Part 1: 1990 to 1995
Please allow me to preface this article with a warning and a statement: Beware! Dozens of movies are discussed in this article and spoilers may exist, so please keep that in mind as you read. And I’m not a movie historian or expert; I’m just a cinephile, probably like you, who enjoys horror movies.
I love the 1990s. I turned thirteen in 1990 (please don’t do the math) and feel the person I’ve become today, for better or worse, is because these formative years of my life were lived between 1990 and 2000.
Now that we’re halfway through the 2010s, enough time has passed that I realize the 2000s were an awesome decade for horror movies. The re-haunting of ghost stories, the French and Asian invasion, zombies coming back to life with vigor, the found-footage frenzy, torture-porn, it goes on and on.
We all know now what 1980’s horror was mostly about: the teenage slasher craze, which, much like the hair/glam metal music of the same decade, holds more of a special spot in my heart than my brain. I love it, but then the thought came to me…
What the hell happened in the ‘90s with horror?
I asked my friend, horror expert, and founder of Crash Palace Productions, Bill Prystauk, this question and in short order, he compiled his “best-of” list for ‘90s horror. My suspicions were confirmed: It was overall a lame decade for the genre. And if you do a quick Google search, you’ll discover I’m not the only one who’s pointed this out.
Okay, so why? That should be easy enough to answer!
The World of the 1990s: A Tale of Two Decades
The Early ‘90s: The Worst of Times?
Taking a broad view of the decade shows us it began at the close of the Cold War and ended right before 9/11. Despite a rise (or at least a perception of an increase) in mass shootings and school massacres, culminating in the most infamous at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, and intermittent occurrences of attacks from homegrown and foreign terrorists, that, tragically, pale in comparison in today’s world, I think the decade is looked upon as one of relative peace and prosperity.
However, starting in the 1980s and climaxing in the early 1990s, was an economic recession, which either resulted in or was compounded by, skyrocketing incidents of violence and crime throughout cities of the United States. This was punctuated by the First Gulf War and the fight against our new boogeyman, Sadam Hussein, who needed to replace the old boogeyman, the USSR, which collapsed a year prior. Though the conflict was short-lived, Americans still lost their lives in this new, twentieth-century warfare, which was captured on television for the world to see.
The early 1990s introduced us to two foes: the modern introduction to Islamic fundamentalist-based terrorism, which came in the form of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and home-grown horror involving that of the far-right (Waco, Unabomber, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing), and school shootings, the latter which still haunts us today.
So, how were these times reflected in our movies?
Cinema of the Early ‘90s: Post-Mortem
1990’s movies certainly weren’t all fun, feel-good affairs. Quite the opposite. Mature, serious themes were tackled in such films as THE CRYING GAME, PHILADELPHIA, and, most notably, SCHINDLER’S LIST.
More adult-oriented, erotic thrillers and dramas such as BASIC INSTINCT, SHOWGIRLS, and HENRY AND JUNE played in theaters, much more it seems than the young adult flicks we have today. Political and legal-themed movies were popular, many adapted from John Grisham and Tom Clancy novels.
Hyper-violent films from Martin Scorsese and other “mafia”-related movies of the time were huge, and a new guy on-the-scene, Quentin Tarantino, put new twists on the crime drama. This time period also gave rise to a sub-genre of crime dramas, dismissively called, though perhaps unintentionally, “hood films.” Acclaimed examples of these important and expositive, yet depressing and sometimes nihilistic films, are 1991’s BOYZ N THE HOOD (the most recognized of the list, written and directed by John Singleton (who, unfortunately, never came close to capturing this type of magic again), and showed us, despite the safe, friendly movie paychecks Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) cashes now, the dude can act; Mario Van Peebles’ NEW JACK CITY (1991), the Hughes Brothers’ MENCACE II SOCIETY (1993), and perhaps the lesser known, but still as powerful, SOUTH CENTRAL (1992), adapted by Stephen Milburn Anderson from a novel by Donald Bakeer.
Perhaps over-shadowing all this was the Disney renaissance. Starting with THE LITTLE MERMAID in 1989, Walt Disney Animations Studio produced some of the most iconic movies of the decade: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, THE LION KING, and POCAHONTAS. These family-oriented films became very popular, collectively grossing billions of dollars.
