The best horror movies of the ’90s
The ’90s may not be remembered as one of horror’s best decades, but these scary movies have still stood the test of time.
By Chris Snellgrove November 09, 2022 at 04: 13 PM EST
Lovers of horror are always down for a good scare, though, of course, which movies you should watch is always a subject of debate. Some vintage fans love to check out the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s. Others prefer the more “elevated” horror movies that we began getting in the 2010s. So why are we less inclined to revisit anything in between? Simply put, many don’t associate the ’90s with good horror.
Here’s the good news: those haters are dead wrong. It’s hard to believe. Just check out our definitive list of the best ’90s horror movies that are absolutely worth your time.
Part of what makes Misery so affecting is the simplicity of its premise. What if a well-known writer was left to the will of an unhinged fan. Much of the unexpected twists and turns of the film come from the now-revered Kathy Bates, who was a relatively unknown actress at the time, though she’s a force to be reckoned with for James Caan, who plays a famed romance writer who is left helpless and handicapped after a nasty car crash.
As an adaptation of the Stephen King novel, both the book and the movie serve as an exploration of authorial anxiety in the face of crazed fans. In today’s digital age, where parasocial relationships are common, the story of a fan who is obsessed with a creator trying to change his work to her liking seems more relevant than ever.
Speaking of Stephen King adaptations, his creepy clown novel It was recently turned into not one, but two big-budget movies with a prequel TV show in the works. But for a great many horror fans, their first exposure to Pennywise was in the 1990 made-for-television film It. Originally aired as a two-part miniseries, for some fans, it may be a little long: whereas the perfect horror movie is often 90 minutes, watching It in one go means consuming over three hours of killer clown theatrics, which is just one reason EW critic Ken Tucker said in his review that the movie had a “slow pace.”
But the movie’s true star is its “terrific” cast. Particularly Tim Curry, who perfectly portrays Pennywise as he navigates the tightrope between scary/silly. Adult viewers may find themselves laughing with the clown. But as a child watching in the early 1990s, it’s easy to see how this movie gave an entire generation a severe fear of circus performers.
Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Hollywood loves to remake movies, especially horror films. Sometimes, this is for the better (do you actually know any horror fans that would rather watch 1951’s The Thing From Another Planet over the transcendent 1982 John Carpenter classic?)
Still, some horror cows are more sacred than others, and many thought it would be sacrilege to remake George Romero‘s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead. Some critics felt that way about the 1990 reboot, with Roger Ebert going so far to say that “the remake is so close to the original that there is no reason to see both.
We disagree. The movie’s ending is dramatically different and will shock and delight mega-fans of the original. The casting is wonderful, with Patricia Tallman giving off the Big Final Girl Energy that Barbara never had before. Tony Todd is a perfect fit for the role of a hero who can sometimes be as intimidating as the undead outside. Director and long-time Romero collaborator Tom Savini is the glue that holds it all together. He proves that he is just a as skilled behind the camera as he can be bringing horror special effects to life.
The Exorcist III (1990)
Before you call up an old priest and a young priest on us, just listen: Exorcist III is far better than you think it is. This moody psychological horror film is more than just an apology for the dreck that was the second Exorcist movie. It’s a powerful film that blends many disparate elements to create something both provocative and evocative. This movie is hypnotic in every way. George C. Scott is a brilliant police lieutenant who navigates a world that mixes serial killing with demonic possession. And Brad Dourif is at his career creepy best as the “Gemini Killer,” a murderous mortal that also serves as a host for the demon Pazuzu.
With all this said, The Exorcist III can be a little difficult to enjoy. Although it’s much more talky than most horror films, the monologues are so enjoyable that you can listen to them all. It’s also relatively low in gore, which proves that a film doesn’t need to have a lot of blood to scare you.
Psychological horror is great and all, but sometimes, we’re just in the mood to watch modern cowboys take on monstrous mutants in the desert. And when you have that kind of itch, the best way to scratch it is to watch Tremors.
