Please allow me to once again preface this article with a warning and a statement: Beware! Dozens of movies are discussed 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 also like to reflect upon times and situations in our history and ask: why? I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, as well.
The World of the 1990s: A Tale of Two Decades
The Late 90s: The Best of Times?
As the first baby-boomer to be elected to the U.S. Presidency, Bill Clinton now occupied the White House and was seeking, what would turn out to be, a successful re-election, thanks to, among other things, votes being divided by three candidates (what?!).
The economy improved and grew, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing at 11,000 in 1999. The unemployment rate dropped to almost four percent, something unseen for decades. Technology, as it does, grew exponentially. The internet became accessible to most folks, and email and websites gave birth to the dot.com boom creating millionaires and billionaires.
Evil, of course, still plagued the world, but in the U.S. during the late 1990s, it seemed to be something that happened to someone else. Crime overall was decreasing and would ultimately reach record lows, despite far-right terrorism persisting, in the likes of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. Tragic school shootings continued, the most notable being Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999.
O.J. Simpson, apparently, didn’t kill two people in Brentwood, California, an event that created what would become the modern media’s frenzy of nonstop news coverage we have today.
Wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo exploded, but seemed worlds away, and while U.S. troops were involved via NATO, no Americans, thankfully, lost their lives in these battles.
Islamic fundamentalist extremists remained, but most of the killing occurred internationally, as seen in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, and the attack of the USS Cole in Yemen. With no significant event within the U.S., Americans would be lulled asleep and distracted until they were awakened on September 11, 2001 at 8:46 A.M.
It seems the biggest crime committed in the U.S. during the late ‘90s was perpetrated by the aforementioned President Bill Clinton relating to a sex scandal in the White House (Oh my god!). This resulted in only the second impeachment of a President in American history. He was eventually acquitted and, somehow, the country managed to heal and survive as it anticipated the next apocalyptic event: the Y2K bug!
Cinema of the Late 90s: Post-Mortem
The mid-1990s pretty much picked up where the early ‘90s left off: mindless action movies such as TRUE LIES, INDEPENCE DAY, and FACE/OFF kicked ass; we laughed as comedies like AUSTIN POWERS, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and any comedy by Jim Carey seemed to get broader; we cried during LEAVING LAS VEGAS, DEAD MAN WALKING, and especially as the TITANIC sank while becoming the highest grossing movie ever at the time; special visual effects, particularly computer-generated images (CGI) were finally maturing in films like ERASER, ARMAGEDDON, and THE MATRIX; crime-dramas still thrilled us in movies like THE USUAL SUSPECTS, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and FARGO; 1997’s BATMAN AND ROBIN killed poor Bruce Wayne and the superhero sub-genre for years; and Steven Spielberg found another way to horrify us with a non-horror movie, this time with the World War II epic, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
Independent Cinema: Alone and Scared in the Dark
Before everything went digital and “DIY” became part of our lexicon, young cinephiles filled with dreams, drive, and determination, gave birth to what we refer to now as “independent” film-making. It’s more that they were just outside the Hollywood studio system; they funded movies themselves and maximized every penny, introduced us to quirky characters and told off-beat stories, marketed and released films themselves.
Richard Linklater’s SLACKER inspired Kevin Smith to make CLERKS; Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and Darren Aronofsky launched successful careers. Though horror-free in the ‘90s, Smith, Jarmusch, and Aronofsky eventually went on to make horrors in the 21st century, as well as Linklater with his 2014 horror, BOYHOOD…just kidding…
A Danish film-maker, Lars Von Trier, who would also go onto to produce horror movies later in his career, co-founded the Dogme 95 consortium in 1995, which restrained participating directors to strict rules. The first gem to be borne of this was 1998’s THE CELEBRATION by Thomas Vinterberg.
Though many of the notable independent film-makers and movies of the ‘90s were not horror (relax, I’ll talk about BLAIR WITCH later), one man, Robert Rodriguez, who in some productions literally wore all the hats, did give us FROM DUSK TILL DAWN in 1995, and despite his success, still maintains his one-man-show style of film-making to this day.
Trivia: What was the first movie to be filmed, edited, and released digitally? Hint: Yep, it’s a horror!
Answer: 1998’s THE LAST BROADCAST, written, produced, and directed on a reported budget of $900.00 by Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler. It’s found-footage of documentary film-makers seeking to chronicle the Jersey Devil. The movie is actually effective and creepy, until the last few minutes when it comes off the rails. It’s an unfortunate miscalculation by the two film-makers. Avalos and Weiler, as well as their movie, would soon be completely overshadowed by a found-footage horror the next year. They would go on to continue working in the business, but not see the heights their found-footage successors would reach.
