It’s sometimes said that the 1990s wasn’t a great time for horror films. But while lots of disappointing franchise sequels crowded their way into cinemas or the lower shelves of video stores, there were also plenty of fantastic examples of the familiar chill. Bernard Rose’s Candyman was one of the very best of the decade; Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was an intelligent reworking of a flagging series; The Ring introduced a new strain of Japanese horror to a global audience.
Then there are the less well-known horror movies from the decade – ones which either didn’t do very well in the cinema or didn’t make it to the big screen at all. With the exception of one Japanese film, we’ve gone for a selection of films that aren’t sequels or part of a big-name franchise, but otherwise run the gamut of horror, from outer space sci-fi to slasher, to comedy. Some are helmed by respected, familiar names, others are more obscure. All, I’d argue, deserve a bit more love and attention.
Two Evil Eyes (1990)
A pair of horror’s most respected directors came together for this film of two halves, each based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. George A. Romero directs the first segment, based on The Facts In The Case Of M. Valdemar, which stars Adrienne Barbeau in a tale about old men, embezzlement and evil spirits.
The true gem, however, is Dario Argento’s rendering of “The Black Cat.” It features a brilliant performance from Harvey Keitel as one Roderick Usher, a crime scene photographer who takes a dislike to his girlfriend’s moggy. With some great gore effects courtesy of Tom Savini, Kim Hunter, and Martin Balsam among the supporting cast, and some satisfying nods to other Poe tales, it’s a great modern spin on a classic horror yarn.
Cat in the Brain (1990)
If you’re familiar with Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci’s classic horror work, you’ll know what to expect from A Cat In The Brain, one of his last ever films. Years before meta horror arrived in America with films like New Nightmare and Scream, Fulci came up with his own; here, he plays an aging film director driven half mad by his own work, which looms out of his memory in the form of clips from his back catalogue of movies.
Surreal, gory – it was once banned in the UK – and threaded with some warped humor, A Cat in the Brain isn’t the best film in Fulci’s long career, but it’s nevertheless an amusing self-examination of the director’s grimy legacy.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Just about breaking even in theaters, this disturbing psychological horror film from Adrian Lyne found a new life on VHS. Tim Robbins stars as a Vietnam veteran plagued by hallucinations, which seem to become more tauntingly regular the more he tries to escape them. What makes Jacob’s Ladder so powerful is the way Lyne manages to present the world from its protagonist’s traumatized, haunted perspective – there are moments in this film which, once seen, are difficult to shake. Even in its calmer moments, Jacob’s Ladder is shot with a doomy, oppressive atmosphere that lingers like a fog.
Years before British director Richard Stanley went to America to try to make The Island Of Dr. Moreau (with disastrous consequences), he made this low budget, highly inventive piece of sci-fi horror. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, it sees the remains of a killer robot reassemble itself in the flat of artist Jill (Stacey Travis) and her ex-soldier boyfriend Mo (Dylan McDermott). Inspired by a 2000 AD comic story, and reminiscent of The Terminator, Hardware has its own aggressive, gritty energy; it’s also incredibly gory and was even cut to achieve an R-rating back when it was first released.
Clive Barker’s dreamlike horror flick was hobbled by a meddling studio, but even in its earlier, more disjointed form, Nightbreed was full of captivating moments. We’re big fans of Nightbreed and have written about it in more detail here.
David Cronenberg is unforgettably flesh-crawling as a psychiatrist more crazy than his patient, Boone (Craig Sheffer). There’s also an underground city called Midian, populated by all kinds of exotic beings. It’s a wild adult fantasy, full of imaginative creatures, copious blood and epic scope.
Body Parts (1991)
There isn’t an original bone in this movie’s body, but it gets by thanks to some entertainingly outlandish gore and tongue-in-cheek humor. Jeff Fahey stars as Bill, a psychologist who loses his arm in a spectacularly over-the-top car accident. A few days later, he’s been fitted with an arm taken from the body of a (you probably guessed it) deceased criminal.
Bill soon begins to suffer from nightmares, and occasionally notices that his new arm doesn’t always do as it’s told. Concerned about where this wayward limb came from, Bill visits the recipients of the dead criminal’s other body parts, and finds out that they’ve been suffering from weird afflictions, too…
Body Parts wasn’t well received on release, and it’s fair to say it isn’t a great film in the strictest sense. What it does have in its favor, though, is director and co-writer Eric Red; he takes a familiar (think Hands Of Orlac) plot to its absurd, extremely bloody conclusion. It’s also worth seeing for a great mad scientist performance from Lindsay Duncan, and Brad Dourif on eccentric form as a tormented artist whose new arm paints lurid paintings for him.
