40 Best 90s Horror Films: Part 2 (#20-#1)

Last year, I kicked off Margetis Movie Reviews with The 50 Best 80s Horror Films, a five part article and countdown of the best horror films of the best decade of horror. This year, I’m tackling a less golden era of horror cinema, one that gave us some major league crap but still managed to yield a few bizarre hits as well as the first and only horror Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs.

The 90s offered a bunch of diminishing returns in the genre especially with the way 80s slasher franchises wrapped up. Friday the 13th was sold off to New Line Cinema where it produced the single worst entry of the franchise, Jason Goes to Hell. Halloween was sold off to Dimension Films and Bob and Harvey Weinstein, where they completely fucked things up with Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers and then managed to somewhat redeem themselves with Halloween H20. Freddy Krueger also slashed his way into cinemas with his franchise’s worst entry, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, while surprisngly redeeming himself with the uber-meta Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a fascinating look at why and how franchise horror movies are made and the impact they have on the artists involved. It also paved the way for Scream, arguably the single most significant horror film of the 1990s. Irredeemably awful franchises like Leprechaun and I Know What You Did Last Summer also sprouted up, while 90s franchise horror entries like Child’s Play 3 and Alien 3 still stand as the worst of their respective series.

While the 90s was the death of the movie monster slasher as we knew him, it opened the doors for a lot of the more visually creative and intellectual horror we see through A24 and Neon and occasionally Blumhouse, today. Horror pictures like Se7en, Candyman and Perfect Blue. The Blair Witch Project ironically gave birth to one the laziest and most creatively bankrupt horror subgenres, the found footage horror film, with an entry far more intelligent and effective than anything the sub genre saw after it. We also saw a bunch of great overseas horror like Ringu, Cronos and Audition, which was another intelligent, effective and original horror film that ironically paved the way for another one of the laziest and most creatively bankrupt horror sub genres, the torture porn movie.

You take the good, you take the bad and what you have is one of the most interesting but uneven decades for horror. Here’s a list of the 40 Best Horror Films of this decade, concluding with #20 through #1….

P.S.: At least 90s horror isn’t as shitty as early 2000s horror. That was the absolute low point of the genre.

20. Scream 2

1997 / USA / dir. Wes Craven / 120 minutes

cast: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Jamie Kennedy, Jerry O’Connell, Elise Neal, Timothy Olyphant, Jada Pinkett, Omar Epps, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Laurie Metcalf, Liev Schrieber, Duane Martin, Rebecca Gayheart, Portia de Rossi, Tori Spelling, Luke Wilson, Heather Graham, Roger L. Jackson

Considering this was released less than a year after the original, it’s a doggone miracle this doesn’t seem more rushed. Scream 2 feels like it should have taken more time to develop, most likely because screenwriter Kevin Williamson already knew that if the original was about the tropes of horror films, the sequel would, naturally, be about the tropes of horror sequels. Sure, there are some stupid scenes in this like this gol’ darn film class discussion where I’m supposed to believe everyone in the class has watched The Godfather Part II, or even knows what the fuck it is. Besides that though, this is a seriously good sequel that is nearly as good as the original and might even be more suspenseful. The recording studio chase sequence remains one of the tensest moments of the entire franchise and the trifecta of Liev Schrieber, Laurie Metcalf and young Timothy Olyphant is spectacular here. (Streaming on AMC+ and PlutoTV)

19. Tremors

1990 / USA / dir. Ron Underwood / 96 minutes

cast: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Victor Wong, Bobby Jacoby, Ariana Richards

Ron Underwood‘s 1990 sci-fi classic is a lean, mean, thrill-ride machine. Unlike the sequels, it knows it’s not deep and never attempts to be. Tremors only tries to deliver fun thrills for just over an hour and a half, and that’s really all it needs to do. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward make a winning duo and Victor Wong, Michael Gross and the Queen of Broken Hearts herself, Reba McEntire, provide passable character work. Sure, there are a few things wrong with it, mainly the lead female character being so horribly underwritten you forget she often forget she’s there. Most of the effects are pretty cheap looking although that sort of adds to the charm. (Streaming on AMC+)

18. Ravenous

1999 / UK / USA / Czech Republic / dir. Antonia Bird / 100 minutes

cast: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer, Neal McDonough, Stephen Spinella, Joseph Runningfox, Sheila Tousey

