horizon is one of them. But despite their absence it still wasn’t difficult to compile this list of one hundred great – and if not great then at least entertaining (or at least extremely interesting) – horror movies from throughout the decade. These films reveal just how diverse and fascinating the genre really was in the 1990s.
So the next time someone tells you that horror movies sucked in the 1990s, point ’em in the direction of these films, and challenge them to give the decade another shot. Even some of the so-called “bad” horror movies of the era are worthy of new eyes twenty years later, and it may surprise you to learn that they play a lot better now than they did the first time.
Let’s get rolling with…
100. The Burning Moon (1992)
German filmmaker Olaf Ittenbach didn’t just make The Burning Moon, he got away with it. It’s the sort of film makes you want to call the police. Shot on home video, Ittenbach’s movie is the sick tale of a demented teen telling his little sister bedtime stories, but they are completely unacceptable for children or even adults of any age, detailing detestable murders and finally a descent into one of the most gruesome Hells ever conceived. It doesn’t belong in your home video library, it belongs in evidence locker. But there’s a market for that sort of thing…
99. Man’s Best Friend (1993)
Can a film have multiple personality disorder? John Lafia’s killer dog movie doesn’t quite know if it wants to be Air Bud or Cujo, and it races back and forth between family-friendly jokes and horrifying imagery like a dog repeatedly catching a stick. It’s the story of a newspaper reporter who liberates a dog from a shady laboratory, only to discover that it’s a dangerous, genetically enhanced organism that can turn invisible, eat cats whole and even cut her boyfriend’s brakes. Man’s Best Friend is definitely ridiculous, but it’s also entertaining from start to finish.
97. Popcorn (1991)
A group of film students rents out a movie theater for an all-night horror film festival, complete with William Castle gimmicks like Smellovision and electrified seats, but in all the crowd-pleasing commotion nobody seems to notice that a maniac is murdering everyone offstage. Clever deaths and an unexpected, charismatic villain make Popcorn one of the better slashers you’ve probably never heard of.
96. My Boyfriend’s Back (1993)
Bob Balaban directed one of the scariest horror comedies in history, but that was Parents, back in 1989. In the 1990s the Close Encounters of the Third Kind co-star returned to the director’s chair for a goofier but still very likable zombie rom-com, about a teen who asks the hottest girl in school to the prom just before he dies. The thing is, when she says yes, out of pity, he refuses to stay dead. Can he still be the good-natured John Hughes underdog when he needs to eat his fellow classmates to survive? Boasting an eccentric sense of humor and weird early performances by Matthew McConaughey and Philip Seymour Hoffman, My Boyfriend’s Back is an oddball treat.
95. Dr. Giggles (1992)
Dr. Giggles was marketed like it was going to be the next great slasher franchise, but nobody saw the danged thing. That’s a pity, because they probably would have liked it just fine. Larry Drake plays a homicidal doctor who metes out violence on his patients while uncontrollably giggling to himself, in a performance that’s campy, but creepy nevertheless. It may not have broken the mold, and it may not have broken into the public consciousness, but it’s gradually finding a cult audience who recognize that it’s one of the most underrated late-era slashers.
94. Thinner (1996)
Based on a novel by Stephen King, published under his pseudonym “Richard Bachman,” Thinner is a cynical morality tale that probably would have made for a classic Tales from the Crypt episode. As a movie it’s a little longer than it needs to be, but it’s engagingly directed by Tom Holland (Fright Night) and features one of Robert John Burke’s best performances. Burke plays an obese lawyer who uses his political connections to avoid a prison sentence after he accidentally kills a gypsy with his car. The gypsy’s husband curses him to lose weight, uncontrollably, until he dies. It’s a solid “be careful what you wish for” nightmare, with a vicious anti-moral streak. Nobody wants to become a better person in Thinner. They’ll do damn near anything to save themselves.
93. Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Alien: Resurrection is not a great movie, but it’s an extremely interesting one, and the first Alien sequel to truly revel in the perverse psychosexual imagery that H.R. Giger originally envisioned for the series way back in 1979. Ripley, played by a strong and sensual Sigourney Weaver, has been cloned in the future but her DNA has been mingled with the alien xenomorphs she died trying to exterminate in the first place. The action scenes are a mess and the supporting cast is too kooky for their own good, but when Alien: Resurrection focuses on the strange new relationship between Ripley and her enemy – closer than ever, both familial and sexual – it’s a twisted and oddly enjoyable entry in the franchise.
92. Bad Moon (1996)
Bad Moon might have been more popular if the title was more honest. Let’s face it: Eric Red’s under-appreciated thriller should have been called Lassie vs. The Wolfman. A single mom invites her estranged brother back home, but he’s not just distant, he’s cursed, and only the family dog knows that good ol’ Uncle Ted (played particularly well by Michael Paré) is turning into a monster every night. Sure enough, their faithful pooch gets blamed for all the maulings, and eventually there’s a scene where the little boy screams as the Humane Society drags the dog away, while the dog barks its head off trying to warn his ungrateful masters of the danger in their midst. The special effects aren’t great – in fact, sometimes they’re just terrible – but Bad Moon still knows how to hit you in the gut.
91. Anaconda (1997)
Good old-fashioned monster movie nonsense. A documentary film crew treks their way through the Amazon and runs across a Paraguayan trapper played, with absolute scenery-chewing glee, by Jon Voight. He tricks them into helping him hunt a rare and gigantic anaconda, a quest which eventually gets practically everybody killed. A silly premise, filmed well, featuring an unusually great ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Ice Cube, Danny Trejo and Eric Stoltz.
90. Wishmaster (1997)
An unironic monster movie released in the height of the post-Scream irony boom, it is perhaps no surprise that Wishmaster didn’t find an enormous audience. But they missed out. This clever supernatural thriller, directed by makeup effects maestro Robert Kurtzman, stars Andrew Divoff as an ageless djinn who has unlimited power, but he can’t use it unless somebody else makes a wish. So Wishmaster is full of amusing wordplay – one woman wishes she could be beautiful forever, so the djinn turns her into a mannequin, etc. – and incredible practical effects. It spawned three straight-to-video sequels, but only the first one, Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies, is also worth seeking out.
89. Idle Hands (1999)
Do you remember that scene from Evil Dead II where Bruce Campbell’s hand became possessed and tried to kill him? Idle Hands is that scene, but as an entire movie. It works better than you might think. Devon Sawa plays a pothead who’s so slothful that his hand literally becomes the devil’s plaything. His hand kills his best friends, Seth Green (Robot Chicken) and Elden Henson (Daredevil), but it’s cool. They come back as zombies to help him find a way out of the curse. Very funny stuff from prolific TV director Rodman Flender (Scream: The Series).
88. House on Haunted Hill (1999)
It’s no coincidence that the remake of William Castle’s beloved fright flick opens at an amusement park. After all, this all-star spook house thriller works more like a carnival ride than a movie. Geoffrey Rush hams it up as a millionaire who invites a group of weirdos to spend the night in – gasp! – a haunted house! But to everybody’s surprise, the place really is haunted, and soon they’re all backstabbing each other to survive. House on Haunted Hill is the kind of madcap fright flick that’s perfect for slumber parties.
87. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
And to think, Al Pacino used to be considered a pretty subtle actor. But by the 1990s, the star of The Godfather and Serpico was going WAY over the top in genre flicks like Dick Tracy and, more to the point, The Devil’s Advocate, playing Lucifer himself as a wealthy and oversexed head of a prestigious New York law firm. He tries to corrupt a seemingly incorruptible upstart lawyer, played by Keanu Reeves, and he’s such an insidiously charming bastard that you really do start to think he’ll pull it off after a while. Taylor Hackford’s film is a bit longer than it needs to be, and it probably takes itself a little too seriously, but just keep your eyes on Pacino. He’s having the time of his life.
