Since the creation of film, there have been horror movies.
They have lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly going unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
The genre was exhausted from churning out sequels, prequels, and new films at breakneck speed. It needed a breath of fresh air, something that would re-invent horror for a new generation who had grown up with Freddy, Jason, and Michael. In a certain way, that reinvention came in the form of 1996’s Scream. The tongue-in-cheek tone and self-aware humor, as well as its blatant references to its forefathers, made it a new horror film for fans of the genre. It was a new time for horror.
However, when one looks at Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100 Horror Films it’s clear that the films from this time weren’t very popular or groundbreaking; less than ten of the films on the list came out from the mid-1990s until 2004. Compared to the hundreds of films that a person can name from the years before or after, most people can only name a handful of successful films from this period. Most were duds like Anaconda and Wishmaster, but a few broke out of the mulch and opened a few new doors for horror.
In previous years, I called this era “The Decline”, insinuating that there was a decline in the production and quality of horror films in this time period. However, as I’ve come to discover and learn, it’s not that the films weren’t being made or weren’t successful when they were released per say. The films just haven’t made a lasting impression on our culture in the same way that the films before or after them have. They tried new things—sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t—and a lot of subgenres were built, exploded, and renewed during this period. For this reason, I’m rebranding this era as “The Experiment.”
The films in this era are a mixed bag of good and bad, for many reasons, but there are definite merits to their inclusion on this list. Here’s ten to start off our own experiment.
- Se7en (1995). There’s a thin line of marketing that blurs the genre between what is sold as horror and what is sold as thriller. While Se7en was sold as a thriller, I’ve always considered it more of a detective horror film (a reinvention we’ve seen recently in films such as Abattoir). Detectives Mills and Somerset are trying to catch a serial killer who bases his murders along the lines of the seven deadly sins, and, as they become more entangled in the twisted mind and brutality of the killer, they find that they may not be as virtuous as the law should be. This is a dark and gritty film throughout, not just in cinematography but also in the raw viscera of the murders themselves. (How often do you get to witness what a person who ate to death would look like?) We’re kept guessing throughout until we’re not, and then it’s just confusion and panic and horror in the final moments of run time as we struggle to figure out the killer’s plan. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt deliver fantastic performances, as do Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Spacey. If you like mysteries and shows like Criminal Minds then Se7en is a box you should open.
- The Craft (1996). I would have alternatively loved and hated The Craft if I had seen it when I was little: loved it because I wanted magic powers so bad; hated it because there are several scenes that involve a lot of snakes. Either way now I’ve watched it and appreciated this film for the fun that it is. New girl at school Sarah befriends a group of girls who play around with magic, and together they cast spells to make their lives better by wishing for beauty, power, love, and revenge. However, things begin to go awry shortly after and Sarah’s new friends are not so steadfast. There’s plenty to appreciate about this film. It has an amazing soundtrack, the performances are enjoyable, and while the special effects at times overpower the action of the moment they’re not completely terrible. The scene that’s full of bugs and snakes and other creepy crawlies was hard for me to watch, and I’m sure anyone else with those phobias will have just as hard a time. Teen girls will still find something to enjoy out of this dramatic story of friendship, magic, and being careful what you wish for.
- I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). I think that, due to the success of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the 1990s had an ongoing love affair with urban legends. This was pretty evident in the loose adaptation of Lois Duncan’s novel of the same name, where a group of teens are hunted by a man with a hook shortly after retelling the Hook Hand legend around a fire. They also may or may not have killed the man with their car last summer and tried to cover it up. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr, and Ryan Phillipe round up the cast of 1990s’ darlings in peril as they try to figure out who is chasing them and how they know what they did. There’s a nice score and soundtrack backing the plot, and nice performances by Gellar and Hewitt pre-Buffy and Ghost Whisperer. It also has one of the most tragic character deaths that I’ve ever seen and I was heartbroken for long moments after that person was gone. While it does have quite a few flaws in the execution of its story and some of the acting isn’t all there, it’s a fun teen slasher to sit back and enjoy.
- Funny Games (1997). I had heard of this Austrian horror film a couple of times prior to selecting it. Mostly how it broke the fourth wall, made viewers part of the experience, and was fairly violent. I still didn’t know what I was getting into. Funny Games is about Georg, Anna, and Georgie, a family on vacation with their dog at a lake. Their vacation is interrupted by the arrival of Peter and Paul, two young men who immediately begin playing “games” with the family that pit their survival up against pain and death. This is a horror film that—in the same vein of Scream—knows what it’s doing. However, it makes the audience implicit in the process by breaking the fourth wall, asking them to bet on the family’s chances of survival, and purposely withholding scenes that would normally be shown in any other horror film. This makes the audience question not only their vague disappointment at not seeing these scenes, but also builds the horror through what is shown instead—mundane everyday life, sociopathic uncaring. This is a horror film that will make you question why you watch the genre; maybe not the best film to watch after binge-watching a bunch of other scary movies where you enjoy blood and gore.