The joy of this movie is infectious. The plot is barebones: two rugged heroes (played by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) must help a town fight off giant worms who use vibrations to hunt their prey. The town itself is full of colorful characters, including Reba McEntire and Michael Gross, and their collective patter is just as engaging as the excellent creature work in the film.
Tremors perfectly intersects horror, westerns, and sci-fi creature features, but you’ll definitely want to rewatch this one rather than check out the cavalcade of increasingly disappointing sequels.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Most horror fans would agree that sequels often suck and are driven mostly by shortsighted studio greed. What happens when a horror sequel is helmed and shared these sentiments? You get Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
As a sequel to the original Gremlins, The New Batch is different in almost every way except for the creatures themselves. Instead of the Gremlins taking over a tiny town, they take over the Clamp Center, a building owned by John Glover doing his best vintage Donald Trump impression. This new setting helps director Joe Dante pull off some truly incisive satire of the Hollywood machine.
Because the Clamp Center skyscraper houses so many businesses and colorful characters it is easy to get out of control. Leonard Maltin, a staunch critic of the first movie, gets eaten by Gremlins followed by the little menaces taking over a theater before being told off by none other than Hulk Hogan. Scientific experiments led by Christopher Lee also give us sequel-worthy mutations, including flying Gremlins and one made of electricity.
Clamp (Glover), whose insatiable pursuit of profit led him to chaos and destruction, is what we see. Dante’s commentary about a studio system that doesn’t care about quality or creativity. Dante isn’t afraid to poke fun at himself, and there’s a scene in which characters debate how “eating after midnight” works when it comes turning Mogwais into Gremlins.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The great quality of The Silence of the Lambs nearly speaks for itself. The Silence of the Lambs The great quality of Check. Check out these stunning performances by actors at the top. Check. There are enough famous lines and imagery for over three decades worth of memes, parodies and references. Check, check, check!
This movie is a significant piece of horror movie history. The Silence of the Lambs showed that horror can be more frightening when it is more humane.
Unfortunately, this movie is also a high-watermark for a very diverse franchise. Beginning one decade after this film came out, Hannibal, Red Dragon, and Hannibal Rising gave us increasingly diminished returns for the onscreen adventures of Hannibal Lecter. This was proof that not even Anthony Hopkins could top his own stunning performance, and we wouldn’t get a proper Hannibal renaissance until Mads Mikkelsen stepped into the role for NBC’s Hannibal.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Do you love vampire movies, period pieces, and practical effects? In that case, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a movie practically custom-made for your taste. While ostensibly an adaptation of the original vampire novel, director Francis Ford Coppola takes the original tale (which was comprised entirely of letters, newspaper articles, and diary entries) and brings the scenes to life with a (ahem) killer cast.
Some cast members are better than other. As Dracula, Gary Oldman chews up scenery even more often than he imbibes human blood. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Van Helsing is a great example of a man who can be both a scientist and a man who must face a mysterious and mystical threat. These performances are so good that you might not notice Winona Ryder‘s damsel or an overwhelmed Keanu Reeves applying one of the worst accents in cinematic history.
The movie’s use costumes, miniatures and practical effects are also spectacular. Sometimes you may find yourself asking “how did they do it?” especially when you see a perfectly composed shot that combines a diary entry with a speeding train against a setting sun.
While the Hellraiser movies are full of iconic characters and moments (Pinhead and the rest of the Cenobites have been serving looks since 1987), that franchise was seriously declining by the ’90s. Fortunately, this left room for an arguably better adaptation of Clive Barker’s fiction: Candyman, a film that expertly blends uncomfortable (but necessary) conversations about race in America with scream-out-loud scenes that helped cement Tony Todd as one of horror’s greatest actors. The movie’s main plot centers on a white graduate student who investigates an urban legend about a Black slave son who was executed for his love for a white woman. Is it possible for white academic discourse to elevate or subliminate Black narratives? Helen, a grad student, suggested that people use the Candyman legend to overcome traumas and hardships. Is this a commentary on why horror is so much fun? This movie will give you a completely different feeling of chill depending on how you look at it. If you’re in it for the gore, though, this movie spills more than a few drops, all while putting up some unforgettably freaky imagery (trust us: you’re never going to look at bees the same way).