86. Lord of Illusions (1995)
Clive Barker brought private detective Harry D’Amour to the big screen in Lord of Illusions, which isn’t the best supernatural film noir of the 1990s – you can venture all the way down to #46 on this list to see which film earns that honor – but is an engrossing mystery. Harry D’Amour, played by Scott Bakula, investigates the unusual death of a stage magician who may have been using real magic, unraveling the secret world of Los Angeles illusionists and uncovering a malevolent cult in the process. The theatrical cut is just fine. The director’s cut is even better.
85. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Scientists have been genetically engineering super smart sharks in their ongoing effort to cure Alzheimer’s Disease, and for some reason this requires them to be in a submerged in a highly unstable floating laboratory. You can probably guess what happens next, but the rest of Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea is full of pleasant surprises, including unusually smart characters and unexpected twists. Everyone remembers this film because of Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic speech, and it really is the highlight, but the rest of the movie is pretty danged fun too.
84. Shakma (1990)
Years before it became fashionable, a group of college LARPers decided to play a game in the halls of the science building, completely unaware that a baboon has escaped its cage and – thanks to yet another one of those scientific experiments the 1990s warned us about – it wants everybody dead. The acting and the writing are a little wonky, but they’re not what makes Shakma such an amazing movie. That baboon is PISSED OFF and it sure as hell looks like the entire cast is in genuine danger of getting their face clawed off every time they have a scene with it.
83. Body Snatchers (1993)
Abel Ferrara’s ambitious remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the third best of the official Body Snatchers movies, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. A family moves onto a military base while the father conducts some research, all of them unaware that an alien invasion has already started, and that many of the people around them have been replaced with alien duplicates in their sleep. Ferrara’s social commentary here is a little undercooked (we get it, military personnel follow orders) but the special effects and the performances – particularly Meg Tilly, giving a truly terrifying monologue right in the middle of the film – make Body Snatchers a worthy addition to the tradition.
82. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
Horror anthologies are hard to pull off, since one bad story can ruin the whole bunch, but this spin-off of the popular 1980s television series Tales from the Darkside is the second best that the 1990s had to offer. (For the very best, scroll down to #31.) A little boy has been kidnapped by a witch, and while she pre-heats her oven he tries to distract her by telling scary stories. The first is a mummy tale starring Christian Slater, Julianne Moore and Steve Buscemi, and it’s plenty fun. The third is a monstrous love story starring James Remar and Rae Dawn Chong, and it’s pretty tragic. But the centerpiece, Cat from Hell, is a minor horror masterwork. Based on a short story by Stephen King, it’s the tale of a hitman who gets hired to kill a stray cat, and it gets even weirder from there.
81. The Mummy (1999)
Stephen Sommers reimagined the old, spooky Universal Horror monster as the villain of a rip-roaring Indiana Jones riff in The Mummy, a crowd-pleasing PG-13 adventure that was a huge hit in 1999. Some of the visual effects don’t hold up today, but the quippy humor and lighthearted tone make it feel like a pre-cursor of the Marvel Studios aesthetic that’s so popular now. Sure, it’s not particularly scary, but it’s an amusing and successful attempt to transform something horrifying into something the whole family can enjoy.
80. Predator 2 (1990)
The intergalactic big game hunter returns, and this time he’s stalking the streets of a crime-ridden, future Los Angeles. (1997 must have seemed pretty far away back in 1990.) It’s up to Danny Glover, Bill Paxton and Maria Conchita Alonso to stop the monster from killing all the crime bosses in town – a weird plot point, if we’re being honest – in this action-packed and memorable sequel, which also introduced the thrilling idea that Predator and Alien take place in the same universe. If either of the Alien vs. Predator movies had been as good as Predator 2, the fans might actually have enjoyed them.
79. Body Parts (1991)
Jeff Fahey loses his arm in a car accident, but he becomes the recipient of a donor arm in an experimental new procedure. Unfortunately, the donor arm came from a murderer, and his violent urges appear to have been included as an added bonus. For most of the film, Body Parts plays like a mature exploration of the psychological scars that linger after catastrophic physical trauma, as Fahey loses his mind after nearly losing his life. But then writer/director Eric Red reveals his true intentions, and they are bizarre and unbelievable, but admittedly a lot of fun.
78. Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)
An unexpectedly mature Made-for-TV movie, Psycho IV stars Anthony Perkins – for the last time – as the serial killer Norman Bates, who calls into a radio show to explain exactly why he killed his mother. In flashbacks, Henry Thomas does an admirable job of playing Norman’s descent into madness, and Olivia Hussey is disturbingly believable as the domineering matriarch who warps her own child’s psyche. Psycho IV is an admirable final installment to this franchise, featuring a screenplay by Joseph Stefano (who wrote Alfred Hitchcock’s original) and some of the best direction of Mick Garris’s career.
77. Wolf (1994)
From the director of The Graduate and Working Girl comes… a werewolf movie? Mike Nichols was an unusual choice to direct a horror film in 1994, but as you watch Wolf it gradually makes sense. Nichols uses this story of a mild-mannered book editor who, after being bitten by a wolf, begins to assert himself and reclaim his masculinity, as a way to expose our anxieties about losing touch with our inner urges within an urban landscape. Jack Nicholson is obviously enjoying himself as a nice guy who goes feral, and James Spader steals several scenes as the workplace rival who refuses to let Nicholson become the new alpha male.
76. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Once an undisputed master of horror, now something of a fallen icon, Italian giallo director Dario Argento was already losing some of his edge by the late 1990s. Fortunately, he had one great shocker left inside of him: The Stendhal Syndrome, which stars Asia Argento – the filmmaker’s daughter – as a detective whose investigation into a series of murders falls apart after she discovers she suffers from an unusual condition, one that causes her to become uncontrollably psychologically absorbed into works of art. Visually exciting, psychologically damning, and one of Argento’s must violent thrillers (and that’s saying something), The Stendhal Syndrome is a shocking work of art in its own right. You may just get absorbed inside of it as well.
75. Alien³ (1992)
David Fincher’s first film was this rough, but unfairly maligned Alien sequel, in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) finds herself inside an isolated prison filled with murderers and a xenomorph that’s not quite like the rest. Fans were upset that Alien 3 killed off several of the other survivors from Aliens, and that it eschewed James Cameron’s action-oriented aesthetic in favor of a less audience-friendly tone of grief and despair. But 25 years later, Alien 3 holds up quite well as a grim chapter in Ripley’s life, and a tough but involving metaphor for coping with your demons.
74. The Craft (1996)
A group of outsider teens get labeled as witches in their high school, but that’s okay, because that’s what they really are. It would be nice to say that The Craft was a female empowerment fantasy, which is one of the reasons it was so readily embraced back in the 1990s, but really it’s not. If anything it’s a cynical tale about girls who are exactly what their male oppressors say they are, living up to unhealthy high school clique stereotypes, fighting over boys, and ultimately oppressing each other even after they get actual supernatural powers. That said, it’s still an entertaining film, anchored by a great climactic fight scene and an unhinged performance by Fairuza Balk as the wickedest witch of them all.
73. The Prophecy (1995)
Writer/director Gregory Widen’s The Prophecy is a smart contradiction, a horror story about angels. A detective gets roped into a conflict between Heaven and Hell, as the Archangel Gabriel – played deliciously by Christopher Walken – tries to collect the most evil soul on Earth, in an attempt to tip the balance of power in Hell’s favor. The damnedest thing is, the soul has gone missing. Atmospheric and convincing, The Prophecy is an impressive horror-thriller about Judeo-Christian mythology come to horrifying life.
72. Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994)
The third film in the hallucinogenic Phantasm series may just be the most amusing sequel in the bunch, but it’s probably impossible to follow unless you’ve seen the first two. Basically, an interdimensional monster called The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) has been traveling from town to town, disguised as an undertaker, collecting dead bodies to use as slave labor on his home world and shoving their brains inside of floating metal spheres with spikes on them. Meanwhile, two guys team up with a homicidal kid based on Macauley Culkin from Home Alone and a badass and attractive nunchuck-wielding Marine named Rocky to try to stop him. Full of great action and bizarre ideas, Phantasm III is the second best Phantasm of them all. But just like the rest of them, it’s really, really weird.
