1990s teen movies you'll remember - and some you won't
What makes a classic? Sarah digs into the ‘90s teen genre to find the difference between an iconic movie and a forgotten one...
The 90s revival can’t be ignored any longer. The nostalgia is in full bloom right now: walk down the high street and you’ll see 90s-inspired crop tops and stonewashed denim in every shop window, while current cool kids Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX (neither of whom were old enough to see the film at the time) have paid slavish tribute to Clueless in the video for their current single Fancy. We’ve already pillaged the ‘80s for all they were worth and now, apparently, it’s time to start excavating the 90s. No matter how old that makes us feel.
If there’s one film genre that screams “90s”, it’s the teen movie. The decade was a kind of golden age for the teen comedy – from offbeat Shakespeare adaptations to supernatural coming-of-age tales, teen movies were everywhere, and we’re still quoting them today.
Well, some of them, anyway. For every Mallrats or Empire Records, there’s a stack of movies doomed to sit forever unwatched at the bottom of Netflix’s Comedies list. What makes the difference between an eternal classic and an unloved flop? Sometimes, it’s an obvious question of quality. Sometimes, it might be down to bad timing, or a cast member who’s fallen out of fashion, or some other completely unknowable reason. So here are 10 teen movies from the 90s you’ll remember – and 10 that, for one reason or another, most sound-minded people have forgotten ever existed…
You remember: Clueless (1995)
Let’s start with the most obvious one of them all. A modern day adaptation of Emma, this is the film that catapulted Alicia Silverstone to superstardom (only for Batman & Robin to undo all its good work). The plot is fairly standard rom-com stuff, as a superficial over-privileged teenager stumbles through high school, learning life lessons and finding love through trying to play Cupid for other people. Everything about it is iconic, from the fashion to the endlessly quotable dialogue – much of which has made its way into everyday slang now. Mean Girls has probably stolen its crown as the best-loved teen movie ever, but it’s got to be a close second.
You don’t remember: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1992)
Okay, sure, everyone remembers Buffy The Vampire Slayer the TV show. And most of them are probably dimly aware that there was a movie first. But in terms of actually remembering anything about it – or having seen it in the first place? Even most Buffy fans probably don’t. Joss Whedon essentially disowned it, since it didn’t measure up to his vision for the character and her world; he got seven seasons to explore that in the end, so it worked out for him.
The thing is, Buffy The Vampire Slayer the movie isn’t actually terrible. Kristy Swanson’s Buffy is another over-privileged Valley girl, speaking in slang and ‘borrowing’ her parents’ Jag when they’re out, but she has to grow up quickly when she discovers she’s one of an ancient line of vampire slayers. The film is more of a comedy than the TV show, and it tips over into outright silliness more than once, but it’s still a fun watch, and doesn’t deserve to be completely forgotten.
You remember: Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
Can’t Hardly Wait is one of the most memorable 90s teen films – because it stars literally everybody who was anybody in the 90s. Jennifer Love Hewitt, Seth Green, Melissa Joan Hart, Donald Faison, and virtually the entire cast of Six Feet Under… seriously, there’s barely a single face in this movie you won’t recognise. Plot-wise, it’s pretty straightforward rom-com/coming-of-age nonsense about a boy who’s obsessed with a girl but is prevented by the very complex social hierarchy of high school from ever speaking to her, until they graduate and have a massive party to celebrate.
It’s pretty clichéd, obvious stuff, but the endlessly impressive cast, and that one bizarre scene in the middle where our hero Preston (Ethan Embry) tries to call a radio show to get advice from Barry Manilow, made sure this was definitely one of the ones you remember.
You don’t remember: Whatever It Takes (2000)
On the surface, Whatever It Takes is pretty similar to Can’t Hardly Wait: it’s about a geeky boy who’s obsessed with a hot girl, and is determined to win her before high school is over. Even the snarky female best friend and annoying posse of nerds are present and correct. But while the love story in Can’t Hardly Wait is unrealistic but sort of sweet, the story here is just kind of vile. Our hero, Ryan (Shane West) lets sleazy jock Chris (a convincingly awful James Franco) teach him negging in order to win the heart of horrible cool girl Ashley Grant (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe). In return, he tries to coach Chris on being sweet in order to woo girl-next-door Maggie (Marla Sokoloff). It ends in tears and sexual assault. It’s horrible.
The joke about all the cool kids constantly calling Ryan “Brian” is kind of funny, but it’s not enough to redeem this awful rubbish.
You remember: Scream (1996)
“What’s your favourite scary movie?” In the late 90s, it might well have been Scream. Wes Craven’s teen slasher played around with the conventions of the genre, including tons of references – some more subtle than others – to earlier horror films, while being scary and gory enough to appeal to a new generation of horror fans.