Late 1990’s Horror: Still Dead on Arrival
Okay, so what horror did we get? Again, a lot of the same: sequels trying to capitalize on previous movies that were only marginally successful themselves (seriously, how many friggin’ LEPRACHAUN’s and PUMPKINHEADs did we need?). One sequel, though, the actual seventh installment in the series, NEW NIGHTMARE, proved to be a hit with critics, yet was the lowest grossing film of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, but still earned a profit. Wes Craven came back with the hope of saving the dying franchise, and wrote and directed after many years of silence between him and ole Freddie Krueger.
An unrelenting stream of Stephen King adaptations continued (NEEDFUL THINGS, THE MANGLER, the LAWNMOWER MANs, the CHILDRENs OF THE CORN, THINNER, APT PUPIL, the SOMETIMESes THEY COME BACK, etc.), most of which failed to reach the commercial prosperity of his novels. Ironically, King’s most successful adaptations derived from his non-horror stories, THE GREEN MILE, which was both critically and commercially triumphant, and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, which earned most of its money post-theatrical release and currently holds a #1 ranking on the Internet Movie Database, or as the kids call it: IMDb.
On the subject of adaptations, old classics such as FRANKENSTEIN and MARY REILLY failed both critically and in the box-office, yet involved some of our most heralded film-makers and actors: Robert DeNiro, Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, Kenneth Branagh, etc. SLEEPY HOLLOW fared better, but was still met with lackluster critical reception.
Remakes tried to capture the success of their predecessors, but Roland Emmerich’s GODZILLA and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL sucked (that’s the technical term). THE HAUNTING was panned by critics yet posted a profit despite its inflated eighty-million-dollar budget, and after the phenomenon that was GOOD WILL HUNTING, Gus Van Sant could’ve made almost any movie he wanted. What’d he do? The unwanted and unneeded shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO.
Honorable Mentions: SPECIES appealed to both horror and sci-fi audiences and spawned more than a couple sequels, while THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE and STIR OF ECHOES seemed to resonate with movie-goers. To be nice, I’ll throw in AMERICAN PSYCHO, though it was released in 2000.
Case Study: SCREAM: The Loud Outlier
1996’s SCREAM, directed by (reluctant) horror icon Wes Craven, started out as another classic mid-90s spec-script story and ended as a classic horror movie production. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson wrote a fun, irreverent script, with one of the most memorable openings in horror cinema history, and a surprising, though wholly implausible, ending. The screenplay created enough buzz to start a bidding war with Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax Films via Dimension Films, winning the auction. With a “meager” budget of $15 million (remember, Jim Carrey earned $20 million a film during this time-period), casting included recognizable actors, but nobody A-list caliber, and this was shot in limited locations over a period of seven weeks. The rest is well documented history: the movie grossed $173+ million worldwide, spawned more sequels than it should have (for a total gross of more than $604+ million worldwide), and launched or reinvigorated several careers.
So successful was the film, that the Weinsteins gave, essentially, a blank check to Wes Craven to direct whatever movie he wanted to. The result: MUSIC OF THE HEART, a 1999 drama Craven was able to squeeze in between SCREAM 2 and 3, that, admittedly, I’ve never watched, and although Meryl Streep’s performance was nominated for an Academy Award, and the movie received generally favorable reviews, it seems many others skipped it as well.
Also as a result of SCREAM’s success was the decade’s only true franchise; not merely sequels, but a franchise in the true commercial sense: lucrative sequels for years to come with a unique killer, costumes and other merchandising, etc. It grew from a movie to a recognizable brand.
SCREAM is sometimes credited as reigniting the horror genre, but nothing more than inferior teenage sub-genre, slasher-films followed: 1997’s I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, 1998’s URBAN LEGEND, etc. While I don’t prescribe to the notion the SCREAM jumpstarted ‘90s horror, I do credit the movie with being ahead of its time in its self-referential, meta-approach, which has infiltrated and grown in the 21st century in so many ways.
Tunes of the 90s: The Devil’s Music
Just a quick aside to point out how if creeps and scares weren’t on the big screen in the ‘90s, they definitely popped up on the small one. Heavy metal songs and their accompanying music videos from bands like WHITE ZOMBIE, ROB ZOMBIE, NINE INCH NAILS, FEAR FACTORY, CANNIBAL CORPSE, TOOL, MINISTRY, SLIPKNOT, and of course, MARILYN MANSON, provided some of the more innovative and frightening images.