71. Hardware (1990)
In an apocalyptic future, a robot designed for war is sold for scrap, and the head eventually finds its way into the home of a sculptor, who doesn’t notice that the automaton is putting itself back together. Richard Stanley’s Hardware is one of the better cyberpunk movies, a scary and alluring world of metal and decay where the ghosts of violence past keep coming back to haunt us in awesome scenes of sci-fi horror, by way of living machinery.
70. Scream 2 (1997)
The sequel to Wes Craven’s gamechanging slasher Scream was, perhaps inevitably, a step down from the original, but it doesn’t step down very far. Scream 2 is another smart exploration of the scary movie genre, tackling the law of diminishing returns within horror franchises by dealing with the criticisms of horror sequels head on: characters are alive who shouldn’t be, the killer is literally repeating the events of the first movie, and yes, the black characters die first. The witty writing of Kevin Williamson is still totally on display here, and the characters have grown naturally since the first installment. Scream 2 may not be as good as the first Scream, but Scream 2 is still pretty damned good.
69. Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995)
The first Tales from the Crypt movie is so great it’s almost hard to believe that this movie franchise didn’t last longer. (And then you remember how dumb Bordello of Blood was, and you believe it.) A group of hotel dwellers get stuck on the battlefield between an emissary of god and a demon, played with unbelievable gusto by Billy Zane, who has literally never been better. The mythology of Demon Knight is rich and interesting, and the supporting cast – led by Jada Pinkett Smith, Thomas Haden Church, CCH Pounder and the inimitable Dick Miller – is top notch. It would be a great supernatural thriller if it had nothing to do with Tales from the Crypt, but the framing device in which The Cryptkeeper goes to Hollywood is pretty funny too.
68. Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
Horror maestro Steve Miner finally came to the Halloween franchise, and he came to clean house. Abandoning all the cults and psychic powers and unbelievable mumbo-jumbo of Halloween III through Halloween 6, this retcon returns to the original well, and drags the original survivor Laurie Strode back into the fray with her homicidal maniac brother, Michael Myers. It’s a slick slasher from beginning to end, but what completely elevates the material is an earnest performance by Jamie Lee Curtis, who believably wrestles with a past defined by acts of violence, and who heroically takes arms against her personal trauma when Michael sets his sights on her own teenaged son. It’s a good horror movie even if you haven’t seen the other Halloween films, but if you have seen them, Halloween H20 is fantastic.
67. Mimic (1997)
Guillermo Del Toro’s first attempt to work within the Hollywood studio system was not a huge success, but maybe it should have been. Mimic is a creepy monster movie about cockroaches that have evolved in the New York City sewer system, and now come in both the size and – in the shadows, at least – the shape of a man. Gross insect creations and a fearless attitude towards genre conventions (the types characters who never, ever die are here the ones who die first) elevated even Mimic‘s chopped up theatrical cut above the typical horror fare, but the thoughtful director’s cut – which adds much needed context to this very weird film – is the superior version.
66. Fear (1996)
Erotic thrillers were all the rage from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, but very few have left a lasting impression, and fewer still were genuinely scary. The sadistic teen thriller Fear, however, is a disturbing exception. The film stars a young Reese Witherspoon as a high school girl who experiences her sexual awakening with a young Mark Wahlberg, who seems to be just perfect for her, until she finds out that he’s carving her name into her chest and abusing her best friend, played by Alyssa Milano, along with his cruel circle of friends. Wahlberg is every parent’s worst nightmare, irresistibly sexy but undeniably unsafe, and in the film’s shocking finale he lays siege to the family’s house and does unspeakable things. Fear is a terrifying film that stands the test of time better than most people would probably have assumed.
65. Blade (1998)
No one could have predicted that Blade, a modestly budgeted film starring a modestly successful action star, based on a 1970s comic book character hardly anybody had ever heard of, would be the launching pad for a new wave of blockbuster cinema. And honestly, watching it now, it’s still hard to believe. Blade is a competent but hardly ingenious supernatural action thriller, starring a badass Wesley Snipes as a half-human, half-vampire hero who slices and dices his way through a new generation of the undead. The action is solid and the scripting is decent, but it’s very much in-keeping with the rest of 1990s action cinema. But a film that treated comic books seriously, without an infusion of camp or outlandishly operatic imagery, was such a refreshing change of pace that studios changed their whole approach to superhero movies accordingly. In a vacuum Blade might actually belong quite a bit lower on this list, but it earns a few bonus points for its overwhelming historical impact.
64. Fallen (1998)
In 1998 it sure looked like classy actor Denzel Washington was slumming it with Fallen, a supernatural thriller about a demon who could jump from one human host to another just by touching them. But he actually had exceptionally good taste. Fallen is a stylish and handsomely produced horror film with an inventive villain, a spectacular cast and a creepy film noir flavor, courtesy of director Gregory Hoblit. It wasn’t a hit at the time, but that’s history’s mistake. Give it a chance in the present day and you’ll see just how good Fallen always was.
63. Child’s Play 2 (1990)
The original Child’s Play introduced the world to a murderous doll named Chucky, but Child’s Play 2 is the film that made him truly scary. Abandoning the original and forgettable crime subplot, Child’s Play 2 focuses mostly on the plight of a little boy who can’t convince anybody that he isn’t insane, and that his doll really is killing everyone in sight. Child’s Play 2 is the sort of paranoid fantasy a child might actually have about his or her playthings. It transforms the iconography of innocence into the stuff of nightmares. And the spectacular climactic showdown in the toy factory is a masterful combination of action and horror.
62. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
It’s been overshadowed by the superior and influential television series (which expanded on the characters and mythology and inspired a new generation of genre dialogue writing), but the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie gets a lot of things right. It’s a smart comedy about a teen girl trapped between what society told her she should want for herself – conventional feminine desires and capitalist success – and what the generations of women who sacrificed themselves to give her those opportunities stood for. And the fact that she accepts her call to action by way of fighting vampires is just a heck of a lot of fun, especially with Paul Reubens and Rutger Hauer cheerfully chewing the scenery as vampires with a great sense of humor.
61. Tesis (1996)
This celebrated Spanish thriller from director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) is, quite by definition, a product of its time. It’s a serial killer version of Blow-Up in which two college film students, obsessed with violence, stumble across a real-life snuff film and dissect it for clues using everything they know about VHS technology. But although the technology may be old hat, Tesis remains a rock solid thriller, with unsettling themes and disturbing scenes of violence, filming violence, filming violence.
60. Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)
Waxwork is one of the most underrated horror comedies ever, so it comes as little surprise that Waxwork II would follow in its footsteps. This bizarre concoction finds the survivors of the first film trapped inside “God’s Video Game,” and they bounce from one horror genre to the next, fighting evil for the sake of the whole world. This sends our heroes into respectable send-ups of Alien (complete with awesome monster effects) and a hilarious haunted house riff, in which Bruce Campbell becomes the victim of repeated, hilarious atrocities. It’s less focused than the original Waxwork, and a heck of a lot funnier than it is scary, but it’s still inventive as hell.
59. The Frighteners (1996)
Before he directed the Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson took at stab at big budget visual effects filmmaking with The Frighteners, a film that stars Michael J. Fox as a psychic who hunts ghosts. The gag is, the ghosts are actually in on the scam, and he hardly ever does any real work at all until a creature called The Soul Collector arrives and starts killing all of his ghost buddies. The concept is a little muddy, and the tone waffles between family friendly and disturbingly violent, but give it a chance. The Frighteners is a blast of creativity from Peter Jackson, full of amazing imagery and cool new ideas for how to make ghost stories exciting. Like several of the other films on our list, a director’s cut is also available, and like (most of) those other director’s cuts, it’s a heck of a lot better than the theatrical version.
