Film fans talk about the 1990s as another Golden Age of cinema. Not only is there the jam-packed year of 1999, which gave us classics such as The Matrix, Toy Story 2, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but the 90s also saw the rise of new auteurs, including Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, and Guillermo del Toro. Hollywood turned its attention to indie and foreign films, enriching a moviegoing experience that still featured fan-favorite blockbusters.
But to really see how good the 90s were, we can’t just look at the hits. Rather, the flops tell us the true tale of the decade’s quality – the movies that audiences skipped at the time but have proven their worth in the years that followed. Here are the best flops of the 1990s; films that couldn’t find a wide enough audience upon release, but still deserve attention today.
Mom and Dad Save the World (1992)
It’s easy to see why Mom and Dad Save the World didn’t tear up the box office in 1992. In the era of spectacular blockbusters and sexy erotic thrillers, no one was lining up to see a low-budget comedy about middle-aged Jeffery Jones and Teri Garr battling against a conqueror played by Jon Lovitz. And director Greg Beeman, of the Richard Grieco vehicle License to Drive, wasn’t exactly getting butts in seats. But the movie did boast a screenplay by Chris Mattheson, based on a story from Ed Solomon, the duo behind Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. And like that excellent movie, Mom and Dad Save the World has the same mix of sci-fi goofiness and offbeat heart.
Garr and Jones (sadly, on the latter) are fantastic as two suburbanites beamed to Planet Spengo, a world populated entirely by idiots and ruled by maniacal Todd Spengo (Lovitz). Mattheson’s script weaves ornate gags and snappy one-liners from that low-brow concept, including a man who proudly declares, “What we lack in brains, we make up for with… good intentions!” Combined with fantastic puppet work and other practical effects, Mom and Dave Save the World proves that audiences of the 90s didn’t realize just how good they had it.
The Meteor Man (1993)
In these days that see the coming of a second billion-dollar Aquaman movie, it might be hard to remember a time in which studios preferred to make films about original heroes than anyone with name recognition. In the case of The Meteor Man, the hero may not have name recognition, but the cast list overflows with well-known Black actors, from star/writer/director Robert Townsend to Robert Guillaume and Marla Gibbs as his parents, to 90s hip hop acts Cypress Hill and Naughty-by-Nature as the baddies. Despite these luminaries, The Meteor Man failed to catch on with audiences and made only $8 million at the box office.
Those who did check out the film found a satisfying and family-friendly superhero tale. Townsend stars as mild-mannered teacher Jeff Reed, who gains superpowers after coming in contact with a meteor. His powers help him stand up to the gangs and drug lords (including Batman alum Frank Gorshin) who terrorize his neighborhood. Unlike most superhero stories, The Meteor Man emphasizes collaboration, with Jeff using his powers to empower others. Lest that sound too much like an after-school special, Townsend also brings plenty of the wit he honed on classics like Hollywood Shuffle, filling the movie with great gags that embrace the absurdity of the premise.
Last Action Hero (1993)
By 1993, we were comfortable with the idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger being a comedy star. After all, the former Mr. Universe already had Twins and Kindergarten Cop under his belt, both of which poked fun at aspects of his persona. But despite having action master John McTiernan at the helm and a script co-written by the whip-smart Shane Black, Last Action Hero took things too far. Although the first wave of viewers was enough for the film to make back its budget, word of mouth and critical response could have been better, and the film quickly slipped into ignominy.
Over time, Last Action Hero has become a recognized masterpiece, because it’s simultaneously the type of movie we make now and not the kind of movie we get anymore. On the one hand, few major blockbuster movies can boast the talent of this cast and crew, especially director McTiernan. On the other hand, Last Action Hero does anticipate today’s onslaught of IP-driven tales (if Arnold counts as an IP), and the movie’s self-knowing winks and multiversal adventure are far more palatable in a world where Rick and Morty is a hit.
Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
It’s hard to tell if Joel and Ethan Coen are legends because of their idiosyncrasies or in spite of them. Few films in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre have tested their audience’s patience like The Hudsucker Proxy, a screwball comedy built around the invention of the hula hoop. Based on a script they co-wrote with Sam Raimi (and thus secured the involvement of Bruce Campbell as a sleazy reporter), The Hudsucker Proxy pits Indiana native Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) against a bevy of big-city cynics, including businessman Sydney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) and crack reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Audiences would show up in droves when the Coens poked fun at Midwesterners a few years later in Fargo, but they largely ignored Hudsucker. The movie made less than half of its budget and received a lukewarm response from critics. Audiences remain fairly divided on the movie still today. But if a screwball pastiche sounds like fun to you, then The Hudsucker Proxy has not only great jokes and a heartfelt story but also some of the most dynamic camera work and impressive production design in the Brothers’ filmography.