Scream was so successful that it spawned three sequels and single-handedly brought the slasher movie back to life for one… last… scare. Or, you know, several hundred more scares. Kevin Williamson’s script is a post-modern classic, and Neve Campbell is a brilliant final girl, capable of reeling off the mistakes horror movie heroines always make even as she stumbles into making them herself.
You don’t remember: Dead Man’s Curve (1998)
Known as The Curve in the US, this was Matthew Lillard’s next movie after Scream. As a Scream-obsessed teenager, I tried for ages to track it down with no luck. It basically disappeared for a while. But it’s kind of great. The plot is incredibly twisty and evil, as two college students attempt to force their roommate into killing himself so they can claim the automatic A-grades their university hands out to trauma victims.
The whole thing is sadistic and slightly ridiculous, but it’s a smart movie with a spiky sense of humour, and Lillard is, as always, wonderful. He just wasn’t quite the leading man the filmmakers were hoping.
You remember: The Faculty (1998)
Robert Rodriguez’s teenage take on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is underrated. You’ll have seen it, but it’s better than you remember. Every time it’s on TV I get sucked in and realise how brilliant it is. It’s a simple enough premise – aliens invade a small US town, starting with the teachers at the local high school, and only a Breakfast Club-style assortment of students can save the world – but it’s just so stylish and witty. The cast is pretty amazing, packing in Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Clea Duvall, Robert Patrick, and even Jon Stewart, and the aliens are legitimately scary. You’ve probably seen this, you probably remember it, but it’s worth another look anyway.
You don’t remember: Disturbing Behaviour (1998)
Disturbing Behaviour, on the other hand, probably isn’t. At first glance, it’s got a similar premise to The Faculty, as the new kid in town realises something weird and science-fictiony is happening to the kids at his high school, but it’s not aware enough of its own daftness to really be fun. The cast is similarly star-studded – it includes Katie Holmes, James Marsden, Nick Stahl, and Ethan Embry, as well as indie horror darling Katharine Isabelle – but it’s just not very good. It flopped hard on its first release, and no-one’s queuing up to rediscover it.
You remember: Cruel Intentions (1999)
Why were we so keen on teen adaptations of literature in the 90s? Cruel Intentions was one of a string of new takes on centuries-old books – in this case, Les Liaisons Dangereuses – but let’s be honest, mostly people remember it because it featured Sarah Michelle Gellar vamping around in a corset. Buffy the TV show had been around for a couple of years when this was released, and it was fun to see her playing against type. And snogging Selma Blair. It’s hard to deny that was part of the film’s appeal, for much of the audience. As a film, it’s actually not all that great, but it definitely made an impact.
You don’t remember: Wild Things (1998)
Yikes, speaking of films that are remembered for their female stars wearing revealing clothing, I’m gonna bet most people can remember the cover of Wild Things, even if they never actually watched the film. I debated even putting it on this list, because while it looks like a teen film, and the plot synopsis initially sounds like one – it’s about a couple of high school girls who accuse their teacher of rape – it’s not really aimed at teenagers. It’s one of those sleazy thrillers that seemed to be everywhere in the 90s; it’s even got a hint of the neo-giallo about it.
The unpromising setup soon gives way to a weird, labyrinthine plot that’s almost impossible to keep on top of. The film’s publicity at the time was so determined to keep a lid on the film’s secrets that people seem to have forgotten all about them. Which is probably for the best, to be honest.
You remember: I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Teen slashers were all the rage after Scream, and though I Know What You Did Last Summer is very much an also-ran, it’s pretty well-remembered. That’s probably down to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s presence, again; the main cast was a kind of who’s who of 90s TV stars, plus golden boy Ryan Philipe and inexplicable 90s heartthrob Freddie Prinze Jnr. But none of them have got the chops to elevate material this dopey. There are several unnecessary subplots, one murder that makes no sense and is only there because the film wasn’t gory enough, and the “please can we do a sequel?” ending is irritating – all the more so because they bloody did, too. This film is coasting on a brilliant/awful title, which only got more brilliant and awful as the sequels went on.
You don’t remember: Cherry Falls (2000)
Arriving right at the tail end of the teen slasher revival – before the horror genre gave up and moved onto Japanese style ghost stories – Cherry Falls might be one of the most ridiculous of the lot, so self-aware and post-modern it practically eats itself. Its conceit is its one stroke of brilliance: a serial killer is murdering virgins, in an inversion of the usual horror movie trope, which means all the high school kids are desperate to have sex to stay alive. The reveal of the killer is kind of awful, but it’s no worse than I Know What You Did Last Summer. It just came too late.
You remember: The Craft (1996)
If you were a girl in your teens when this movie came out, chances are it led you to buy a book on Wicca. Or at least start wearing more eyeliner. It’s a supernatural coming-of-age story, as Sarah (Robin Tunney) starts at a new school and falls in with a clique… of witches. Like Mean Girls, but with spell books instead of Burn Books. There are several key bits everyone remembers: the “light as a feather, stiff as a board” scene, the “we are the weirdos” bit at the bus stop, and all the scary stuff at the end.