Dead Alive (1992)
Have you ever really wanted to troll a lover of Lord of the Rings? If so, all you have to do is invite them over for a movie night and promise to show them something from Peter Jackson‘s earlier film career. This is, of course, when you hit “play” on Dead Alive and just watch your friend’s expression grow more horrified.
This movie (also released as Braindead) begins when South Wellington man Lionel Cosgrove’s mother is bitten by a weird monkey, turning her into a zombie. He must then care for his mother and her decrepit body, even as she invariably creates more undead. This leads to an explosive finale, in which a weaponized lawnmower can be used to “mow down” a horde hungry monsters.
The broad comedy of the characters is often very effective. A kung-fu priest proclaiming that “I kick ass to the Lord!” has lived in our heads rent-free for the last 30 years. The real fun and appeal of Dead Alive comes from the way the effects and gore are displayed. When you do show this to your Hobbit-loving friends, be sure to mark the exact moments they stop being disgusted and start laughing along with the chaos.
Army of Darkness (1992)
Sam Raimi is a legend among horror fans for many reasons, primarily for co-creating and directing the Evil Dead films. And though a cult favorite, one reason that franchise never quite achieved mainstream success is that Raimi was constantly reinventing both the main character Ash Williams (played by charismatic king Bruce Campbell) and the very idea of a horror movie. The first Evil Dead was a simple “cabin in a woods” movie. The “sequel” was a remake that simplified our characters and added more of Raimi’s off-the-wall humor.
This leads us to Army of Darkness, the final film in the original franchise (not counting the surprisingly good 2013 Evil Dead remake, of course). This film has a larger budget and a more egregious premise (Ash is stuck in medieval times). It makes our hero a more likable victim than an action star.
Some fans prefer Ash to be a normal guy who must deal the evil he accidentally causes. Others prefer Ash to be the quip-spouting “Listen, primitive screwheads.” This… is my BOOMSTICK!” Action hero jerk with an open heart. If you like that latter kind of protagonist, as well as severed limbs and geysers of blood, then you’ll find yourself rewatching Army of Darkness several times a year.
Interview With the Vampire (1994)
For better or for worse, the 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice‘s novel Interview With the Vampire helped to usher in our (still ongoing) fascination with the lives of vampires. The movie does not portray vamps as a single-dimensional monster, but instead presents them as flawed and tragic characters.
The sexiness of the main characters makes their sadness shine. As the titular interviewed vampire, Brad Pitt helps to sell the paradox that being hot and immortal might not be everything it’s cracked up to be. But the real revelation in this movie is that Tom Cruise was able to bring Anne Rice’s legendary Lestat to life so convincingly.
In fact, Rice had previously objected to the casting of both Pitt and Cruise in the movie, but later told a producer they “went way beyond her expectations.” Rice even called Tom Cruise to express her regret for doubting his performance and to praise him for it.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
John Carpenter‘s film output in the 1990s was decidedly mixed, including the baffling sequel Escape From L.A. and the divisive horror movie Vampires. In the Mouth of Madness was also critically mixed but rises above the rest nonetheless, allowing the always-cynical Carpenter to comment on the relationship between creators and fans. This movie is beautiful. You may associate Carpenter with the dark, bleak landscapes of The Thing , or the grimy urban streets of Escape from New York ,, but you will be amazed at what Carpenter does with different landscapes in this film. He weaves together an apocalyptic tale that is one-half Stephen King, one-half H.P. Lovecraft.