Strange Days (1995)
Cyberpunk movies were a dime a dozen in the 1990s, and while Total Recall, Hackers, and The Matrix all found audiences, the same could not be said of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. Although Strange Days came right after Bigelow’s hit thriller Point Blank and boasted a script co-written by James Cameron, it took in only $8 million in ticket sales, well under the $42 million budget. Even worse, the film suffered a limited home video release, which stripped it of the chance to find an audience during the DVD boom.
That said, even the biggest Strange Days supporter has to admit the movie is a hard sell to your average viewer. Set on New Year’s Eve 1999, the film stars Ralph Fiennes as greasy ex-cop Lenny Nero. Nero deals in SQUIDs, minidiscs that allow users to feel experiences others have recorded. When Nero comes across a SQUID filled with the brutal attack on his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), he and his partner Mace (Angela Bassett) go on the run from a bevy of 90s bad guys, including Tom Sizemore and Michael Wincott. Deeply cynical and unflinching in its violence, Strange Days doesn’t try to ingratiate itself to viewers, but it does make for a memorable experience.
It’s hard to say what went wrong with Multiplicity. While his hit rate plummeted in the late ’90s and 2000s, Michael Keaton still had plenty of heat from his 80s comedies and breakouts in the Batman movies. Multiplicity also had proven comedy director Harold Ramis at the helm, who made Groundhog Day just a few years earlier (and Stuart Saves His Family in between, but not enough people saw that movie to be mad at it). Based on a well-received story from National Lampoon written by Chris Miller, Multiplicity seemed poised to become a family-friendly hit.
Multiplicity debuted to mixed reviews and a low box office return, earning less than half of its $45 million budget. But it has found a following since its release, thanks to home video sales and cable airplay. And with good reason. The story of a man (Keaton) who clones himself to meet the demands of daily life resonates with most viewers and gives Keaton a chance to show off his character work. Viewers at the time dismissed it, but as modern movie fans realize the magic that is Michael Keaton, Multiplicity seems better and better every year.
The Phantom (1996)
Hollywood always takes the wrong lessons from any hit movie. Case in point: after Batman demolished the box office in 1989, studios rushed into production not more movies about DC and Marvel characters, but more 1930s pulp heroes: Dick Tracy, The Shadow, etc. Of those, The Phantom might be the most unlikely and most overlooked. After all, it starred Billy Zane, never a box office draw, as an old-timey superhero in a silly purple outfit. “Slam evil!” declared the poster, driving audiences to slam the door on the film.
The Phantom plays better today than it did decades ago. Today, we still want superhero stories but have grown tired of the slick and samey Marvel approach. The Phantom fully embraces its pulp fiction roots, which does sometimes make for uncomfortable moments – pasty white Zane is the latest in a long line of African protectors, all equally mayonnaise-colored – and for some wonderful moments, such as everything involving Treat Williams as a mustachioed and cackling baddie. Director Simon Wincer takes a workman-like approach to the material, making for a satisfying, no-frills action flick that just so happens to have a purple-clad Billy Zane at its center.
Bill Duke is a legend. It’s not just his appearances in 80s greats like Commando and Predator, it’s his work behind the camera as well. While some of his movies work better than others (remember Cemetery Club which starred old white ladies Ellen Burstyn, Olympia Dukakis, and Diane Ladd?), Hoodlum stands out as a classic. The story of a real gang war between the Black mafia in Harlem and the combined Jewish and Italian mobs, Hoodlum stars Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, and Andy Garcia. However, Duke’s directions and the film’s cast weren’t quite enough to help Hoodlum earn back its $30 million budget.
Part of the problem stemmed from the expectations people brought to the flick. United Artists sold Hoodlum as a brutal action flick, with gunshots punctuating every sentence and numerous explosions. In fact, Duke has more interest in character development than in gang violence, exploring the psychology of Fishburne’s Bumpy Johnson and the racial dynamics of the time. Modern viewers will be better prepared for the movie’s dramatic concerns, and better appreciate Fishburne and Roth’s excellent performances.