Delightfully insane and sporadically very funny Civil War vampire movie, that’s actually set during the Mexican-American war, not the civil war, and isn’t about vampires, really just supernatural cannibals. However, this feels very vampire-y and Civil War-y to those of us not too familiar with the Mexican-American war. I’m sure my history teacher friends are puking all over themselves right now, much like the impulsively violent cannibalistic humanoids that inhabit this film. Guy Pearce is typically excellent as a disgraced military Captain who is sent to run a shitty military outpost in the middle of nowhere as punishment for his cowardice in battle. Stuck with a bunch of other barely trained dudes who aren’t prepared for anything except lunch (including David Arquette, Jeffrey Jones and Jeremy Davies), he comes into contact with a frightened and frostbitten stranger (Trainspotting‘s Robert Carlyle – also excellent) who claims to have been the only survivor of this horrible supernatural cannibal attack in the woods. The men decide it’s best to journey to where the attack took place and check things out. You can probably see where this is going. ($3.99 rental on Amazon Prime)

17. Funny Games

1997 / Austria / dir. Michael Haneke / 109 minutes

cast: Susanne Lother, Ulrich Muhe, Stefan Clapczynski, Arno Frisch, Frank Gierig

Really not very funny, Michael Haneke‘s anti-thriller, Funny Games, is one of the most graphic and unsettling depictions of a home invasion ever put on film. What makes it so unnerving is the naturalness of the performances, meaning, no one seems like an actor. This feels like you’re watching it happen to real people. That is, until a hard left turn 2/3 of the way through the film that reveals the filmmaker’s intentions. People find it preachy, obnoxious, overly violent or needlessly cruel, but this is an exceptionally well made film designed to show us that life isn’t like a Harrison Ford movie. Home invasions typically don’t have a happy ending and sometimes you don’t find the courage or opportunity to break free. (Streaming on HBOMax)

16. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

1992 / USA / France / dir. David Lynch / 134 minutes

cast: Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Moira Kelly, Kyle MacLachlan, Madchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook, David Bowie, Eric Da Re, Miguel Ferrer, Heather Graham, Chris Issak, Peggy Lipton, David Lynch, James Marshall, Jurgen Prochnow, Harry Dean Stanton, Kiefer Sutherland, Lenny Van Dohlen, Grace Zabriskie, Frances Bay, Catherine E. Coulson, Michael J. Anderson, Frank Silva, Walter Olkewicz, Al Strobel, Gary Hershberger

Speaking of murder, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is all about the murder of Laura Palmer. It’s also about the isolation and pain individuals struggling with mental health or drug abuse can experience. It’s also abut the isolation and pain any teenager can experience. This is a scary film to be sure, but it’s much more sad. It also shouldn’t be viewed by anyone who hasn’t watched the series before. Yes it’s a prequel, but even still a lot won’t make sense unless you understand the world of Twin Peaks. Sheryl Lee is outstanding here as is Ray Wise as her tortured dad, the rest of the cast is comprised of cast members from the show and some new faces including Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Issak, Harry Dean Stanton and a brief but wild cameo by David Bowie. If there was ever a downer, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is it, but for people just coming off of Twin Peaks it’s required viewing. (Streaming on HBOMax)

15. Blade

1998 / USA / dir. Stephen Norrington / 120 minutes

cast: Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, N’Bushe Wright, Donal Logue, Arly Jover, Udo Kier, Sanaa Lathan, Traci Lords, Kevin Patrick Walls

One of the most outrageously entertaining action/horror films is Blade where Wesley Snipes plays a human-vampire hybrid who possesses all of vampires’ strengths but none of their weaknesses. He walks the streets, murdering every vampire he can find, avenging his mother who was viciously attacked by a vampire, moments before giving birth to him. Kris Kristofferson plays a crazy old coot named Whistler who engineers weapons for him to annihilate blood suckers and acts almost as a surrogate father. If you like having fun, you’ll enjoy this. If you hate fun, you don’t deserve to watch this. (Streaming on HBOMax)

14. Cure

1997 / Japan / dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa / 111 minutes

cast: Koji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Tsuyoshi Ujiki, Anna Nakagawa, Yoriko Doguchi, Yokijiru Hotaru, Denden, Ren Osugi

‘Unsettling’ might not be a strong enough adjective to convey the graphic sense of unease Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa inflicts upon you with Cure. A wonderfully subtle serial killer drama that slyly seeps into your subconscious when you least expect it, Cure somehow manages to create some of the nastiest scares of 90s horror. In the leading role, Koji Yakusho is phenomenally understated as is the rest of the cast. (Streaming on Criterion Channel)

