This decade, preceded by the plastic 1980s, and let down by the promise of peace that accompanied the end of the Cold War, was a cynical and increasingly angry time. The emergence of the World Wide Web was a profound thing as fans began to congregate online in AOL chat rooms and on message boards. eBay became a going concern, and a lot of movies, once thought to be nigh-impossible to track down, were suddenly just a few mouse clicks and a credit card number away. Computers were The Hot New Thing, and this was reflected in a lot of films.
By the end of the decade, whatever goodwill the end of the Cold War generated was all used up us and most of us had figured out that the fix was in, and we were the suckers. With Communism over and done with in the early 1990s, America needed a new enemy. When one didn’t appear readily, we decided to make a new enemy; it was us. And like the hit song from the 1990s, we were our own worst enemy, to boot.
As much as Jurassic Park, with its computer-generated and animated dinosaurs, was a watershed moment in filmmaking, CGI had a ways to go. That didn’t stop people from using it, badly, for most of the decade, until Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop improved the process dramatically to create believable characters that seemed real in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Conversely, a number of horror movies during this time were overly reliant on CGI to their detriment, while other filmmakers managed to work around the limitations of the technique or, in more than one case, jettisoned it in favor of good old-fashioned practical effects.
What makes the movies in this decade so hit-or-miss is the studios themselves. The venerable movie maniac franchises continued to thunder along under their own weight, and other companies, with star dust in their eyes, started remaking older films, slickly produced, but not very well thought out. There were also a number of smaller studios and even smaller movies that were wildly entertaining as B-movies, but weren’t scary or even very serious. Nevertheless, some innovations and interesting things developed, maybe even as a response to the naked and unashamed cash grab, that made the list below.
5. Stir of Echoes (1999)
Kevin Bacon is a blue-collar guy living with his wife and son in a suburb of Chicago. His wacky sister-in-law hypnotizes him at a party, and she tells him to be more open-minded, which turns out to mean, “now I can see ghosts and visions of past traumas.” This psychic ability runs in the family; their son has it, too. And wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that something horrible happened in the house before Kevin Bacon’s family moved in, and the spirit won’t rest (and neither will Kevin Bacon and his son) until the mystery is solved.
This movie often gets overlooked because it sits on the same tree branch as The Sixth Sense, which came out the same year. While not as gimmicky and as “gotcha” as the former, Stir of Echoes does offer up its own kind of disturbing scares, and in a wide variety, too: Jump scares, creep-outs, gross-outs, and even a creepy kid all come together in a story that tries very hard to find whatever it is that does scare you and then give you that.
David Koepp wrote the adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel (first published in the late 1950s) and directed the film as well. Matheson is a much-revered author for his various contributions to literature, television and film, mostly in the realm of fantasy, horror and science fiction, and Koepp was interested in paying him homage. As such, it has some changes from the book, but in the updating, it plays on some serious fears that were a part of the decade, including violence towards women and teenagers with guns. If you notice any familiar beats in this movie that you feel are a bit overused, you should know that Matheson is the one who first introduced those beats, and not the other way around.
4. Event Horizon (1997)
A salvage crew (in space) is tasked with the recovery of an experimental spacecraft called the Event Horizon, thought to be lost during its maiden voyage. It’s carrying a gravity drive that can fold space, and would be invaluable technology, if they can ever figure out what went wrong. The drive’s inventor joins the crew of the Lewis & Clark (that’s the ship’s name, I swear), all jaded hands at the wheel, and sure enough, they find the ship, and a big mystery with it. What happened? Where’d everyone go? What’s with all of the blood, anyway? The engineer inventor, played by Sam Neill, has his own agenda, and it doesn’t exactly line up with the rest of the crew, who are just in it for the bucks. And as these tensions mount, things begin to go horribly wrong with the routine salvage operation.
This rare gem of a movie turns a derelict spaceship into a haunted house, complete with ghosts and cultists and things from other dimensions. I’ll even forgive the capricious use of CGI to render a bunch of floating debris, all shiny and crisp, inside the ship because it would have looked just as bad if it was done with blue screen and traveling mattes. Thankfully, they get the gravity turned back on quick enough and you don’t have to spend a lot of time wondering if the movie was shot for a 3-D release (it wasn’t. The CGI is just that bad).