58. Lake Placid (1999)
Before giant animal movies became a staple of the SyFy Channel, Hollywood gave the genre a fantastic send-off with Lake Placid, an unusually well-written flick about a gigantic crocodile that somehow finds its way into a lake in Maine. A town full of smart-asses meet their match when a bunch of smart-asses from the city show up to capture and study the beast, and of course they all meet their match when Betty White shows up for reasons too juicy to reveal here. Another great horror thriller from Steve Miner, written by David E. Kelley, who is best known for creating hit TV shows like Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal and who clearly loved jotting down every page of this film’s wonderful dialogue.
57. Needful Things (1993)
It’s absurd that Needful Things was produced as a feature film instead of an extended TV mini-series, especially since Stephen King mini-series were all the rage in the 1990s. But even though this adaptation of one of the horror author’s most intricate and ambitious novels cuts a lot of material out, it still captures what made the original so great in the first place. Max Von Sydow plays the devil himself, who moves into the small town of Castle Rock and begins selling people whatever they desire, in exchange for little favors that gradually tear the community apart. By the time the townsfolk are all prowling the streets in a collective, murderous rage you’ve lost track of where, exactly, they officially tipped into madness. Max Von Sydow is perfectly cast, and character actor J.T. Walsh gives one of his most memorable performances in a film that deserves a second chance from audiences who mostly dismissed it out of hand the first time around.
56. The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (1993)
Notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer became the subject of this low-low-low-budget drama, which stars Carl Crew (who also wrote the screenplay) as one of history’s most frightening maniacs. That budget isn’t a problem here, it’s actually a selling point: The Secret Life plays like the kind of movie Jeffrey Dahmer might have made about himself, matter of factly going about his murderous ways and making no excuses. There’s no apology here, and no objectivity either. It just immerses you in the mind of a serial killer and let’s you decide whether to look away, or keep watching. A forgotten film, but an undeniably unsettling and worthy one.
55. The Resurrected (1991)
The horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft are among the most influential works of fiction produced in the 20th Century, but for the most part they don’t seem to make very good movies, mostly because so many of them were either deeply conceptual or devoid of any conventional plot. But this adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is an exception to that rule, the story of a private detective who investigates a man who has become obsessed with his alchemist ancestor, and who has taken up that family business. The first half of The Resurrected is a little bit stodgy, but it’s mostly just lulling you into complacency. When the horror really kicks in, it kicks hard, and it leaves a mark. (Oh, and the visual effects are just plain fantastic.)
54. The Dark Half (1993)
Another underrated Stephen King adaptation, The Dark Half is an unsettling story about a writer’s dual nature, starring Timothy Hutton as a quote-unquote “serious” author who pays the bills by writing thrillers under the pseudonym of George Stark. (It’s an idea King knew well; again, he used to write under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.) But when Hutton finally lays his alter ego to rest, Stark emerges in real life, and begins a killing spree. Hutton gives two great performances here in a film that seems like one thing, turns out to be another, and then just turns out to be really damned good, with only an over the top ending keeping out of the upper echelons of the best Stephen King movies.
54. Wild Zero (1999)
The badass Japanese garage rock band Guitar Wolf stars – as themselves – in this wild sci-fi/horror hybrid, about aliens who invade the Earth with zombies while one of Guitar Wolf’s biggest fans struggles with his sexual identity. Wild Zero is a genuinely strange movie, but that’s its charm. It’s an explosion of rock ‘n’ roll heroism, where badass things happen just because rock is badass. Imagine The Blues Brothers meets Shaun of the Dead meets No More Heroes and you’ve got some idea of what’s in store for you in Wild Zero. It’s a blast.
53. The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992)
Before he directed L.A. Confidential, the late, great Curtis Hansen gave the world several excellent and mature thrillers, the sort of films that could have been cheap schlock had they not been written and directed with great care. One of the best is The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, a suspenseful film about an affluent family who invites a nanny into their lives, played by Rebecca De Mornay, who has her own plans for the children. It’s an intelligent and uncomfortable cautionary tale that explores just how many opportunities we allow dangerous people to worm their way into our lives, and Rebecca De Mornay gives an astoundingly creepy performance.
52. Candyman (1992)
Clive Barker came up with but didn’t direct this eery urban legend, about a man with a hook who shows up and kills you if you say “Candyman” in the mirror five times. A grad student played by Virginia Madsen decides to research the phenomenon, but after she exposes the truth about Candyman she comes to the horrifying realization that the story itself had power, and that it still demands to be told. Tony Todd gives an iconic performance as the title monster, the centerpiece of a mythology so rich that some people who have seen this movie still think it’s based on a “real” urban legend. It’s not, but it’s still fun to try it out for yourself at spooky parties.
51. The Faculty (1998)
Robert Rodriguez tried working within the studio system with The Faculty, an Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff written by Scream creator Kevin Williamson. The result is one of Rodriguez’s most restrained and effective films, with a great cast of young actors (Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Jordana Brewster and Clea DuVall) squaring off against a great cast of teachers (Salma Hayek, Bebe Neuwirth, Piper Laurie, Famke Janssen, Jon Stewart, Robert Patrick) who have been replaced by invading aliens. It’s a familiar story, certainly, but it’s populated with intelligent and funny characters, and propped up by goopy alien effects and a ton of suspense.
50. Troll 2 (1990)
Does the so-called “Best Worst Movie” belong at the bottom of the list, or at the top of it? Let’s just split the difference and put Troll 2 right in the middle. This impossibly weird motion picture, one that doesn’t have any trolls in it, finds a dopy suburban family vacationing in the small town of “Nilbog” and fighting off a horde of vegetarian goblins who plan to turn them into plants and eat them. It’s a stupid idea, filmed stupidly, with stupid performances and stupid special effects, and stupid dialogue that probably should never have been spoken by human voices. But Troll 2 is also absolutely riveting, a camp masterpiece if ever there was one, unintentionally keeping us entertained at the expense of our own better judgment. Maybe that makes it good, maybe that makes it bad, but it’s definitely a must see.
49. Nadja (1994)
The second-best art house vampire movie of the 1990s – for the best, scroll down to #17 – Nadja is the black-and-white saga of Dracula’s daughter (Elina Löwensohn), who prowls the streets of Brooklyn trying to fill the void in her soul after her father gets staked in the heart. She stumbles across a young woman named Lucy (Galaxy Craze) and begins to have an affair, unaware that Lucy’s husband is the nephew of Van Helsing (Peter Fonda, giving an unstable and wonderful performance). Meanwhile, Nadja’s brother Edgar (Jared Harris) is receiving a psychic fax. Pretentious, certainly, but that’s a big part of Nadja‘s appeal. The plot is ludicrous but it takes itself so bloody seriously, you start taking it seriously too. That, or it’s so bloody serious that it takes you a while to realize how ridiculous the plot is, and you start laughing. Either way, you’re right.
48. The Witches (1990)
Horror movies for kids are still technically horror movies, and this mostly-faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book still has the power to really freak out some youngsters. The Witches is the story of a little boy who learns that his grandmother’s stories about witches are true when, entirely by accident, he stumbles into their yearly conference at a hotel and learns of their plan to murder all of the kids in England. To shut him up, they turn him into a mouse, but he still keeps trying to stop them anyway. Angelica Huston steals the show as a child-hating monster in incredible makeup, whose snide attitude towards kids would be hilarious if it wasn’t so frightening. On second thought, maybe it’s still funny either way.
47. The Night Flier (1997)
Another criminally underrated Stephen King adaptation, but it’s not The Night Flier‘s fault. Mark Pavia’s film was barely released in 1997 and it’s still sometimes hard to find, but once you see it, it’s hard to deny that it’s a horrifying treat. Miguel Ferrer stars as a tabloid journalist whose latest story – about a serial killer who flies into small airports, murders everybody, and then flies away undetected – might be supernatural in origin. The plot is unexpected and disturbing, but the best part of The Night Flier is Miguel Ferrer, giving a tragic and nuanced performance as a man who exchanged his soul for pragmatism many years ago, and who realizes now that it may be too late to trade it back.
46. Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
Before director Martin Campbell reinvented the James Bond franchise, twice, with GoldenEye and Casino Royale, he directed this exceedingly clever supernatural film noir, set in an alternate reality 1940s where everybody knows magic is real, and lives peacefully (mostly) with psychics, unicorns, zombies and demons. Fred Ward stars as private detective Harry Lovecraft, a luddite who doesn’t use magic, who is tasked with finding a stolen book called The Necronomicon. Old school film noir genre tropes mingle beautifully with geeky horror in-jokes, in a film that’s somehow classy and ludicrous at the same time. Cast a Deadly Spell was followed by an inferior, but decent sequel called Witch Hunt, in which Dennis Hopper replaced Fred Ward as an aging Harry Lovecraft, dealing with McCarthyism in an alternate 1950s where the title was taken literally.
45. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
An impressive genre-bender, written by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Robert Rodriguez, and starring George Clooney before he had any box office clout. Clooney co-stars with Tarantino as thieves who kidnap an innocent family to sneak their way across the U.S./Mexican border, and that part is so damned good you almost don’t notice that it takes 50% of the movie for the vampires to show up. Once they do, From Dusk Till Dawn transforms into a memorable, gory and sexy supernatural siege picture, with wonderful makeup effects and a great cast of supporting characters. There wasn’t anything quite like it in 1996, and in some ways there hasn’t been anything quite like it since.
44. Cronos (1993)
Guillermo Del Toro’s first feature film has the same heartache that drives all of his best work, inside of a story that’s intimate and disturbing. Federico Luppi stars as an antique dealer who discovers an ancient artifact that digs into his skin and gives him eternal life, exactly what the aging grandfather wanted, but of course immortality comes with a cost. Lots of vampire movies tackle the tragedy of the monster’s bloodlust, but few ever reach the heights of Cronos, in which this poor old man seriously considers devouring his own granddaughter. It may not be Guillermo Del Toro’s very best film, but all of his promise is right here, in a spooky and sad contemporary fable.
43. Copycat (1995)
If Copycat hadn’t come out just one month after Se7en, meaning that it wouldn’t have felt – ironically – like such a copycat, then it would probably have a more respectable cult following. Instead, Copycat was swept under the rug a bit in the late 1990s, despite a clever premise and two terrifically riveting lead performances by Holly Hunter, as a homicide detective, and Sigourney Weaver, as an agoraphobic psychologist who helps catch her a manic who keeps recreating other, famous murder scenes. Unsettling violence and exceptionally written characters, in a film where the two leads just happen to be women, make Copycat much more distinctive – and a heck of a lot better – than it probably looks like at a first glance.
42. Ravenous (1999)
Antonia Bird’s strange and freaky cannibalism thriller Ravenous is a historical epic western with supernatural elements, and nobody knew what the hell to do with it when it came out in 1999. Years later, Ravenous has developed a well-deserved following, thanks to some remarkable performances by Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle and David Arquette, fascinating music by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, and a story that alternates between serious drama, shocking violence and old-fashioned supervillainy. Ravenous is weird as hell, and that’s wonderful.
41. Raising Cain (1992)
Brian De Palma re-teamed with his Obsession and Blow Out co-star John Lithgow for Raising Cain, one of the wildest and most unrelenting films in either of their careers. Lithgow plays a family man who keeps hallucinating an evil version of himself, who spurs him to commit acts of violence. You only think you know where that plot is going, trust me. It’s an unpredictable and terrifying thriller, thanks in part to De Palma’s whirligig direction but mostly to Lithgow, an often under-appreciated actor who conveys here many forms of madness, and segues neatly between victimhood and violence, giving one of his very best performances. There’s a new director’s cut of Raising Cain that’s supposedly better than the original, but even the original is worthy of breaking into the top 50 best horror movies of the 1990s.
40. Basket Case 2 (1990)
Frank Henenlotter didn’t just continue the story of his seedy conjoined twin monster movie Basket Case, he expanded and transformed it into something damn near heroic. Duane and his deformed brother Belial are now living at an unusual refuge, populated by other people with physical abnormalities that could easily be described as both bizarre and beautiful. As they struggle to come to terms with what “normal” really means to them, the refuge is put at risk by tabloid reporters who want to exploit and demonize Duane, Belial and their newfound friends. Spectacularly imaginative makeup effects combine with a story that’s genuinely empowering, occasionally frightening, and ultimately still rather sad.
39. Death Becomes Her (1992)
Robert Zemeckis always likes to be at the forefront of new filmmaking technologies, but he hasn’t always always used those innovations to make Oscar-winners like Forrest Gump. Sometimes he makes Oscar-winners like Death Becomes Her, a brilliant sendup of so-called “hag films,” in which an aging Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn drink a magic potion that makes them immortal, but that doesn’t prevent their bodies from being mutilated. Eventually they have to set aside their rivalry to convince Streep’s husband, a brilliant plastic surgeon, to make them look like they don’t have shotgun wounds in their chest or heads that are only precariously attached to their bodies. The incredible visual effects still hold up today (there’s a reason they won that Oscar), and the film’s morbid sense of humor is still really funny, making this movie a creepy little treasure.
38. Deep Rising (1998)
The Mummy was a fun flick, but Stephen Sommers actually got it right the first time. Deep Rising is a wily horror comedy about a cruise ship that’s attacked by carnivorous sea monsters, just before it was already about to get hijacked. Now, a hapless boat crew is stuck with a team of violent mercenaries, a plucky cat burglar and giant man-eating tentacles. Basically, it’s The Poseidon Adventure if Poseidon had released the Kraken. It has the same genial tone as The Mummy, but combined with gory visual effects and a storyline that’s anything but predictable. (And one thing’s for sure, by the time it’s over, you’ll wish they had made a sequel.)
37. Stir of Echoes (1999)
Overshadowed by a certain OTHER ghost story that came out in 1999 (scroll down to #16, as if you didn’t know), Stir of Echoes is one of the most mature and striking supernatural tales of the 1990s. Based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the novella I Am Legend, it’s the story of a blue collar guy played by Kevin Bacon, whose life is turned upside down when, while undergoing hypnosis, he learns that he can see ghosts. He starts going insane trying to solve a murder mystery in the neighborhood while his family worries about his mental health and, since they’re not exactly millionaires, also stresses out about when he’ll finally return to work. Atmospheric and well-written, Stir of Echoes still lingers in the memory nearly twenty years later.
36. Pi (1998)
Years before he directed Black Swan – that rare horror movie that actually got a Best Picture nomination – director Darren Aronofsky got his start with Pi, a low-budget intellectual nightmare about a mathematician who tries to come up with a formula to predict the stock market, but stumbles onto the mathematical equation for God instead. He starts to lose his sanity, because the human imperfection and mathematical certainty are inherently contradictory. Pi is a striking and unusual horror thriller, like Eraserhead but for science nerds, and it clearly predicts a future in which Aronofsky moved on to bigger and more ambitious things.
35. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Tim Burton paid a delirious homage to Hammer Horror classics of yore with Sleepy Hollow, a reimagining of Washington Irving’s classic ghost story in which The Headless Horseman is a supernatural serial killer, and the faint-hearted Ichabod Crane is a police investigator. The strokes of genius here are many, and the film’s Oscar-winning production design is absolutely wondrous, but perhaps the best part of Sleepy Hollow is the fact that Ichabod Crane’s cowardice remains intact. As played by Johnny Depp, he faints on more than one occasion and uses children as human shields. A distinctive protagonist for a film that, otherwise, is rather familiar by its (gorgeous) design.
34. Bride of Chucky (1998)
After three relatively straightforward films about a killer doll doing killer doll stuff, the Child’s Play franchise got totally meta with Bride of Chucky, a vibrant and violent horror comedy about Chucky’s ex-girlfriend – played to perfection by Jennifer Tilly – who also gets trapped inside of a doll, and joins Chucky on a cross-country murder spree in the back of a camper with two runaway teens who keep getting blamed for all the murders. Cute shout-outs to other horror franchises abound, but it’s the energetic direction by Ronnie Yu, and a screenplay by Don Mancini that actually explores Chucky and Tiffany’s relationship that makes Bride of Chucky a genuinely great horror movie, and not just a funny one.