Event Horizon (1997)
Speaking of Laurence Fishburne, it’s Event Horizon! Most genre fans know the irresistible premise of Paul W.S. Anderson’s space horror flick and the story behind it. Anderson filmed many more gnarly sequences than ended up in the finished product, but studio Paramount forced him to cut it down. As a result, the Event Horizon that hit theaters in 1997 featured scenes far tamer than what Anderson intended, scenes that would have better fit a story about a wormhole to Hell.
Alas, that deleted footage will likely never see the light of day. But even so, there’s plenty of shocking imagery in the finished film. Even better, Event Horizon has fantastic performances from a stacked cast that includes not only Fishburne, but also Sam Neill, Jason Isaacs, and Sean Pertwee. And it’s about a spaceship that goes to Hell. What more do you want from cinema?
Deep Rising (1998)
As much as we all love the Brendan Fraser movie The Mummy, we’re still all a bit skeptical about director Stephen Sommers’s filmography. Sure, he did a bang-up job replicating Indiana Jones-style throwback adventure on the first Mummy, but none of the sequels (or spin-offs) held up. And while G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is fun trash, it is nonetheless trash. But those yearning for the same solid action and horror mix they got from The Mummy would do well to watch Sommers’s film from the preceding year, Deep Rising.
Deep Rising stars a gaggle of great character actors, including Treat Williams and Famke Janssen, as members of a sea expedition who run afoul of an underwater beast. Sommers wisely limits the CG effects, emphasizing instead implied menace and practical gore to make for a satisfying blend of action and horror. Is it as good as The Mummy? Well, no. But Deep Rising has a lot more character than most polished genre films of the last few decades.
The end of the millennium brought out some Satanic panic in some viewers, making movies about the devil briefly en vogue. The paranormal legal thriller The Devil’s Advocate and the Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days both made back their budget, but the thriller Fallen fell through the cracks. Directed by Gregory Hoblit, a steady TV hand who had a hit with his film debut Primal Fear just a few years earlier, Fallen starred Denzel Washington as a cop on the trail of a serial killing demon.
The movie’s central conceit – that the demon spreads through touch – might sound silly to some and may account for Fallen’s cool box office reception. But Hoblit uses it to construct some incredibly tense sequences and for a satisfying, slightly twisty ending. Even better, Hoblit gets grounded performances from his excellent cast, which includes not only Washington, but also John Goodman, Elias Koteas, and Embeth Davidtz. Fallen failed to make back more than half its budget, but it still entertains anyone looking for a moody thriller with a supernatural edge.
The Iron Giant (1999)
Looking back now, it’s easy to understand why audiences skipped The Iron Giant. Kids movies tend to thrive on home media more than they do in theaters, and Warner Bros. put little to no marketing to it. Furthermore, the subject matter may have been a tough sell to some audiences, with adults dismissing it as sub-Disney fare and parents unsure about a cartoon with cursing and violence (however light). And so, The Iron Giant made only $31.3 million at the box office, less than its $50 million budget. It wasn’t until director Brad Bird became a household name with The Incredibles in 2004 that people went back and discovered his earlier work.
Looking at the movie now, it’s easy to understand why audiences have embraced The Iron Giant. The film’s anti-gun message only grows more resonant each year, as does its exploration of childhood and heroism. It boasts an excellent voice cast, including Vin Diesel as the giant, Eli Marienthal as the precocious Hogarth Hughes (his surname a wink to poet and The Iron Man author Ted Hughes), and a never-better Harry Connick Jr. as beatnick Dean. Between these performances, the pitch-perfect script by Bird and Tim McCanlies, and Bird’s excellent animation, The Iron Giant earns every tear that falls when the Giant says, “Superman.”
Fight Club (1999)
Yes, believe it or not, Fight Club flopped in theaters. Those of us around at the time might recall seeing Tyler Durden posters in every record store in every mall, or lining the walls of dorm rooms across the country, but that popularity came only after the movie was released to DVD. In a memorable package, designed to look like a plain brown parcel, the Fight Club home video release became a constant bestseller and launched the film into movie history. Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club remains a controversial movie, with some concerned that its themes too closely mirror fascist ideology.
Today, it’s hard to take that concern seriously. While Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the alter-ego of the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton), does certainly espouse violence as a response to nihilism, his philosophy feels more and more ridiculous every year. As the film grows older, it’s easy to see the comedic and even romantic elements of the Jim Uhls script, accentuated by David Fincher’s perfect direction. Modern viewers will find something hopeful in the movie’s rejection of Durden’s reactionary politics and something almost sweet in the final image of the Narrator and Marla (Helena Bonham Carter).