The Pit and the Pendulum (1991)
Many horror fans will be aware of Roger Corman’s colorful (and loose) adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, but Stuart Gordon’s version of The Pit and the Pendulum follows in a similar camp tradition. Lance Henriksen stars as a decidedly kinky Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, who likes being tied up and whipped when he isn’t terrorizing Spain in the name of the church.
All temptation, heaving bosoms, and torture, The Pit and the Pendulum is pure schlock from start to finish, but that’s all part of the fun; Oliver Reed and Jeffrey Combs are among the cast, but Henriksen steals just about every scene as the evil Torquemada. The way he angrily commands someone to “go and torture some heretics” is one of the film’s best moments. Gordon’s something of a cult film factory, having made the likes of Re-Animator, From Beyond,and Fortress. Yet, The Pit And The Pendulum may be one of his most underrated films.
The Devil’s Daughter (1991)
Variously known as The Sect and Demons 4, this is a superb, atmospheric film from Michele Soavi, director of The Church (1989) and Dellamorte Dellamore (1994). A reworking of ideas previously explored in the classic Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil’s Daughter sees a young teacher, Miriam (Kelly Curtis, sister of Jamie Lee) encounter an old man (the great Herbert Lom) who wants her to sire the son of Old Nick himself. From such familiar cloth, Soavi crafts a memorable horror – it isn’t as good as the spectacular Dellamorte (see later), but it’s still a full of really eerie, inventive imagery.
The Resurrected (1992)
Dan O’Bannon will probably be remembered by history as the writer of films like Blue Thunder, Lifeforce, Dark Star, Total Recall– oh, and a little genre piece called Alien. But he also directed on occasion; he directed the 1985 comedy horror The Return Of The Living Dead, as well as this adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward.
John Terry (later seen as Jack’s dad Christian Shephard in Lost) stars as a private detective on the trail of Ward (Chris Sarandon) who dabbles in raising the dead. Little-seen but really well made, this is one of the best – and certainly most serious – adaptations of Lovecraft’s work yet. Sarandon, in particular, turns in a performance of real depth.
Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer (1992)
Like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, The Body Hammer is a both a remake and sequel to director Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 cult film, Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Weird and deliriously violent, The Body Hammer sees an ordinary salary man mutated into a hulking metal monstrosity and fight an underground army of bald body builders. Like a Marvel movie filtered through the mind of David Lynch, Body Hammer is a wild, hallucinatory ride.
Body Snatchers (1993)
This second remake may not be quite as essential as Don Siegel’s ’50s original or Philip Kaufman’s 1978 redo, but it’s still a watchable film with some highly disturbing moments. It’s certainly an unusual choice of film from the wayward Abel Ferrara, but he creates an effective air of suspense as the members of an Alabama military base succumb to the usual invasion of soulless pod people.
The script, which credits Stuart Gordon and his screenwriting partner Dennis Paoli as well as Ferrara’s frequent collaborator Nicholas St. John, also comes up with a fresh angle on the story, in that it’s told from a young woman’s perspective (Gabriel Anwar) rather than a middle-aged male professional. Barely released in cinemas, Body Snatchers was nowhere near as big a hit as its predecessors, but it’s well worth seeking out – certainly, it’s infinitely superior to the woeful 2007 incarnation, The Invasion.
Dario Argento seems to have lost his creative mojo of late, but this 1993 giallo film – his first American feature – sees him closer to his ’70s and ’80s form. Asia Argento stars as a young woman who crosses paths with a mysterious killer who’s in possession of an unsettling device which garrottes its victims at the press of a button. The pace drags in places, but the presence of Piper Laurie and Brad Dourif (who was seemingly ubiquitous in the ’90s) liven things up, and Argento attacks his scenes of gore and mayhem with evident relish. One scene even features a decapitated head falling down a lift shaft, screaming.
Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy certainly seem to have seen and liked Trauma; their 2014 collaboration The Counsellor features a remarkably similar Garotte-O-Matic murder weapon.
The Dark Half (1993)
There have been great Stephen King adaptations and absolutely terrible ones, and George Romero’s The Dark Half is definitely one of the more underrated. Timothy Hutton stars in a dual role as writer Thad Beaumont, who’s menaced by a physical incarnation of his own nom de plume. Romero, usually only given a few pence with which to make his films by stingy investors, was given a handsome $15m to play with here, and the result is a handsome, solidly-made film – a sequence where a flock of birds attack Castle Rock is superbly handled.
Sadly, it failed to make its money back in cinemas, and The Dark Half isn’t a film people really talk about much these days, unless it’s when they’re compiling lists like these. Michael Rooker’s also in The Dark Half. All films are better with Michael Rooker in them.
The lively home video market meant that the ’80s and ’90s had no shortage of B-grade monster movies – and a great percentage of them were terrible. Ticks, also marketed in some places as The Infested, is infinitely better than most; it doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a bit of messy fun, but there’s no harm in that.