The narrative revolves around Sam Neill‘s character John Trent trying to track down Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), a famous King-like horror novelist who has gone missing,and retrieve his latest manuscript, but his reality begins unraveling almost right away. He finally meets the author, whose love for his work has started unleashing Lovecraftian terrors. Cane accuses Trent of trying to save the world, even though it may mean the end of the world. Not only does this perfectly cap off what Carpenter called his “Apocalypse Trilogy” (comprised of The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and this film), it also reveals the frustration of a creator trapped by both fan expectation and studio limitations (including the budget for this very movie being nearly cut in half).
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
When you think about ’90s horror and Wes Craven, you’re likely to think about Scream, the hot new franchise he introduced that is still thriving to this day. But before introducing the world to Ghostface, Craven decided to give us the definitive vision of A Nightmare on Elm Street. This film is a captivating film that centers on Freddy Krueger. It also gives us early glimpses of the meta horror Craven would soon bring to mass audiences.
What is it? This movie is set in the real world. Freddy is a fictional character. However, when people start dying on the set of the latest Elm Street film and apocalyptic earthquakes become more frequent, it looks like the dream demon may be real — and may have found a permanent way to enter our reality.
The magic of this movie is that it dazzles long-time Freddy fans as well as those who were over A Nightmare On Elm Street after the first film. This movie features many familiar franchise actors like Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, and Craven as himself. As reality changes, these characters start to slip into the familiar fictional world. This is Freddy’s first novel and a fascinating look at Freddy. It also provides a great guideline on how horror movies can influence our lives.
On paper, Se7en could have been a gimmicky mess. A movie about a serial killer who kills people using methods inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins could be nothing but a shlock setpiece. However, director David Fincher imbues the movie with as much psychological tension as outright gore, giving us an unexpected level of depth along with scene after memorable scene.
Audiences were skeptical about this movie, since the Fincher film was the bleak Alien3 .. But as we watch Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt’s characters try to track down a mysterious serial killer, we are forced to ask ourselves the same compelling question they are. What kind of monstrously evil person could have been responsible for these murders?
It’s only near the end that we get to meet John Doe, played to creeptastic perfection by Kevin Spacey, who ushers in that final twist that is sure to make your stomach drop.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Everyone has had that experience of watching something, getting bored halfway through, and then putting on something more exciting. And while it was likely unintentional, this is the effect that Robert Rodriguez pulls off in his iconic vampire movie From Dusk Till Dawn.
The first half of the movie is a mostly by-the-numbers crime film, but it keeps things interesting thanks to the confident swagger of George Clooney, the vulnerability of Juliette Lewis, and the growing creep factor of Quentin Tarantino (who also wrote the screenplay) Clooney and Tarantino play bank robbers who force a hapless family to transport them across the border to Mexico after a job gone wrong. They soon find themselves in a bar surrounded by undead vamps after they arrive.
This movie is a mess in every way. It’s hard not to love the outsized characters and dangerous environments. Tom Savini as a “Sex Machine”, with a gun on the crotch? Salma Hayek as a stripper that turns from sexy to scary on a dime? Yes, please! It’s great fun to see the characters come up with ways to kill these vamps. One of them is asking a pastor who has lost his faith if he can bless water to fight the undead horde.
We like to think the original Scream would have flourished in any decade. It’s clear that the timing of this film’s release was a major factor in its success. As we noted before, slashers were very played out by this time, so the stage was set for this whip-smart script by Kevin Williamson to turn the genre on its head. And only director Wes Craven, whose Nightmare On Elm Street films helped define the slasher genre, could bring a high-brow slasher to life. However, there were potential obstacles to the movie’s success. As Michelle Delgado points out in her retrospective, Williamson was largely inspired by watching an episode of Turning Point focused on the Gainesville Ripper, and national concerns over real violence soon led to concerns over cinematic slayings. This movie “arrived just when a national debate over on-screen violence was boiling.” Through the character of Gail Weathers (Courteney Cox), the movie shows us how our media’s fixation on violent killers may actually be empowering them rather than shining a bright light on dark deeds. Delgado points out that the film’s horror stems from the fact that violent crime is more likely “to lurk close to home” than far-off crimes or criminals that kept us on our TV sets.