Side note: A five-month-long Writer’s Guild strike in 1988 led to a spec-script boom in the ‘90s. Looking to buy these screenplays were producers seeking to capitalize on the home video rental and sales market, which had proven to be a money tree that began growing in the ‘80s. This leads to one of the biggest paradoxes: If horror films have the tenets we’ve always heard about: built-in audience, particularly the youth demographic, were “cheap” to make, can spawn sequels, and more, why weren’t horror specs, which I’m sure were floating around at the time, getting produced?
Early 90’s Horror: Dead on Arrival
Well, labeling it D.O.A. might be unfair.
So, as all the aforementioned trials and tribulations of the early 1990s would find its way into genres of other movies, this would seem to be the perfect climate for horror movies to emerge, right?
Not quite. Instead, we got inferior and unneeded sequels to once successful horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and were subjected to low-budget, straight-to-video productions, that I suppose have always haunted the genre.
What was horror’s contribution to those gripping urban, crime films? 1991’s THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS and 1995’s VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN (you can thank Wes Craven for both of those winners); TALES FROM THE HOOD (1995; directed by Rusty Cundieff), and finishing out the decade, though a little late, is 2001’s BONES (directed by Ernest Dickerson, starring Snoop Doog)…’Nough said…
To be fair, the early ‘90s gave us a couple of gems: Barely making it into the decade was 1990’s JACOB’S LADDER (directed by Adrian Lyne from a screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin), and although the movie’s set in the 1970s, it’s an early look at what we’ve all now become familiar with: soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and contains an ending later made more famous by M. Night Shamalyan.
Another urban-based horror that appealed to many was 1992’s CANDYMAN, written and directed by Bernard Rose from Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden”. This would be one of the better “urban legend” themed stories of the decade.
IT and MISERY appeared on the small screen and big screen, respectively. These mostly faithful adaptations of Stephen King novels represent the best of the many, many movies based on the author’s books during this time.
Case Study: SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SEVEN: Identity Crises
It’s understandable why many horror fans lay claim to these two films. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991; directed by Jonathan Demme; adapted by screenwriter Ted Tally from the novel by Thomas Harris) was not only nominated, but won Oscars for (get ready for it): Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) for his iconic twenty-something minute portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. His performance of the intelligent, articulate, and cold, yet weirdly moral, cannibalistic sociopath, paved the way for many cinematic copycats for years to come.
A movie this critically and financially successful could legitimize the horror genre, something that some, but certainly not all, horror fans want, and solidify the genre as a worthy opponent in cinema.
1995 gave us SEVEN (or SE7EN if you’re hip enough), directed by the wonderful David Fincher from an original screenplay written by Andrew Kevin Walker. Another quintessential mid-90s spec-script story, this perfectly casted and finely acted movie tells the story of a serial killer whose victims have egregiously violated one of the seven deadly sins. This gives us an episodic police procedural filled with unforgettable scenes, smart and brave detectives, a unique killer, and a shocking ending that goes down in movie history.
Though not recognized by the Academy Awards, the film was a hit with critics and audiences, eventually grossing $327+ million worldwide. A (ridiculous) sequel titled EI8HT (swear to God) was in the works as late as 2002, but thankfully, it was eventually dropped.
So, here’s it comes: Are they horrors?
Of course, labeling art can oftentimes be arbitrary, is ultimately pointless, and, frankly, counter-productive, but play along with me, please.
- Both films, essentially, play as police procedurals. Not necessarily “who-dun-its” as in each movie the killer’s identity is revealed earlier than most other films of this nature.
- The movies’ points-of-view, for the most part, are from that of law enforcement, and not of the victims or killers.
- Neither film contains elements of the supernatural.
- While each film certainly contains “horrific” scenes, this would open up movies like SALO or SCHINDLER’S LIST as potential horror movies, as these films contain some of the most disturbing, visceral movie scenes to date.
Ultimately, if these movies were released in the 2000s instead of the 1990s, I don’t even think this would be up for debate. They would be categorized as thrillers and crime-dramas.
So, would the latter half of the decade scare the bejesus out of us? Not really, but certainly more than the former half.
To be continued…
Paul J. Williams is an award-winning screenwriter, director, and producer. Also a decorated law enforcement officer of eighteen years, he currently serves as a police officer in Morris County, New Jersey. Paul previously served with the U.S. Department of Justice as a federal officer and the Newark Police Department, where he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the department’s highest award, and responded to Ground Zero in New York City after the 9/11 attacks. CASE #5930, the short film he wrote and produced, will be released in early 2015.
(JACOB’S LADDER photo from Joblo.)