The cast is great, all character actors you’ll recognize, from Lawrence Fishburn to Sam Neill, in the only other interesting role he ever took after Jurassic Park. The movie itself, however, had a storied and torturous gestation process, with an auteur director (Paul W.S. Anderson), studio interference, multiple rewrites, and in the end, a patchwork film that no one was happy with. All that being said, this movie scratches a lot of itches and isn’t quite like anything else in the 1990s. Panned when it was initially released, the film was marketed as science fiction, but make no mistake, it’s a horror flick, wearing a lot of influences on its sleeves, like sponsor patches on a NASCAR driver’s leather jacket. One of the things that isn’t readily known about the movie is that “the warp” concept of traveling through space was lifted straight out of Warhammer 40,000, so much so that Games Workshop fans consider it as part of the overall 40K universe.
3. The Prophesy (1995)
An L.A. police detective gets drawn into a weird web of mysteries; a dead body with no eyes, an expanded bible with additional chapters in Revelations about a second war of the heavens, body snatching, and what may or may not be a possessed child. It’s enough to make the detective, who was a seminary student, until he lost his faith, question everything he knows. And when the archangel Gabriel shows up, played by Christopher Walken, well–you know…you’re in–for one hell…of a movie.
The 1990s saw the apex of Christopher Walken’s career, and this movie showcases Walken dialed all the way up, with more cowbell for good measure. His turn as Gabriel is exactly what you’d think it to be, and then he doubles down on top of that. Unsurprisingly, he’s got the best lines of dialogue in the movie, but he’s not the only big-name actor: Eric Stoltz and Viggo Mortenson also co-star, along with Virginia Madsen. In truth, this isn’t the scariest movie of the decade, not by a damn sight. But it’s got a really unique story, some effectively creepy moments, and it’s one of those movies you keep thinking about after you’ve seen it. Despite being something of a flop in the theaters, it subsequently spawned four sequels. It never needed them. You can watch the first movie and feel like you got a complete experiences, and owing much to the quality of what came after, I’d take that advice.
2. Scream II (1997)
Two years have passed since Sydney Prescott survived the ordeal of the Ghostface killer. She’s now in college, with a new life, some new friends, and a few old ones. Everything should be perfect, but…Ghostface is back, cutting a gory swath through campus, even as the sensationalized events of the movie Stab, based on the real-life incident play out in the background.
Everyone that was still alive at the end of Scream is back for this one and you’ll likely not see who the killer is this time, either. But it’s an answer to the mystery that works within the story. And the blood! Everything is cranked up to eleven with this movie, and that includes the satire. Not content to be a meta-critique on slasher horror, Scream 2 takes some potshots at celebrity culture and the 24-hour news cycle for good measure.
There are not a lot of sequels that made the other top 5 lists, but Scream 2 is one of the few that maintains the emotional and intellectual drive of the first movie; if anything, it’s even more self-aware for the second go-round. And since sequels are such a part of the horror genre, there are rules for them, too, as Randy again explains. The genre conventions hold, even as they are being discussed. One of the few times you can watch a sequel and get as much out of it as the first movie.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Three college students head out into the woods with video cameras to film a documentary about a local bit of folklore, the Blair Witch. They disappeared. Later, their video camera was recovered and the tapes show the students at the beginning of their adventure, along with the strange things that plague their group when they cross into the woods.
Some films are timeless, and others are rooted in their time and place. The Blair Witch Project could not have been made at any other time because it is so specific to the level of technology used to create it and the zeitgeist from whence its inspiration comes. The movie begins with the declaration that “this is a true story” and then we go to video camera footage, and a new sub-genre, “found footage,” was launched (it was not the first time the technique had been used, but it was the movie in which the technique broke out into the mainstream. The movie was a pop-cultural and financial success, so much so that the stars of the movie were presenters at the Academy Awards the following year. It it was that big a deal.
I wish everyone could see this movie as I first did; it was an Academy Award screener, on VHS cassette, and I watched it on a square TV in a darkened room with six other people. There’s something about watching video tape on a video tape that adds a lot of authenticity to the movie, so much so that we all went searching afterward, just to make sure it really was faked.