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 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 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 five to start our own experiment.
- Event Horizon (1997). Innovating within the space-horror genre can be difficult when most of the storylines revolve around people on spaceships needing to be rescued from aliens, black holes, or each other in the confines of space. Event Horizon attempts to break new ground (and seems to inspire elements of Futurama) while also repeating many of the familiar storylines. The crew of the Lewis and Clark are sent on a rescue mission to a starship that disappeared seven years before after a mysterious signal is received. What they find on the ship only causes more questions as they try to find out what happened to the crew, the purpose of the ship’s gravity drive, and how to survive when terrifying things begin to happen. The cast does a great job of rounding out these stereotypical types—captain, doctor, mechanic, etc.—and giving them surprising depths whether it’s explicitly revealed or not. While everyone does a good job of bringing this rather-crazy plot to life, special shout-outs go to Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Jason Isaacs, and Sean Pertwee. I do wish that a little more agency had been given to the female characters (played by Joely Richardson and Kathleen Quinlan) because they seem to lack some of the development given to the male characters and that we should expect in our female space adventurers thanks to Ripley. Some of the CGI is a little dated, but it’s fairly limited and the remaining quick cuts of cinematography and practical effects make up for it. The reveal that makes this a unique film among its genre deserves to be somewhat of a surprise, but Sam Neill’s performance sells that aspect and what little we see of the truth is just enough to know we probably don’t want to see more. Overall, if you’re a lover of unfortunate space odysseys that verge on Lovecraft then this is worth checking out.
- The Faculty (1998). If a horror film were a grab bag of actors who were famous before and after the film was made this would be it. Practically every scene is a chance to say, “It’s so-and-so from that-other-movie-I-enjoyed!” Numerous recognizable actors aside, the plot focuses on a group of teenagers struggling against a sinister invasion taking place at their high school. While certain aspects of the film are trademark late-90s supernatural horror and the whole film feels like it could be a long episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, overall there’s a lot to enjoy about the script, the characters, and even some of the cinematography and effects. There’s a particular scene toward the end where the antagonist monologues while walking and it’s a really nice shot. I do feel like some of the plot points were excuses for copious drug use, but it makes sense within the context of the movie and it’s fun anyway. The movie is self-aware as most post-Scream films are and references several other invasion type films and fiction in our culture, but there are plenty of homages to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing to satisfy fans of that particular subgenre. It’s dated, but still stands up as a fun movie full of good actors.
- Deep Blue Sea (1999). Animal horror films are some of my personal favorites, but, unfortunately, most of them are shlock rather than genuine horror. This is particularly true with shark films because there’s only so much you can do with a natural predator who isn’t CGI friendly and has limited methods of attacking humans without getting too crazy. That said, Deep Blue Sea manages to toe the line between a believable and crazy plot since it’s based on a group of researchers using sharks to create a cure for Alzheimer’s. Obviously this goes wrong and bad stuff happens in the middle of the ocean. The best performance is by Samuel L. Jackson, who’s just on the floating research center to make sure his investment is sound and deliver fantastic monologues. The CGI on the sharks isn’t the best, but it could have been worse. If you enjoy films where humans play God (i.e. Jurassic Park) and then their creations turn on them, there’s definitely something for you underneath the surface of this film.
- The Others (2001). Returning to the subgenre of Gothic horror, this supernatural film satisfies in various ways earlier films with similar twists didn’t. Grace Stewart lives in isolation with her two children in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Due to her children’s photosensitivity they must live in darkness and she’s rather understandably paranoid about light. Grace and her children notice the presence of others/intruders in their home, but she’s unwilling to believe they may be ghosts due to her rigid faith. I really like the subversion of light in this film. Depending on the context of the scene, the darkness is either stifling in its claustrophobia or comforting in its protection. Nicole Kidman performs the hell out of this movie as she balances the role of Grace on a knife’s edge and portrays paranoia, a mother’s devotion, grief, and suffocation so well. Fionnula Flanagan as Bertha Mills is both a tropey character of the mystic Irishwoman, but also manages to convey so much into a single glance that we can put those Gothic tropes aside. The direction, setting, and writing all work together to pull off a nice twist in the end that will spook viewers with every watch.
- Underworld (2003). Before Twilight besmirched the good vampire/werewolf name, the subgenre was doing quite well with a variety of horror films and this blockbuster franchise. The first film follows Selene, a vampire Death Dealer who hunts Lycans, as she discovers a human who seems to hold the key to finishing the endless war between the two beings. While I will admit that this initial film reeks of early-2000s leather and rock music, it still holds up in terms of action, buy-in, and a decent romance between Selene and the character of Michael. Kate Beckinsdale delivers a wonderfully icy performance, acting the part of an immortal to perfection but letting down her guard at the appropriate moments. Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen alternatively chew the scenery when they’re on screen and are pure delights. The backstory of the vampire and werewolf races is fairly well developed (even if a good portion of it is through exposition), and much of the Gothic atmosphere of the film contrasts well with the 21st century innovations we’re privy to. The cinematography, particularly in some of the fight scenes and the introduction of Selene, create many memorable shots for the franchise to start off on. I’ll admit that the romance between Michael and Selene is my least favorite aspect of the franchise, even if it’s supposed to be a callback to the past, and I think the film could do fine without it. The soundtrack is a pure product of its time, but if you love A Perfect Circle and Amy Lee then you’re in good hands. The vampire/werewolf subgenre will always be popular, but this franchise creates its own history in a character-driven and authentic way that’s more than bloodsucking immortals.
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.