The 90s were a great decade for a number of reasons, not least for the excellent and now classic horror movies like Scream, Misery, and The Silence of the Lambs. But aside from the big blockbusters, there was also room for twisted under-the-radar thrillers like In the Mouth of Madness and Japanese horror movies like Ringu and Audition that would go on to have a major influence on American horror for the next 20 years. Those were the days: Return to them with the best 90s horror movies.
Stephen King’s claustrophobic torture-porn masterpiece was brought to the big screen in 1990, and featured brilliant performances from James Caan and Kathy Bates. Directed by Rob Reiner, the mallet scene has gone down in history as one of the most terrifying scenes in all of horror history, thanks to Bates’ perfectly cheerful insanity. For her efforts she won an Academy Award for Best Actress, making Misery the only Oscar-winning Stephen King movie—and cementing Bates's status as a bona fide movie star.
The Silence of the Lambs
Alfred Hitchcock would likely be impressed by the sinister elegance and psychological suspense of this movie, yet The Silence of the Lambs deserves its title as one of the greatest pure horror movies of all time. As directed by Jonathan Demme, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins go head-to-head in this quid pro quo thriller in which Hannibal the cannibal helps the fledging Agent Starling solve a series of murders before the killer strikes again. The movie's climax, which takes place completely in the dark, is one of cinema’s scariest visions.
Horror king Wes Craven turned the horror movie formula on its head with 1996’s Scream. If you don’t know “the rules” of horror in this flick, you might find yourself at the mercy of Ghostface. Scream has it all: The allure of your typical teen horror movie with the smarts of movie geek who boasts a Ph.D. in the history of the genre.
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In the Mouth of Madness
Halloween director John Carpenter takes on a decidedly Lovecraftian tale with 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. Despite this movie’s insane plot and a star performance from Sam Neill, this movie remains criminally underrated, although it's cherished by many a horror aficionado. Like Lovecraft’s best stories about the frailty of human sanity, In the Mouth of Madness is a terrifying exploration of the dangers of creation with plenty of gross-out scenes.
Stir of Echoes
If anyone ever offers to hypnotize you for fun, you might want to think twice. Kevin Bacon finds himself at the center of the disappearance of a young girl when suddenly he’s able to commune with the dead after a friendly hypnotism. Based on a story by Richard Matheson, this supernatural thriller was critically acclaimed by the likes of Roger Ebert and didn’t do too shabbily at the box office, either. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked today, thanks to other supernatural heavy hitters like The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, both of which also premiered in 1999.
The panic of the technological age (remember Y2K?) is on full display in 1998’s Ringu, where a haunted videotape will definitely kill you seven days after you watch it. The old-school premise of a curse mixed with the modern nuance of a viral video seems particularly prescient today. The movie inspired the American remake of 2002, starring Naomi Watts, which went on to be one of the highest-grossing horror remakes of all time.
Virginia Madsen plays a white graduate student studying urban legends in Chicago who soon discovers that the boogeyman she is researching is real–and ready to kill. The Candyman was the son of a slave who managed to work his way up in society and fell in love with a white woman along the way. The woman’s father had the Candyman’s hand cut off and a lynch mob set after him. Now, the Candyman reaps his revenge. Some moviegoers at the time dismissed Candyman as too self-serious for a horror movie. Viewers today, however, would likely agree with Candyman's supporters from the 1990s, who saw the flick as a nuanced horror slasher that offered surprising insight into race and revenge alike.
The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shyamalan’s most beloved movie closed out the 90s with a bang. 1999’s The Sixth Sense was a horror sensation, and after all the years, it still scares. Sure, everyone likes to say they called the epic twist ending when they first saw this creepy film. But even if you knew the conceit, the fact of the matter is, thanks to fantastic performances from Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, and the young Haley Joel Osment, there are certain scenes in The Sixth Sense (like the one starring a young Mischa Barton) that still freak us out.
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Now a household name, director David Fincher was virtually unknown when he burst onto the scene with 1995’s Se7en. Heartthrob Brad Pitt plays a detective assigned to the case of a serial killer who uses the Bible’s seven deadly sins as his modus operandi. The movie’s shocking ending made it a cult classic, with its cat-and-mouse motif going on to inspire such movies as the Saw franchise. Despite its lurid violence, Se7en was the highest grossing film of that year.
The Blair Witch Project
Long before #fakenews and viral marketing stunts, a little movie called The Blair Witch Project blurred the line between fiction and reality. The cinema verité approach to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project convinced many a movie goer that this horror flick was horrifyingly real. Part of Blair Witch's power to convince had to do with the simplicity of its premise: Three friends armed with tents and a camcorder march off into the woods in search of a legend known as the Blair Witch. The shaky, at-times-nauseating camerawork plus the visceral terror of being lost/hunted in the woods spelled box office gold: The movie eventually grossed $250 million dollars worldwide. It was made for $60,000.
This Japanese horror film from 1999 was deemed so graphic that some considered it unwatchable. Not for the faint of heart, horror buffs on college campuses everywhere were desperate for a black market copy. Traditional gender roles and misogyny are under attack in this movie about a man who holds auditions for his next wife. What he doesn’t expect is the caliber of the woman who turns up for the role, taking torture porn horror to a whole new level.
Related: 7 Creepy Japanese Horror Movies
To some, 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder is quite simply one of the most terrifying movies ever made. The impeccable Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD and tormented by nightmarish visions. The title references the place between Heaven and Hell, and as those who’ve seen the movie know, it will make you wonder what is real and what is a hallucination. More devastating, though, is the film’s very real portrait of an actual hellscape—the Vietnam War.
If you're looking for the ultimate 90s historical horror movie about cannibalism, you’ll find it in 1999’s Ravenous. The ravages of war and life out west are at the heart of this movie, wherein Guy Pearce plays a cowardly soldier who plays dead and gets shipped out to the middle of nowhere. He soon learns of the Wendigo, a mythical, man-eating monster. At the time, audiences and critics were unsure of what to make of this movie—specifically, just how much of it was actually supposed to be funny. But in the intervening years, Ravenous has gained a dedicated cult following.
Featured still from "Candyman" via Candyman Films