33. Fire in the Sky (1993)
Alien abductions were one of the great urban legends of the 20th Century, and they hit a peak in the 1990s with TV shows like The X-Files and films like Fire in the Sky, a frightening movie that was – supposedly – based on a true story. Underrated actor D.B. Sweeney plays Travis Walton, who gets sucked into a U.F.O. and for a long time we have no idea what happened to him. All we know is that nobody believes his friends’ stories. When Walton returns five days later, everyone thinks it’s a hoax. Even though Fire in the Sky revels in paranoia, as its characters find it impossible to make anyone believe their tall tales, it does ultimately reveal “the truth” in a horrifying sequence which reveals everything that Travis Walton says happened to him aboard that the spaceship, confirming all of our worst fears. It’s one of the scariest scenes of the decade, maybe even ever.
32. Innocent Blood (1992)
From John Landis, the director of An American Werewolf in London, comes a film that’s sometimes jokingly (but accurately) called “A French Vampire in America.” Innocent Blood is about a lovely nosferatu played by La Femme Nikita‘s Anne Parillaud who likes to eat Italian mobsters and disguise her slayings as assassinations. When she accidentally leaves one of them alive, he starts transforming all of his underlings into supernatural demons, and she has to team up with an undercover detective, played by Anthony LaPaglia, to save New York City. Is it funny? You bet, but it’s also exciting and sensual, with a dynamite love affair between the two heroes and amazing vampire effects, including a sunlight explosion for the ages. The awesome supporting cast includes Robert Loggia, Don Rickles, Chazz Palminteri, Kim Coates, Linnea Quigley, Sam Raimi, Frank Oz, Tom Savini, Dario Argento, Luis Guzman and Angela Bassett. Wow.
31. Tales from the Hood (1995)
There is no good reason why Tales from the Hood isn’t more popular. Sure, Vondie Curtis Hall is hamming it up as a mortician telling scary stories, but all of those scary stories are ripping yarns that use the horror genre to convey potent social allegories. In one, a black police officer turns a blind eye to racism in his department, leading to the death of a civil rights leader who comes back for vengeance. In another, an abusive father – played, incredibly, by lovable comedian David Alan Grier – turns his son’s life into a nightmare, from which there is an unexpected escape. There is also a racist politician who gets his comeuppance in the form of eery stop-motion puppets, possessed by the souls of slaves, and finally a bizarre riff on A Clockwork Orange, designed to make a murderer accept his role in damaging race relations in America. Powerful stuff, directed with humor and insight by Rusty Cundieff, and produced by Spike Lee.
30. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Anne Rice’s first undead saga is adapted into a genuinely sumptuous epic, directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game). Brad Pitt stars as an undead man who decides to finally tell his story, a sad but romantic saga of love, blood and dysfunctional families, with Tom Cruise stealing scenes as the charismatic vampire Lestat and Kirsten Dunst turning heads in her breakout role, as a vampire woman doomed to live inside the body of a little girl forever. A gorgeous production, splendidly acted, that brought pathos to the horror genre at a time when, in theaters at least, that was a rarity.
29. Cemetery Man (1994)
Brilliant, but rarely discussed, Cemetery Man stars Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte, an undertaker who works at a graveyard where the dead come back to life seven nights after they are buried, forcing him to kill them all over again. It’s full of impressive gore, but Michele Soavi’s film is more interested in the psychological impact that this has on Francesco, who is torn apart by existential dread, and palpable ennui. Surreal and unlike any other zombie movie you’ve probably ever watched, with an ending that must be seen to be believed.
28. Arachnophobia (1990)
Wildly entertaining and brimming with wonderful characters, Frank Marshall’s horror comedy Arachnophobia exploits a very simple fear – it’s right there, in the title – and takes just enough of the edge off by adding great jokes. It’s the story of a small town infested with a rare species of incredibly poisonous spider, which begins breeding out of control, threatening the whole community. Jeff Daniels is the doctor who suspects something is amiss, Julian Sands is the entomologist who thinks the creatures are fascinating, and John Goodman is the heroic exterminator who just shows up, does his job, kills millions of spiders and doesn’t get enough credit for it.
27. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppola went completely nuts making Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a vivacious adaptation of the original, classic novel that stuffs the screen with sex, blood, and fabulous costumes. Gary Oldman plays the title monster, sexier than any other cinematic version of Dracula, and so incredibly evil that the forces of nature no longer apply around him, with his shadow acting independently of his body. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is packed with eye-popping practical effects work, and boasts an impressive cast of respectable actors (although, infamously, Keanu Reeves isn’t exactly doing his best work). It’s funny, it’s frightening, and it’s gorgeous from start to finish.
26. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Joe Dante outdid himself with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, turning what could have been a hapless sequel into a wild and imaginative thrill ride, with the monsters from the first film mutating into new and spectacular creatures – like one that’s half-spider, one that has wings, one that can talk and another that’s somehow made of electricity – and taking over a high-rise in New York City. It’s a sharp satire of consumerism and the media, and a pointed send-up of Ted Turner’s many enterprises, but you don’t have to pay attention to the subtext to appreciate just how wild Gremlins 2 is. It’s just delightful entertainment, and it’s probably Joe Dante’s most entertaining film. (No easy feat.)
25. Man Bites Dog (1992)
Before we had the “found footage” genre, films like Man Bites Dog were labeled as “mockumentaries,” but that label does the film a disservice. This is the story of a documentary film crew that has somehow found themselves a serial killer, and convinced him to let them record his many atrocities. At first their objectivity is horrifying, as they stand back and simply record this monster as he kills innocent people just for kicks. But before long he has to enlist their assistance in little ways, blurring the line between reporting the facts and losing one’s soul through inaction. It’s a challenging motion picture, a darkly humorous indictment of the way we capture atrocities on camera – real or otherwise – instead of actually doing something about them.
24. Nightbreed (1990)
Midian is where the monsters live, a hidden underground city where violent demons and innocent beasts live in harmony, away from the so-called “normal” people who would hunt them down and kill them. The metaphor is anything but subtle, but Clive Barker’s Nightbreed is nevertheless a potent allegory for anything you can think of – racism, homophobia, religious hysteria, you name it – brought to vivid life in an empowering and gruesome fashion. Clive Barker directs this film with an obvious love for the monsters, and an obvious skepticism about humanity, represented here (mostly) by religious fanatics, corrupt policemen and a psychologist, played with slithering menace by David Cronenberg, who is also a serial killer. A director’s cut of Nightbreed exists but, aside from an ending that’s a bit more satisfying, it’s actually not as involving as the original version, which is faster paced and more suspenseful. See the theatrical cut, and if you love that (and you very well might), seek out the director’s preferred version for more great shots of the monsters of Midian and a more satisfying conclusion to this tale.
23. Lost Highway (1997)
David Lynch was working in VERY enigmatic territory while making Lost Highway, a murder mystery with supernatural elements – maybe – in which all of the clues seem to have been cut out of the script. Bill Pullman plays a jazz musician who thinks his wife, played by Patricia Arquette, is having an affair. One night he meets a strange man at a party who is, somehow, simultaneously at his house. Then his wife ends up dead, he’s convicted of the murder, and he transforms into Balthazar Getty, who is let out of prison and sent back to his humdrum life fixing cars for a psychopathic mob boss, played by Robert Loggia, who is also dating Patricia Arquette. But maybe she’s a different woman. Or maybe she represents all of our masculine insecurities. Either way, Lost Highway is left up to delirious interpretation. Its violence is fascinating, its meaning is illusory, and its a terrifying trip into David Lynch’s anxious imagination no matter what you make of it.
