Halloween has arrived once again at the Playlist, and aside from assembling our trick-and-treating costumes, it means an appropriately spooky feature. And this year, we’ve delivered more than one —we picked out the scariest movie moments of all time yesterday. Today, we’ve gone for something a little different.
This time last year, we picked our favorite horrors of the 21st century so far, so it seemed natural to run down our favorites from the 1990s. Horror fans often deride the decade as a low point in the genre, but if you delve a little deeper, there’s all kinds of gems beyond the big iconic films we all remember. What made the list? You can find our top 30 below and can suggest your own faves in the comments. Happy Halloween!
30. “Stir Of Echoes” (1999)
Building from some familiar elements — creepy house, missing girl, gifted child — and having had the misfortune of being a film about a little boy that sees ghosts arriving in theaters just a few weeks after “The Sixth Sense,” it’s not surprising that “Stir Of Echoes” went overlooked at the time. However, after a little time’s passed, it now stands as a deeply effective horror flick that deserves to stand on its own. Directed by “Jurassic Park” screenwriter David Koepp from Richard Matheson’s novel, it sees Tom (Kevin Bacon) hypnotized by his sister-in-law into being able to see ghosts, an ability his young son already possesses, and beginning to see visions of a teenage girl (Jennifer Morrison) who disappeared six months earlier. Koepp gets around the familiarity of the set-up partly through the sheer effectiveness of his scare-wrangling (it’s a shame he’s since squandered those talents on things like “Mortdecai”), but partly through specificity — relocating a tale like this not in some remote New England home, but in the midst of a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, gives it a grit and heft that’s rare the genre, in part thanks to a Kevin Bacon performance that’s one of his absolute best.
29. “Hardware” (1990)
Killer robot movies are about as old as cinema itself, but while “Hardware” doesn’t necessarily have much originality in the premise, it has an absolute ton of flair in the execution. Directed by South African helmer Richard Stanley (who’d go, infamously, to helm the terrific “Dust Devil” before being fired from the set of the disastrous “The Island Of Doctor Moreau” with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer), a sort of Neill Blomkamp of his day, the film stars Dermot Mulroney, sorry, Derbel McDillet, sorry, Dylan McDermott, as a post-apocalyptic scavenger who collects the parts of a robot, only for it to come to life and start to murder pretty much everyone (it was programmed by the government to commit genocide). Stanley unashamedly steals from “Mad Max,” “The Terminator,” and plenty more (he also, after legal action, was forced to give credit to the writers of a 2000AD comic called “SHOK!”), but uses the pieces to assemble, on a remarkably meagre budget, a genuinely compelling future world with a punky, Verhoeven-ish satirical bent, drawing on both his experience growing up in apartheid-era South Africa, and time recently spent in the war in Afghanistan. All that, and he delivers lashings of gore, and plenty of scares, too.
28. “Thesis” (1996)
He’s soon to return to the genre with Ethan Hawke/Emma Watson starrer “Regression,” and won enormous acclaim for it in the ’00s with Nicole Kidman ghost pic “The Others,” but Alejandro Amenabar first made inroads with his Spanish-language chiller, “Thesis,” made when he was a film student just 23. At once a little derivative (of De Palma and Argento, primarily) and startlingly ahead of its time, the film centers on student Angela (Ana Torrent, two decades on from starring in “The Spirit Of The Beehive”), who begins an investigation into violent videos, only to discover one featuring the murder of a woman who attended their university and disappeared two years earlier, and a handsome stranger (Eduardo Noriega, who’d go on to star in Amenábar’s “Open Your Eyes”) who claims to know the truth. Like many a film student, you can fault the director both for wearing his influences heavily on his sleeve, and for a certain lack of imagination in his setting (a university), but you couldn’t argue with the craft: for one so young, Amenábar directs the hell out of the movie, with a confident, taut feel throughout that feels positively in love with the possibility of cinema. And unlike some other snuff-themed films, this really has something to say about our relationship with screen violence — it’s more “Peeping Tom” than “8MM,” in other words.
27. “Nadja” (1994)
The resilience and potential variety of the vampire metaphor has made it consistently popular not just with horror directors, but also with indie helmers — just look at the last few years, with Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” and Ana Lily Amirpour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” finding very different, equally stylish mileage in the undead. One of the best examples of this in the 1990s was with Michael Almereyda’s drily funny take on the “Dracula” myth, “Nadja.” The film focuses on Dracula’s daughter (Elina Löwensohn), who takes her father’s ashes to Brooklyn to visit her half-brother Edgar (Jared Harris) after Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) kills their father, seducing Lucy (Galaxy Craze), the wife of Van Helsing’s nephew Jim (Martin Donovan) along the way. Produced by, and featuring a cameo from, David Lynch, it’s closer to Hal Hartley than to the “Blue Velvet” master, and, like the best of Almereyda’s films, at once winningly pretentious and whip-smart. It might not be strictly scary, but as a reinvention of the Dracula tale for the 1990s, complete with bisexuality, AIDS metaphors, and a killer soundtrack featuring My Bloody Valentine and Portishead, it does its job and more.
26. “In The Mouth Of Madness” (1994)
After a near-unbeatable run in the 1980s, the popular narrative is that “Halloween” and “The Thing” mastermind John Carpenter began something of a downturn in the ‘90s. And it’s certainly true that films like “Memoirs Of An Invisible Man,” “Village Of The Damned,” and “Escape From L.A.” were not to be considered among the horror legend’s finest works, but there was one major gem from the decade, in the shape of “In The Mouth Of Madness.” Completing an unofficial trilogy, per the director, begun with “The Thing” and “Prince Of Darkness,” the film stars a post-“Jurassic Park” Sam Neill as an insurance investigator charged with looking into the disappearance of Stephen King-ish horror author Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), only to find that the author’s creations may be coming to life and driving his readers crazy mad. Deeply divisive at the time, and a box office flop, it now stands as one of the few truly successful attempts at making Lovecraftian horror work on the big screen, with a truly weird, jarring tone throughout that swiftly moves from being unsettling to truly insane. It’s not perfect — Carpenter’s rock-tinged score is one of his weakest, and a misjudgement on the movie as a whole — but it’s one that’s well worth reinvestigation.