13. The Sixth Sense

1999 / USA / dir. M. Night Shyamalan / 107 minutes

cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Glenn Fitzgerald, Donnie Wahlberg, Mischa Barton, Trevor Morgan

Spooky and heartfelt mainstream chiller that has been written about ad-nauseam, so I’ll just say this – The Sixth Sense is a very entertaining movie that holds up upon rewatch, decades down the line. Haley Joel Osment is as great as everyone raves and Bruce Willis is as adequate as he has to be. The real stand-out of this movie is Toni Collette as Osment‘s mother and while everyone buzzes about the big twist ending, the scene Collette and Osment share in a car just before that is THE scene of the film. I cry every time. (Streaming on Peacock)

12. Candyman

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Polygram/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5878137f) Tony Todd Candyman – 1992 Director: Bernard Rose Polygram USA Scene Still

1992 / USA / dir. Bernard Rose / 100 minutes

cast: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, DeJuan Guy, Marianna Elliot, Ted Raimi, Michael Culkin

My neighbor showed me this movie for the first time when I was six years old and it scarred me more than anything I ever experienced, even more than my parents’ divorce. Candyman is an intelligent but extremely gory ghost story about the victim of racial violence coming back to terrorize his former community which is now a housing project on the south side of Chicago. Virginia Madsen plays an ambitious grad student who journeys to the projects to investigate the legend for her thesis but the dumb ass white lady bites off more than she can chew. Candyman (Tony Todd) comes for her and is convinced she’s the reincarnated spirit of his former lover he was lynched over. Candyman is frightening both for its gory, insect-y violence but also for its exploration of the all too real systemic racism. ($3.99 rental on Amazon Prime)

11. Ghostwatch

1992 / UK / dir. Lesley Manning / 91 minutes

cast: Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles, Mike Smith, Gillian Bevan, Brid Brennan, Michelle Wesson, Cherise Wesson

Basically this begins as a very realistic and underplayed dramatization of a BBC News special presentation of ghost hunters and haunted locations before weird imagery begins appearing in the fringes of the frames. Nothing is outright terrifying about this British TV movie but it’s superbly creepy throughout, mostly because it feels so real. It’s impossible to find this streaming anywhere (I saw it on Shudder a couple of Halloweens ago) so I ended up having to buy a DVD copy off of Amazon for like $15. (Not Streaming Anywhere)

10. The Blair Witch Project

1999 / USA / dir. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez / 81 minutes

cast: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard

Groundbreaking for the time, I remember my mom and her internet friends going literally insane over what happened to these three amateur filmmakers in the haunted woods of Maryland. The real filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (who is NOT Kenny Powers‘ dad), even passed out missing fliers at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. It was a very creative marketing campaign that was one of the first to fully utilize the internet. As a film, it’s even better. Basically Myrick and Sanchez gave their three actors cameras, sleeping bags and compasses and had them film themselves getting lost. A lot of the anxiety is real so the effect is real. You never see a witch, a monster or really anything supernatural, BUT you’re constantly bombarded with the suggestion of what’s behind that tree or why did that little stick figure magically appear. I suggest watching it at night, alone, with all the lights turned out. You won’t be able to sleep that night. ($3.99 rental on Amazon Prime)

9. Audition

1999 / Japan / dir. Takashi Miike / 115 minutes

cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun Kunimura, Tetsu Sawaki, Renji Ishibashi

While The Blair Witch Project does a lot with a little, Takashi Miike‘s Audition does a lot with a lot. Seemingly a bad rom-com for the first hour and half, this Japanese delicacy slams the brakes pretty hard to become one of the most sadistically violent and unpredictable pieces of torture porn I’ve ever seen in my life. However, unlike the Saw movies, Audition moves with intelligence and purpose. It’s ultimately about what terrible men turn good women into and lashing out against the expectation of only existing to interact with your partner. (Streaming on SHUDDER and AMC+)

8. Scream

1996 / USA / dir. Wes Craven / 112 minutes

cast: Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Henry Winkler, Joseph Whipp, W. Earl Brown, Liev Schrieber