The reason the Scream franchise is stronger now than ever before is that Craven’s exercise in meta-horror did not content itself with poking fun at existing horror tropes (although watching Jamie Kennedy give “the rules” of surviving a horror movie never gets old). We are forced to confront an uncomfortable paradigm in which horror fans become perpetrators of actual crime, a theme that is still very relevant in recent movies. This narrative anxiety does not mean Craven agrees that violent movies encourage violent actions. As an unmasked killer in Scream famously proclaims, “Movies don’t make psychos! Movies can make psychos more creative. “
Considering both the Gainesville Ripper and Jeffrey Dahmer drew inspiration from Exorcist III, there may be more than a bit of truth to that idea. But since horror mogul Wes Craven never turned into a dream demon or a masked, ghostly slasher, we’ll keep taking our chances re-watching these frightening ’90s movies year after year.
Vincenzo Natali‘s 1997 film Cube is a curious construct (and we’re not just talking about the Cube itself). The best thing about the movie is its simplicity. A group of strangers, with no memory of their journey, meet in a large room called the Cube. The characters must escape from one cube to the next by navigating different booby traps. They can use a little calculation to determine which rooms are safe, and then find a way out. After you’ve gotten past the immediate terrors of the brutal boobytraps you will feel a sense of existentialist dread. You can imagine Minesweeper having fatal consequences for being wrong and you’ll get the idea.
If nothing else, Cube should be lauded for its outsize influence on more recent horror, walking so thatSaw could run (before of course sputtering to a halt). It’s hard to watch the characters navigate the perils Squid Games without thinking about the cube and the creative methods of torture or death that await them in each room.
Event Horizon (1997)
Some have called Event Horizon a tad derivative, and they’re not wrong. The original pitch for this movie was almost certainly “Hellraiser meets Alien.” You may wonder why there isn’t more cosmic horror in the cosmos after the credits roll. The plot revolves around Sam Neill, the inventor of a faster than light ship that is suddenly found in the void. His team must then go to retrieve it. But since traveling through a time warp exposed the ship to hellish chaotic forces (we can’t help but think either director Paul W. S. Anderson or writer Philip Eisner are fans of Warhammer 40,000), our hapless characters are venturing into the one thing worse than hell on Earth: hell in space.
Critics didn’t love this movie at all when it was released, but it gained cult status over the years. And even when its pieces don’t fit together perfectly, it is joyful to watch Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, and Jason Isaacs in a sci-fi horror movie together.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Many of the movies on this list are divisive, but none, perhaps, are quite as much as The Blair Witch Project due to the truly guerilla nature of the film. Shot in only eight days and for a budget in the hundred thousands (it would go on to gross almost $250 million), the film looks exactly like what it is: a disjointed story of three friends wandering around in the woods hunting down the mythical “Blair Witch.” It is elevated by its admirable restraint, and one of horror’s most innovative marketing campaigns.
The film’s online distribution was simple and elegant, claiming that all the actors were either missing or dead. What might have been a simple found footage film was transformed into a disturbing document that chronicles the last days of three miserable characters. Good marketing didn’t make this movie a quarter-of-a-billion dollars. Its scare factor is also a key reason for its success. This can be explained by the fact that we are most afraid of things we don’t see or understand. This can be as simple and as simple as strange sounds, missing maps or someone standing in a corner without a reason. This back-to-basics horror film feels fresher, as digital effects have increased in recent decades.
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years and have a deep understanding of the psychological and emotional elements that affect people. I’m an experienced ghostwriter and editor, as well as an award-winning author of five novels.