The 1990s were an interesting time in horror. After the boom of the first slasher cycle in the 1970s and 80s, the leading trend in horror fizzled out without a clear successor to take its spot. Of course, it wasn’t all bad. If you an count on one thing from horror, it’s that the genre will always endure. Fascinating horror films popped up from around the globe; genre-bending thrillers were having a moment, and Stephen King adaptations were in the midst of a heyday, but the first half of the decade was a transitional period for the genre as it came down from the dominance of the franchise-fuelled dominance of the 80s. The J-Horror boom was still years away (and some years even further before it reached American audiences at large), the box office boom of “torture porn” was far in the distance, and it wasn’t until the latter half of the 90s that filmmakers found a way to tap back into passion of youth audiences, with a rapid-fire string of horror films aimed squarely at teen audiences.
1996 was the definitive year, with the release The Craft, and more importantly, Scream, which rewrote the rule book for contemporary horror films and single-handedly revived the slasher genre. After that, the teen horror came fast and furious, transposing Scream‘s format across horror genres; be it alien invasions, urban legends, or brain-washing. But despite the subject matter or the filmmakers (though a whole lot of them came from screenwriter Kevin Williamson), the teen films shared certain sensibilities. They had soundtracks packed with 90s alt-rock hits, and casts that were even more packed with recognizable TV stars, especially those from the teen-centric The WB. They also, by and large, shared some casual misogyny and disturbing attitudes toward sexual assault, but that’s not unexpected for the cultural attitudes of the times, and indeed, it was reflective of the teen audience, which was facing a particularly dark period in American adolescence.
A few notes on the films you will and will not find below. Technically, the 90s style teen slashers lasted into the early 2000s, but this is 90s centric, so you won’t find Final Destination, Valentine, or Cherry Falls on this list. They’re cast from the same mold, but this list is timeline constrained. Further, the 90s was a proud time for the thriller genre, and a time when the lines between the two genres were much more clear. With that in mind, you won’t find films like The Crush, Fear, or Wicked, which are teen-oriented films in the tradition of the erotic thriller, or films like Dead Man’s Curve and Teaching Mrs. Tingle, the latter of which has always been looped in with the 90s teen horror cycle, but is decidedly a thriller no matter how much of a marvelous monster Helen Mirren makes. Finally, this list is late-90s centric because that’s when the teen trend took off. There are technically teen horror movies from the decade that preceded that date (Popcorn, Freddy’s Dead), but they don’t represent the trend we’re discussing here, and it would certainly be a stretch to call them iconic.
As a personal side note; all these films were formative to me. Maybe I’m too close to them. I’ve ranked and re-ranked them, but there’s no way around the fact that the 90s teen horror surge was a moment that defined me as a genre fan. I’ve done my best to rank them objectively, but honestly, all these movies feel like best friends to me, which makes objectivity a bit hard.
With the technicalities out of the way, let’s get down to it. Here are the most iconic teen horror movies of the 90s, ranked from worst to best.