- Lake Placid (1999). Did Lake Placid do for crocodiles what Jaws did for sharks? No, not really. Part of that may be due to the less-serious tone the movie carries throughout, the whiny and minorly annoying character Kelly Scott, and several other reasons. However, there are lots of things to enjoy about this story about a giant crocodile hunting in a lake in Maine. There are lots of recognizable actors (Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Brenden Gleeson, and Betty White), many of the scenes with the crocodile are appropriately terrifying, and it’s a fun animal horror film. Most films in this subgenre are either ridiculously stupid or wonderfully terrifying, and I think this falls somewhere in between. Honestly, the best part about this film was hearing Betty White cursing up a storm, but the crocodile is pretty scary too.
- The Sixth Sense (1999). When it first came out, M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller about a little boy who sees dead people felt like an innovative and intelligent announcement of a new presence in cinema. After almost twenty years of “twist” endings, we’ve come to expect less and less of him, but I tried to watch this film with eyes that pretended not to know what was going to happen (I mean, I had the film spoiled for me when I was like seven so…). Malcolm Crowe is a child psychologist who is tending to his newest client, a boy named Cole who says he can see dead people. Despite his assumption that Cole suffers from delusions and possible psychosis, Malcolm tries to help him as much as Cole works to convince Malcolm that he’s telling the truth. There are a couple of genuinely frightening scenes in the film, and I think the message of listening to kids is a welcome one. It’s still a watchable film and definitely better than some of Shyamalan’s later works, but it’s not a complete loss if you know the twist and haven’t actually seen it.
- Jeepers Creepers (2001). New monsters are kind of rare in the horror genre. We get plenty of re-imaginings of werewolves, vampires, and demons, but not a lot of new. The Creeper is a different kind of monster, and this is a different kind of movie. While the production behind the film has its own terrors, the film itself is what I will be talking about here. Trish Jenner and her brother Derry are going home on spring break, taking the scenic route through Florida, when they see a man dispose of a body on the side of the road. After discovering a horrific scene, the two are attacked by the man and relentless pursued by what they come to know as the Creeper. The soundtrack and use of sound in this film is one of the earlier examples of old-song-used-in-a-scary-way, and Gina Philips and Justin Long do a nice job of selling the terror. The film has a satisfying story arch, an ending that stays with you just so, and some nice scares throughout.
- 28 Days Later (2002). We return to the zombie genre to find that they’ve gotten faster, angrier, and that civilization is ill-prepared for an outbreak. Animal activists break into a testing facility and release several animals infected with “rage”; 28 days later, Jim awakens in a hospital to find that London is empty. He finds two other survivors, Selena and Mark, after escaping from some infected and tries to figure out how to cope in the new world. Eventually, there’s a journey to a possible infection-free zone with some additional folks, but even that is fraught with its own kind of peril. 28 Days Later does its own work to add and innovate to the zombie genre—making the infected fast and the change so instantaneous—and provides plenty of political and human commentary to make you wonder. We have some great characters in Jim (Cillian Murphy) and Selena (Naomie Harris), and a semi-plausible zombie world to wake up to.
- Cabin Fever (2002). If you’re a hypochondriac then this isn’t the movie for you. Five friends go to a cabin in the woods on spring break and contract an infection after a brush with a drifter. What follows is chaos as they try to get help, isolate the infected, keep away from an angry dog, and figure out what is going on. While the tone of the film jumps from absolutely terrifying to weird and stupid (Pancakes!), the fact that this is one of the few horror films about flesh-eating bacteria is what makes it special. The effects on said infection are top notch, and the body horror—particularly in the shaving scene—are cringe-worthy. Rider Strong delivers a nice performance outside of his Boy Meets World background, and there’re some decent innovations within the cabin setting that make this its own film within a trope. If you can handle some sick gore, then stay inside with Cabin Fever.
- Wrong Turn (2003). The fear we have of getting lost in the backwoods and walking onto the wrong property is a good kind of anxiety to have. This film plays on that kind of terror as five college kids run into a medical student on a dirt road, and are then hunted by disfigured redneck cannibals. There’s little creativity in way of genre here—we’ve seen this before with The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—but it’s still enjoyable to some degree. Whether or not you want these kids to escape, they’re still running through the woods of West Virginia and trying to survive from people who make human soup. There’s some creativity in the kills, a memorable use of barbed wire, and good pacing of the ongoing chase. Eliza Dushku and Desmond Harrington have nice performances as the competent members of the group, but everyone else is ultimately forgettable or annoying in turn. Overall, I’m mildly surprised it has a franchise, but enjoyed moments of it nonetheless.
The decline and experimentation in horror was a much needed break for the genre to re-evaluate its roots, take a break from releasing a million and one movies, and come back when it was most needed. While the films in this era didn’t spawn nearly as many franchises or sequels as the period before, they still emerged with surprising popularity and found fans that supported them. The experimentation must have paid off, because in the next era horror resurged with a vengeance of blood, bone, and death.