Not the best, but the single most important horror film of the 1990s. One that really changed everything and wiped the palette clean from the 80s. First of all, it’s one of the first horror films to be self-referential and funny while being absolutely terrifying. Second, you have arguably the best cold open to any horror movie ever with Drew Barrymore delivering the best performance of her career in ten minutes. Third, Scream is way more interested in characters and their relationships than any slasher film that came before it. Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, Rose McGowan, David Arquette, Matthew Lillard, Skeet Ulrich and yes, even Jamie Kennedy are perfectly cast and all distinctly different. You’re also never put in a situation to root for the killer, you are team Sidney the whole way through, one of the most likable and intelligent final girls ever put on film. I don’t know what else to say, watch Scream every day for the rest of your life. (Streaming on AMC+)

7. Man Bites Dog

1992 / Belgium / dir. Benoit Poelvoorde, Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel / 96 minutes

cast: Benoit Poelvoorde, Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, Jacqueline Poelvoorde-Pappaert, Edith le Merdy, Jenny Drye, Malou Madou, Willy Vandenbroeck, Nelly Pappaert

Audition is only violent at the end, but Man Bites Dog, Benoit Pooelvorde, Remy Belvaux and Andre Bonzel‘s short but vicious Belgian mockumentary about a psychotic and unpredictable serial killer, Ben (Pooelvorde), trying to balance his murder life with his family life, is violent throughout. Basically, The Sopranos without therapy and more cruelty. Ben is basically the most delusional man on the planet who thinks not only what he’s doing is justified but people actually like him. If all this sounds horribly dramatic, it’s actually a dark comedy, a very funny one actually for like 80 minutes and then the final 15 or so catch your laughs in your throat with something so awful and cruel I don’t want to mention it here. Quentin Tarantino and Steve Buscemi saw this together at Cannes one year and really liked it. (Streaming on HBOMax)

6. Misery

1990 / USA / dir. Rob Reiner / 107 minutes

cast: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall

I watch this movie more than anything on this list, at least once a year, sometimes twice. It’s like the template for the best mainstream thriller imaginable – it’s short, it’s sweet, it’s to the point, it doesn’t dottle and it has at its center, two excellent lead performances. James Caan has a very difficult task here to convey a lot while not being able to move or even speak when his co-star isn’t around, which maybe makes up for an entire third of Misery. It’s a terribly underrated performance the movie would absolutely fail without, but the reason it’s so underrated is because his co-star is so incredibly good. Kathy Bates gives us one of the best movie sociopaths of all time in Annie Wilkes, an insanely cruel torturer with a nice streak. It’s unnerving to witness, Bates erratically switching between sweet, caring Annie and psychotic, violent Annie, but Bates manages it as seamlessly as flipping a light switch. In fact, it’s scarier when she’s kind, because it’s almost like a dreadful countdown of when she’s going to flip out again. She very rightfully won an Oscar in 1990 for this and it stands as one of the most complex and layered performances within the genre. And the Liberace soundtrack FUCKIN SLAPS! (Streaming on HBOMax)

5. Braindead (Dead Alive)

1992 / New Zealand / dir. Peter Jackson / 103 minutes

cast: Timothy Balme, Diana Penalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Brenda Kendall, Stephen Papps, Glenis Levestam, Lewis Rowe

Speaking of hilarious, Peter Jackson‘s breakout zombie comedy is essentially everything Shaun of the Dead wishes it was. Insanely over-the-top gore with irreverent, and sometimes just goofy for goofy’s sake, humor and a band of ridiculous characters including a priest that kicks ass for the Lord. All pale in comparison to the messy and maybe adorable baby gif’d above, who vomits, farts, craps and in one scene, tears a lady’s head right down the middle and peek-a-boo’s through the back of it. This is nutty stuff, but due to the obviously fake and non-realistic looking gore, should be ok for just about any teenager. If you can find it. (Watch it Free & Uncut on YouTube)

4. Perfect Blue

1997 / Japan / dir. Satoshi Kon / 81 minutes

cast: Junko Iwao, Rica Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, Masaaki Okuri, Yousuke Akimoto, Yoko Shioya, Hideyuki Hori, Emi Shinohara

Much like Christopher Nolan stole elements from Kon‘s Paprika for his wildly inferior film, Inception, Darren Aronofsky stole many elements from Kon‘s Perfect Blue for his wildly inferior film, Black Swan. Guess it’s easy to take shit from dead people – fucking pricks. This is a tremendously powerful and beautifully intricate psychological thriller about the dangers and societal pressures of being a young hot pop star transitioning into being a serious actress. That’s about all I’ll tell you about this twisty brain-boinker, which will keep you guessing days after finishing the movie. Rape trigger warnings in full effect. ($2.99 rental on Amazon Prime)