As an adult, this film doesn’t stand up quite as well as I’d hoped, but it definitely meant a lot to alternative-leaning bullied teens in the late 90s, and if we have to have a 90s nostalgia fest, message-wise, we could definitely do worse than this tale of finding your power and figuring out who your real friends are.
You don’t remember: Idle Hands (1999)
Another supernatural teen movie, this one was about teenage boys rather than teenage girls, and rather than dealing with bullying and date rape, it was about, um, wanking and killing your parents. And then having to chop off your hand, because it was harbouring an evil spirit. It’s a weird concept that’s sold surprisingly well by lead Devon Sawa. And the comedy sidekicks, played by Elden Henson and Seth Green are pretty great too. Its dance scene even has a proper, well-known band turn up to play – The Offspring get through two songs before the demonic severed hand attacks them. I’m not sure why this one isn’t better known – it’s even got Jessica Alba in it.
You remember: She’s All That (1999)
Everyone knows this one. That iconic scene where the newly made over Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) walks down the stairs, in slow mo, with Sixpence None The Richer playing, is indelibly printed on all of our brains.
What you might not remember, though, is that this movie is terrible. No, really, it’s terrible. The whole idea of a bet to make over an unpopular girl into a prom queen is both unforgivably obnoxious and ridiculously dated, and the supporting characters are just awful. There’s an entire subplot about how Zack needs to win Laney back because otherwise she’s going to get raped by Dean (a very young, incredibly cocky Paul Walker). Matthew Lillard’s handful of scenes are quite fun, but the rest of this is crap.
You don’t remember: Drive Me Crazy (1999)
Maybe it’s just that the British don’t make such a big deal out of prom night, but it’s really hard to relate to some of these movies where the whole idea is that PROM MUST BE PERFECT OR ELSE. Drive Me Crazy, named for a Britney Spears song that has no bearing on the plot, stars a preppy Melissa Joan Hart trying to turn an alternative (and impossibly beautiful) Adrian Grenier into her idea of the perfect prom date, because the guy she expected to ask her decided not to. Inevitably they fall for one another, despite having nothing in common. The final twist about their parents just adds to the awkwardness. It’s… you know what, it’s not as obnoxious as She’s All That. But it’s not great, either.
You remember: Dazed and Confused (1993)
This is yet another coming-of-age deal, set over the course of a couple of days at the beginning of summer, when high school seniors torment the new class of freshmen. It’s another one of those movies that seems to star young versions of everyone who would ever go on to be famous. Though Matthew McConaughey as the sleazy Wooderson is the one who stands out, the film also features Milla Jovovich, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Renee Zellweger, and loads more. Set in the ‘70s, it doesn’t feel like a “90s teen movie” in the same way so many of these other films do; it’s got a slightly different take on its teenagers, their politics and their ideals. But it’s still about high schoolers, cliques, and young love, so actually, if you squint past all the haircuts and bellbottoms, it’s not all that different after all.
You don’t remember: Varsity Blues (1999)
Varsity Blues was pretty successful in the US, despite its terrible reviews, and was clearly well-known enough to be the basis of about a third of the parodies in Not Another Teen Movie. (Another third is She’s All That.) But despite starring Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, it didn’t take off over here, and seems to have been mostly forgotten about.
It’s a weirdly serious affair, in which a team of American footballers have to band together to overcome their abusive coach before the last game of the season before he actually kills one of them. The central dilemma – that Mox doesn’t feel like playing football any more because he’s actually pretty good at school – is the opposite of compelling, and every time he whinges that he has to play three more games, then two more, it gets even harder to care. By the time the triumphant ending rolls around, you’ll have lost interest completely.
You remember: Bring It On (2000)
Eliza Dushku plays a bad girl. Kirsten Dunst plays an uptight girl. Together, they need to lead a cheerleading squad to victory over a nasty, cheating squad who always win everything. This movie is as by-the-numbers as it gets, a sports movie with a neatly wrapped up moral about not judging on appearances and, you know, taking part, and being friends, and all that stuff. It spawned four sequels and a stage musical, and ruined the phrase “bring it on” forever. So yeah, you probably saw this one. It’s alright.
You don’t remember: Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
Hey look, it’s Kirsten Dunst again! This time, though, she’s the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and rather than cheerleading, she’s competing in a beauty pageant against perpetual mean girl Denise Richards. While Bring It On is all about learning and growing, Drop Dead Gorgeous is about eliminating the competition by any means necessary. It’s a dark comedy that doesn’t entirely work, but it’s got some fun moments. You might find this one on TV late at night sometimes. It’s weird enough to be worth watching, but maybe too weird to be as well-loved as some of its peers.
Obviously this list doesn’t cover even a fraction of the zillions of 90s teen movies that exist in the world – so, go for it. Tell me your favourites. Which ones do you still reference today? Bonus points if none of the people you’ve quoted it at has ever seen the film.
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