A couple of MARILYN MANSON’s videos of the late ‘90s were directed by E. Elias Merhige, who also gave us the visceral, experimental horror, BEGOTTEN, in 1990. It’s quite the viewing.
Metal bands are known for their outrageous, nightmarish album covers, but black metal band MAYHEM’s 1995 release, DAWN OF THE BLACK HEARTS, actually has the suicide photo of bandmate, Dead (not his real name), on the cover. This is, mind you, the photo the band took upon discovering Dead’s body prior to notifying the authorities. Other urban legends surround this sordid ordeal about what the band did prior to reporting Dead’s death. So infamous was this time-period in Norwegian black metal, that a movie, LORDS OF CHAOS, is in development about it.
Partying like it’s 1999: Reasons to Celebrate the Ending of the Decade
Cinema in general, and horror specifically, got a running start as it exploded into the new millennium, into the open arms of eager audiences. We pick up steam in 1998 with fantastic non-horrors: THE BIG LEBOWSKI, AMERICAN HISTORY X, FIGHT CLUB, THE TRUMAN SHOW, and, of course, THE MATRIX, among many others. On the horror-side, the aforementioned, THE LAST BROADCAST, though not seen by many and appreciated more years later, foreshadowed what was to become in horror movies.
1999 is when we really take off, both horror and non-horror. AMERICAN BEAUTY, MAGNOLIA, and GIRL, INTERUPPTED were so very unique, while also critically and commercially successful. A small, little-known film, FOLLOWING, by some guy, Christopher Nolan, foreshadowed his brilliance to come.
Case Study: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: At least it wasn’t PARANORMAL ACTIVITY
1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT marked a seminal moment in the history of cinema, marrying the spirit of true independent film-making with genius, capitalistic marketing. I bet you can still find people to this day who think the movie is real footage.
The backstory is almost urban legend, if you’ll forgive the bad pun: Film-makers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wrote a short outline about the Blair Witch who haunts the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland, with the anticipation of the actors improvising dialogue. Three amateur thespians were hired, and on a reported initial budget of somewhere around $20,000, filming began and lasted for a period of eight days.
What happened next is where the magic occurred. Websites went up online detailing these three missing students and the finding of their footage. Old-fashioned word-of-mouth traveled electronically. At the time, the internet could be used to market the hell out of this movie, but wasn’t established enough to verify if the story about these film-makers was true or false (Snopes.com wouldn’t really become popular until years later).
The result of all this? $248+ million at the box-office, critical acclaim, and while it technically wasn’t the first found-footage movie, it created the sub-genre that gave birth to the dozens that followed throughout the 2000s.
On the topic of THE BLAIR WITCH not being the first found-footage horror, detractors of the movie point out that 1980 saw the release of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, a bastard of a movie; and the aforementioned LAST BROADCAST the year prior. While, admittedly, not the biggest fan of THE BLAIR WITCH, I don’t feel the film-makers stole any ideas, or even paid homage in any way. Check out all three and see if you agree.
THE SIXTH SENSE: Beginning the 2000s with an Ending
I’ll end this article with a movie known for its ending: M. Night Shyamalan’s late-1999 modern-classic: THE SIXTH SENSE. Although the ending had been done before (it’s essentially beat-for-beat the same as The Twilight Zone’s THE HITCH-HIKER), and I know it’s fashionable to beat up on poor M. Night, I won’t. His direction is tense, suspenseful, and Hitchcock-esque. The movie is scary, poignant, and I never saw that twist-ending coming. Neither did my girlfriend at the time or other movie-goers in the theater, and neither did you.
THE SIXTH SENSE seemed to reinvigorate the ghost story sub-genre of horror movies, one of my favorites, making me a happy fan, and the 2000s became filled with them (just think any Asian horror movie released in the past fifteen years). Also, surprising twists and shocking endings, unfortunately, seemed obligatory as screenwriters and directors tacked them on with varying degrees of effectiveness.
As far as Mr. Shyamalan, well if you’re reading this article, you probably know his fate to date, so like I’ve stated previously, I won’t beat up on him, and just state that I think he’s a talented director, particularly with horror movies, and I think finding the right screenplay would do him, and us, some good.
Stay tuned to Part III, the conclusion to 1990s horror-movies…
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.
(Photo from The Last Broadcast Movie.)