3. Se7en

1995 / USA / dir. David Fincher / 127 minutes

cast: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree, Mark Boone Junior, Michael Massee, John C. McGinley, Reg E. Cathey, Richard Schiff, Leland Orser, Richard Portnow, Julie Araskog

After the production hell of Alien 3 and his massive blow ups with 20th Century Fox execs, many people assumed director David Fincher would never work again. I think even he didn’t think he’d work again. But along comes this opportunity to direct an exceptionally well-written screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker headlined by four future Oscar-winning actors in the lead roles. Fincher completely made a name for himself with Se7en, a dark thriller that took a familiar dime store detective story and put a deranged but superbly unique spin on it. It’s considered a classic today and has inspired countless insipid Hollywood imitations as well as some really worthy successors. It also features one of the most suspenseful third acts a movie has ever had. (Streaming on SHOWTIME)

2. Safe

1995 / UK / USA / dir. Todd Haynes / 119 minutes

cast: Julianne Moore, Peter Friedman, Xander Berkeley, James Le Gros, Susan Norman, Jessica Harper, Martha Velez, Dean Norris, Beth Grant, Kate MacGregor-Stewart, April Grace

The best film performance of the 90s probably came from Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes‘ psychological horror drama, Safe. Basically it’s a coronavirus (now) or AIDs (at the time it was made) or any other type of pandemic type movie, surrounding a Los Angeles suburban housewife, Carol (Moore) who contracts a mystery illness that makes her allergic to her surroundings. When she experiences terrifying Covid-like symptoms at a baby shower, she is rushed to the doctor and they have no idea what to do. Out of options, she leaves her husband, kid and home behind to seek treatment at a new age treatment community in the desert with people experiencing similar mystery symptoms. Exceptionally under-seen outside of the film nerd community, Safe is a terrifying and prescient 90s indie about not being able to fix yourself. ($3.99 rental on Amazon Prime)

1. The Silence of the Lambs

1991 / USA / dir. Jonathan Demme / 119 minutes

cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Brooke Smith, Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison, Diane Baker, Kasi Lemmons, Tracey Walter, Charles Napier, Dan Butler, Paul Lazar, Roger Corman

The only horror movie to ever win Best Picture and for good reason. This really set the bar high for serial killer/law enforcement cat and mouse thrillers, it somehow manages to be super lean considering the size of the story its telling while taking the time to fully develop characters and their relationships. Anthony Hopkins gets all the praise for Hannibal Lecter and while he’s amazing the movie truly belongs to Jodie Foster, who gives us a probably the most complex female horror protagonist we’ve ever seen. She’s a powerful, intelligent woman but unlike Ripley, she isn’t written as a man. She’s totally and completely a woman and she isn’t afraid to show her vulnerability because it makes her stronger. And Foster plays her perfectly. Her scenes with Hopkins stand as some of the best collaborative acting the movies have ever seen. It’s all beautifully put together by the late Jonathan Demme, who for a director that generally didn’t do thrillers, is one of the most nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat cinematic thrill rides ever produced – especially that elevator escape sequence.

On the Trans Controversy: There is no trans controversy from a content perspective. This is because Buffalo Bill is not a trans woman. The movie goes out of its way to state explicitly he is not trans. However, Buffalo Bill does think he is trans. At least he tells himself this because it’s an easier truth for him than to admit to himself than that he is, in fact, just a homicidal maniac who wants to make a skin suit out of the women he butchers. Even Jodie Foster’s Clarice states that “transsexuals are typically non-violent.”

Film Twitter and Letterboxd Gen Z’ers have unfairly dragged Silence through the mud, either because they never actually watched it or they went in with an unwavering preconceived notion. Maybe they missed the part where Hannibal says, definitively, in plain fucking English — “BUFFALO BILL IS NOT TRANS.” God, I read the other day that people on Letterboxd were trying to say Pedro Almodovar was homophobic and transphobic and stigmatized AIDS because a character is upset when they test positive for HIV. My fucking brain hurts.

That being said, the transphobia the movie inspired in some folks is horrible and upsetting. While no rationally thinking individual could view Silence of the Lambs as a call to harm trans folk, it’s always been true that people interpret whatever they want to out of things. You can say Joker is a searing social indictment on mental health and the healthcare crisis in this country, but you can also say it’s a ruse to excuse frustrated incel violence. You can interpret whatever you want from literally anything, just look at the Bible, which is way more fucked up than Silence of the Lambs. ($3.99 Rental on Amazon Prime)

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