22. Tremors (1990)
The time has come to acknowledge that Tremors is one of the all-time great monster movies, about an ingeniously conceived creature terrorizing a small town populated by memorable weirdos who have to come up with wily ways to survive. Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon star as handymen in the small desert town of Perfection, which has just been beset by giant subterranean worm monsters that use sonar to hunt and kill you. One footstep draws their attention, so before long the whole town is up on their rooftops, trying to figure out a way to escape without making any noise before they all starve to death. There’s nothing quite like it, and yet Tremors is a pleasingly familiar kind of movie. It’s like all the characters from a family flick suddenly found themselves in the wrong genre, challenged in ways they would have never expected. It’s hard not to love them for that.
21. Dead Alive (1992)
Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive is one of the bloodiest movies ever made, a splatterhouse masterpiece swimming in so much gore you half imagine the filmmakers needed a life guard on set. It’s the tale of a mama’s boy who, after his mum is bitten by a Sumatran rat monkey, finds himself taking care of her all over again, hiding the bodies her zombified corpse keeps killing and making nice with all the other folks she’s infected. It all culminates in a truly disgusting but unbelievably amusing gore sequence, where our hero takes a lawn mower to damn near everyone in town. Hilarious and twisted, Dead Alive will live forever as a horror-comedy classic.
20. Jurassic Park (1993)
Some people argue that Jurassic Park isn’t a horror movie, but the shoe obviously fits: it’s the story of a group of mad scientists who create giant man-eating monsters who break loose and start killing everybody. And even though the film’s groundbreaking visual effects inspire genuine awe, director Steven Spielberg clearly wants to scare you. The sequence where the Tyrannosaurus Rex escapes its pen and attacks a pair of helpless children is threatening as hell, and the Velociraptors quickly graduated from relative obscurity to one of the most fearsome carnivorous creatures in history. Sure, it’s a fun movie as well, but lots of horror movies are amusing, exciting and ultimately end happily. Jurassic Park just operates on a grander scale, and it made tons of money in the process. It’s one of the most popular horror movies ever made, and with good cause.
19. Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates won an Academy Award for playing a horror movie villain – think about how rare THAT is – for Misery, Rob Reiner’s impossibly tense adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, about an author held captive by his “Number One Fan.” James Caan plays the author, whose many marketable novels have inspired devotion in a former nurse who helps him get better after a car accident and then, when he’s well enough to leave, makes him get worse. Forced to sacrifice his artistic integrity to survive (a situation many artists know rather well), and a slave to the whims of his fans (ditto), our hopeless protagonist is trapped in an impossible situation and there’s no telling how he’ll get out… or if he ever will. Bates really does give a performance for the ages in Misery, capturing the loneliness and mania of obsession believably, and uncomfortably well.
18. The Exorcist III (1990)
Written off as just another sequel when it first came out, The Exorcist III has since gone on to earn justifiable acclaim as a great supernatural thriller in its own right and, arguably, an even scarier film than the original. George C. Scott stars as Lt. Kinderman, the detective who investigated the original murder case in The Exorcist, and whose latest case makes no sense whatsoever. Dead bodies are being discovered in positions that defy all logic, and the only clues lead him to a hospital full of aging patients who can barely talk, let alone go across town and kill anybody. William Peter Blatty wrote and directed The Exorcist III, based on his own novel Legion, and he lends the film a quiet and unsettling calm, punctuated by remarkable insight and shocking scares that seemingly pop up out of nowhere. It all leads to a confrontation with a possessed killer, played by Brad Dourif, and an exorcism that Blatty didn’t want to put in the film but the studio mandated anyway. The studio may have been right: it’s an impressive and maddening conclusion to a film that deserves one.
17. The Addiction (1995)
Abel Ferrera’s art-house vampire drama The Addiction is a black-and-white treatise on philosophy, religion, drug addiction, and post-traumatic stress, starring Lili Taylor as a college student who is assaulted in an alleyway by a vampire. She changes her whole world view as a result, giving in to sadistic urges and wrestling with the larger ramifications of the existence of evil. The Addiction may be supernatural in origin but it feels wholly natural, a vital extension of young philosophical and moral conflict within a New York community divided by unseen amorality and superficial enlightenment. You may need Cliff’s Notes to understand what everybody is talking about in The Addiction, but that’s not a critique: you’ll be smarter after the fact, and you’ll recognize just how profound Abel Ferrara’s picture really is.
16. The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan’s second feature, after the justifiably forgotten Wide Awake, was an enormous box office success that earned six Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. And you know what? It deserved all that success. Bruce Willis does exceptional work playing a child psychologist whose latest patient is a young boy, played by Haley Joel Osment, who is absolutely paralyzed by constant terror. It turns out the child can see ghosts and doesn’t know to handle that torment. Now, everybody makes a big deal about the ending of The Sixth Sense – and it would be rude to ruin it here – but the most brilliant part of Shyamalan’s film is that works whether or not you know where it’s going. It’s an expertly executed character study, and an impressively atmospheric ghost story either way.
15. The People Under The Stairs (1991)
Wes Craven was called the master of horror for many reasons, and although The People Under the Stairs may not be the most famous of those reasons, it’s still a damned good one. This righteously angry horror story stars Brandon Adams as a little kid from an impoverished part of town who, along with his uncle, breaks into the home of the affluent white couple who are evicting his family. It turns out these folks, “Mommy” and “Daddy” (Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), are violent maniacs who mutilate their children and keep them locked in the crawlspaces of their home. Now our young hero is trapped inside this abattoir with them, and forced to find a way out. It’s a harrowing thriller, rife with blunt but effective social commentary, featuring a pair of villains who may be two of the most horrifying lovers in movie history.
14. Se7en (1995)
David Fincher’s debut film, Alien 3, had serious problems but he managed to elevate it into an intriguing horror film through sheer force of will. With Se7en he started out with stronger material, a cynical and inventive screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, and he elevated it into a genuine classic. Se7en stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as homicide investigators who stumble onto a serial killer whose victims are each guilty of one of the seven deadly sins – Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy and Wrath – and whose methods go beyond ironic and into shockingly twisted territory. The ugliness is filmed beautifully, and the actors make their actions feel more important than they would in a typical pulp shocker. And the ending… hoo boy, that ending.
13. Cape Fear (1991)
Martin Scorsese did a horror remake, which should probably go a long way towards proving that remakes aren’t as inherently awful as many people think they are. Especially since some of them turn out like Cape Fear, a shocking thriller that takes the original, rock solid crime thriller from 1962 and perverts it into a new creature. Robert De Niro plays Max Cady, a violent criminal whose lawyer, played by Nick Nolte, lost the case intentionally for moral reasons. Now, Cady is out of prison and stalking the lawyer’s family, seducing their daughter and violating their friends. De Niro is impressively scary here, and Martin Scorsese knows how to freak out his audience, pumping Cape Fear full of iconic set pieces that will stick in your head forever.
12. Army of Darkness (1992)
Sam Raimi’s third Evil Dead movie may not be the best in the series, but it’s still one of the most entertaining horror comedies ever produced. Bruce Campbell is back as Ash, a department store clerk sent back in time to the Middle Ages to save King Arthur’s court from an army of undead warriors, most of whom Ash accidentally unleashes himself. It’s a playful homage to historical action epics of yore, and one of the great fish out of water comedies, with Campbell taking center stage as an ego-driven schmuck who isn’t nearly as cool as he thinks he is… except when he is totally that cool. Endlessly quotable and an utter delight, Army of Darkness continues to win our hearts to this very day.
11. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Wes Craven returned to the franchise he created, and he completely upends the whole thing in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. After many years and multiple sequels, child murderer/dream demon Freddy Krueger just wasn’t scary anymore, and that’s a big, big problem, because he was supposed to represent the horrors of the world and if we stop taking him seriously, we open ourselves up to more real-life horror. So Wes Craven’s New Nightmare sends Freddy Krueger to “the real world,” where he menaces Craven himself, series star Heather Langenkamp and her (fictional) son, who experiences things that no child should ever have to experience. It only sounds like it’s too clever for its own good. It’s actually one of the most thoughtful scary movies ever produced, an insightful commentary on the purpose of the whole horror genre and a clever subversion of everything A Nightmare on Elm Street ever stood for, one that reaffirms the power of the series without denying that those subpar installments ever happened.