A bunch of inner-city kids end up in the middle of nowhere, only to have their isolated retreat besieged by giant, blood-sucking insects. The practical effects are great, and the cast is perfectly decent (look out for a very young Seth Green). If you liked James Gunn’s irreverent Slither, Ticks is well worth digging out.
Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)
This Italian comedy horror, sometimes known as Cemetery Man, has appeared on a couple of lists on this site, and with good reason: it’s a truly wonderful film. Rupert Everett, in perhaps his best screen role, plays Francesco, a cemetery caretaker in a sleepy Italian town. It should be a simple job, except for one small detail: the dead have a habit of coming back to life.
Gradually, Francesco and his assistant Naghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro) lose their grip on their sanity, as the former starts causing chaos around town and Naghi falls in love with a severed head. Believe it or not, Dellamorte Dellamore is even more bizarre than that brief description implies, and the result is one of the funniest, most unpredictable horror films of the entire decade.
In The Mouth Of Madness (1994)
Why this horror film from genre genius John Carpenter wasn’t a bigger hit is something of a mystery. Its story, about an insurance man investigating the disappearance of a horror novelist, feels fresh, redolent of Carpenter’s earlier work, and rooted in classic American chiller fiction, from Poe via Lovecraft to Stephen King. At its core is a great premise: Novelist Sutter Cane’s books have the power to cause madness, and his latest tome could even usher in the apocalypse.
Sam Neill’s protagonist finds himself trapped in a town straight out of Cane’s books where nothing seems quite real and an ancient evil threatens to burst forth from another dimension. Although not quite in the same league as Carpenter’s true classics (Halloween, The Thing, and so forth), it’s still among his strongest films, and filled with some genuinely unsettling moments. One of the best involves a quiet country road and an old man on a bicycle. No, really.
The Addiction (1995)
Shot in high-contrast black and white, Abel Ferrara’s one-of-a-kind arthouse vampire movie is as untamed and unsettling as the director’s other films from the period. About a philosophy student (Lili Taylor) who’s bitten by a vampire (Annabella Sciora) and gradually becomes a blood sucker herself, The Addiction features a dazzling turn from Christopher Walken as yet another creature of the night.
The way screenwriter Nicholas St. John explores the psychological burden of being a vampire – that is, how the protagonist gets used to the sudden need to kill for her supper – is intelligently, evocatively explored. It’s like a grown-up Twilight without the simpering and sparkles.
Castle Freak (1995)
Cult horror director Stuart Gordon turned once again to a HP Lovecraft story for Castle Freak, which, despite the humor inspired by its title, possesses little of the camp excess of the filmmaker’s previous adaptations (Re-Animator and From Beyond). Based on The Outsider, it sees a family inherit an ancient castle in Italy, which comes complete with its own mutant creature lurking in the basement.
Released straight-to-video, Castle Freak‘s production values are noticeably low, but it’s interesting to see Gordon tackle something so unvarnished and harsh – only his 2003 film King Of The Ants is as graphically violent. Gordon stalwarts Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton also provide sterling work in what could be read as a gothic, very gory reworking of Cape Fear.
Event Horizon (1997)
This outer space horror flick garnered largely negative reviews upon release and was something of a box office flop. Even today, it seems to divide opinion; lots of people seem to dislike it, but I ended up going to the cinema and watching it twice for some reason.
In today’s eyes, the plot’s predictable stuff: a missing space ship – the title’s Event Horizon – reappears after seven years, so a rescue team’s despatched to go and investigate. They arrive to find an astral Marie Celeste, with everyone aboard either dead or missing.
It turns out that tinkering with wormholes in space had driven everyone on the ship murderously insane, and the rescue team – among them Sean Pertwee, Laurence Fishburne, Jason Isaacs, and Sam Neill – soon start to unravel too. Surprisingly graphic for a mainstream, $60 million film (from a time when $60 million was still quite a bit of money), Event Horizon offers plenty of fun and shocks if viewed as a glossy B-movie. Then there’s Sam Neill, who’s delightful as the token mad scientist.
Three years before the Brit horror My Little Eye or the dreary Halloween: Resurrection, along came this straight-to-video slasher flick which also had a reality-TV theme.
Kolobos sees a handful of people agree to spend three months locked in a house together while a network of cameras monitors their every move. They soon learn that what they’ve signed up for is essentially Big Brother with lots of booby traps and a scary entity from someone’s nightmare. Indifferently acted but quite smart (in a genre-savvy, post-Scream kind of way) and even well-made considering its humble roots, Kolobos offers a decent evening’s entertainment. There are imaginative deaths, scary figures prowling corridors, all building to a satisfying conclusion. We’d happily watch it again over Halloween: Resurrection at any rate. Or Big Brother, for that matter.