10. Ringu (1998)
It’s important to remember that as good as the American remake of The Ring is – and it’s really very good, keeping the story intact while adapting the culturally specific iconography to have a distinct new impact western audiences – the original is probably still better. Hideo Nakata’s shocking film about a bootleg tape that kills you seven days after you watch it has an unusual premise that, like all the best ideas, feels like it’s much older and more primal than it actually is. A reporter watches the tape and the curse begins, tightening the noose around her neck and leading up to one of the most surprising and shocking scares in movie history. (Made slightly less scary by the American remake that promoted the hell out of it.) Hideo Nakata’s direction is less in-your-face than the remake, so the horror creeps into the story instead of feeling like a natural extension of an already frightening world.
9. In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
John Carpenter’s best film of the 1990s is also a serious contender for John Carpenter’s best film. Sam Neill stars as an insurance investigator who is assigned to find a missing horror author, whose novels are so terrifying that his readers sometimes lose their minds after reading them. He finds the mysterious Sutter Cane in a town that appears on no maps, that only exists inside of Cane’s novels, and hero’s hold on reality only gets more tenuous from there. Brutal violence and a playful disregard for sanity makes In The Mouth of Madness an unpredictable experience, and John Carpenter’s reinterpretation of the cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft are even more effective than the official adaptations of the horror author’s classic works.
8. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Ignore the backlash. The Blair Witch Project was more than a brilliant marketing campaign, it was a groundbreaking horror film that plays like no other mockumentary before it and, frankly, like none of the “found footage” movies that came in its wake. Those other films feel like they were dramatized by professional storytellers, and that’s not always a compliment. The Blair Witch Project – about three documentary filmmakers who get lost in the woods, lose their minds and possibly come face-to-face with a malevolent spirit – feels like it occurred quite by accident, filmed as it was by the actors themselves, who treated the camera not as a crutch but as something they just happened to have in their hands. The amateurish approach lends credence the film’s storytelling conceit, that this isn’t a movie we’re watching but evidence of a mysterious crime, and that makes it all the more fascinating, frightening and sad.
7. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The only horror movie to win a Best Picture Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. The Silence of the Lambs is an impeccably crafted thriller about an incarcerated serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, who helps a young FBI trainee capture a killer at large. That alone would be high concept enough to drive a decent potboiler, but in the hands of director Jonathan Demme, based as it was on a stellar novel by Thomas Harris, and with a profoundly capable cast led by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs becomes something much more. An insidious indictment of misogyny, in which an undervalued young woman teams up with a madman who, unlike all the s0-called “sane” men in the film, actually appreciates and values her as a human being, in order to capture a monster. (That the monster is easily interpreted, although seemingly unintentionally, as a transsexual is sadly to the film’s detriment; it infuses The Silence of the Lambs with uncomfortable subtext that contradicts the central thesis about respecting marginalized people. But both the positive and negative interpretations of this film have value.)
6. Audition (1999)
The thing about Audition is that, to fully appreciate Audition, you should know as little as possible about Audition before seeing Audition. Suffice it to say the film doesn’t call attention to whether or not it’s even a scary movie. For a long time it plays instead like a misguided farce, about a widower looking to replace his dead wife and holding auditions for a fake acting role as a makeshift dating service. It sounds like the kind of plot device the late Garry Marshall would have played straight as a romantic comedy, but filmmaker Takashi Miike knows better than that. Where it goes from that point I will not say, but it’s worth watching Audition for yourself to find out. Trust me.
5. Perfect Blue (1997)
The late, lamented Satoshi Kon proved – with just four animated feature films and one mini-series – that he was one of the most gifted storytellers of his generation. And the psychological thriller Perfect Blue was our first evidence of his genius, an absorbing and maddening tale about a Japanese pop idol who gives up her music career, takes up acting, and incurs the wrath of an obsessed fan as a result. What is expected of her, who other people think she must be, and who she really is soon blur into a terrifying stream of consciousness, and before long she starts simply looking at the internet, believing that what other people say she did all day must be what really happened. There’s more to Perfect Blue than that, much more, and the film’s disturbing pleasures come from discovering them for yourself.
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Audiences had already given up on the pop culture sensation Twin Peaks by the time David Lynch’s prequel came out, and the fact that Lynch’s film didn’t wrap up any of the canceled TV show’s cliffhangers only managed to push more viewers away. But Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me wasn’t driven by marketing and it wasn’t a coda to the show, it was a reinterpretation of the whole series, which spent two seasons showing how the murder of a teenaged girl affected a small logging community. In the film, we see her murder take place and come to the unpleasant realization that none of Twin Peaks was ever as funny as it seemed to be, because it was always built on a foundation of brutal tragedy. We watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me knowing very well what’s going to happen, because by then the killer had already been revealed on the show, and of course we are powerless to stop it. There is no suspense, but there is dread and there is sympathy. Thanks to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the death of Laura Palmer has a greater impact than any other death in any other film on this list.
3. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Adrian Lyne wasn’t known for directing supernatural horror movies, he was known for making alluring dramas and thrillers, and filming alluring scenes of passionate sensuality. But the director of Flashdance and Fatal Attraction was the perfect choice to direct Jacob’s Ladder, a film about a Vietnam veteran, played by Tim Robbins, who begins to see terrible things on a daily basis. His girlfriend with a spike coming out of her mouth. Faceless beings nearly running him over in a car. Unspeakable images filmed, to perfection, by a director who knows how to make pretty pictures but also how to produce the opposite as well. Jacob’s journey into his own visions isn’t an easy one, for him or the audience, and he comes to conclusions over the course of the film that are unthinkable, terrible, and maybe even ultimately transcendent. Jacob’s Ladder is one of the most distinct visions of terror ever captured on camera, and one of the most profound.
2. Scream (1996)
Scream gets a lot of credit for reinventing the slasher genre, combining elements of conventional American spree killer stories with Italian giallo conventions and adding a self aware context: the film is populated by characters who, unlike most horror movie characters before 1996, had actually seen a lot of horror movies and made the connection that they were essentially (if not necessarily literally) living through one. And if that’s all Scream was it would be enough, but Wes Craven – working from an exceptional screenplay by Kevin Williamson – is once again using the horror genre to consider something more resonant and meaningful than mere genre studies. Just like A Nightmare on Elm Street before it, Scream is a generational horror story, in which the sins of the parents are visited upon their children, but in Scream those sins are subjective. SPOILER ALERT: It’s the story of a young woman who is punished by men for the promiscuity of her mother, as if a woman acting on her sexual urges was justification for a death sentence. END SPOILERS. Sydney Prescott, played with great strength by Neve Campbell, isn’t just reclaiming her power from the horror genre, which frequently exploits the victimization of women, she’s reclaiming her power from a pervasive social mentality that victimizes women off-screen as well, and that elevates a film that that could have just been a smart deconstruction of slasher movies to genuine greatness.
1. Funny Games (1997)
Filmmaker Michael Haneke has argued that if audiences enjoyed watching Funny Games, they missed the point entirely. And sure enough, this home invasion “thriller” (if you can call it that) is a brutalizing experience, an unapologetic depiction of abuse and murder, perpetrated by two monsters who look directly at the camera and ask us if this is what we really want. After all, we decided to watch Funny Games, didn’t we? And that means that we wanted to watch a home being invaded. Haneke pulls out the rug from the whole horror genre, declaring the audience’s own bloodlust as the real act of obscene cruelty, and arguing that it doesn’t matter whether the characters are fictional or real. We want horror, we get horror, and maybe we really should be ashamed of ourselves.
These are controversial ideas, the sort of concepts that should probably scare fans of the horror genre. Maybe we do share some responsibility for the evils of the world. Think about it: we’re paying to watch them happen. And if that doesn’t do it for you, then Funny Games still works as a home invasion thriller, and it’s easily the best.
Top Photos: Dimension Films / Orion Pictures / New Line Cinema
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.