The Most Iconic 90s Teen Horror Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
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.
12. The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999)
Director: Katt Shea
Writer: Rafael Moreu
Cast: Emily Bergl, Jason London, Mira Sorvino, Amy Irving, Zachery Ty Bryan, Dylan Bruno, J. Smith Cameron, Rachel Blanchard
On paper, the brainchild of Poison Ivy director Katt Shea and Hackers screenwriter Rafael Moreu sounds like it would be an ultimate 90s B-movie wonder, but The Rage: Carrie 2 is never outrageous enough to live up to those titles, and never thoughtful enough to carry on the Carrie mantle.
A fairly vapid spin on Stephen King’s classic tale of a telekinetic outcast bullied into a murderous frenzy, The Rage follows Rachel Lang (Bergl), a teenage girl attending Bates High some twenty-plus years after the events of the original, who discovers dangerous abilities of her own after her best friend’s suicide. Amy Irving returns as Sue Snell, who now works as a school counselor and tries to stop tragedy when she sees the dangerous signs once again, and as the only actor from the original to reprise her role, her welcome presence isn’t enough to make The Rage feel rooted in the same world.
Drawing freely from the real-life trauma of the Spur Posse sex scandal, The Rage is essentially what happens when you take Carrie, graft a timely but sloppy sexual assault narrative into it, and replace all of De Palma’s breathless paranoia with the barebones plot of She’s All That.
11. I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998)
Director: Danny Cannon
Writer: Trey Callaway
Cast: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., Brandy Norwood, Mekhi Phifer, Matthew Settle, Jeffrey Combs, Jack Black, Jennifer Esposito, Muse Watson
In addition to its baffling title, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is such a dud because it doubles down on all the worst parts of the first film and brings nothing new to the table. Well, it brings a dreadlocked Jack Black, but I’m pretty sure no one asked for that.
With the franchise’s most interesting characters killed off in the first film (and without the quintessential 90s teen horror stylings of Kevin Williamson), we’re left with Julie (Hewitt) and Ray (Prinze), who remain about as exciting as white bread and mayo, if white bread whined a lot and mayo was condescending asshole. They’re joined by newcomers Karla (Norwood) and Tyrell (Phifer), who are presumably meant to fill the charm vacuum left behind without Helen and Barry, except Karla is never given the character development Helen was afforded and Tyrell essentially functions as a walking boner. Finally, there’s Will (Settle), Julie’s potential new suitor, who is somehow even less appealing than Ray. What I’m saying is these are definitely not the people you want to get stuck on an island with.
Too bad, because the island setting is one of the few elements of I Still Know that plays; a fun upgrade on the fishing town aesthetic of the first films. But the Brazilian locals are little more than meat for the slaughter (and are distractingly American), killed off for quick and easy carnage candy, and we’re left in the midst of a slasher spree with The Literal Worst and her equally intolerable friends. Tack on one of horror’s most laugh out loud goofy twist endings, and you’ve got a real doozy of a disappointing sequel.
10. Idle Hands (1999)
Director: Rodman Flender
Writer: Terri Hughes, Ron Milbauer
Cast: Devin Sawa, Jessica Alba, Seth Green, Elden Henson, Vivica A. Fox, Jack Noseworthy, Katie Wright, Christopher Hart
Crass and campy right down to the bone, Idle Hands‘ great strength is that it knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be and leans all the way in. What kind of movie is that? Gory, immature, and silly — very silly. 90s staple Devin Sawa stars as Anton Tobias, a lethargic layabout so consistently stoned that it takes him days to realize his parents have been murdered, and even longer to detect that it was his own demon-possessed hand that did the killing. Anton realizes the depths of his predicament eventually, but not before reining in his burnout buddies, played for laughs by Seth Green and Elden Henson, and the gorgeous girl next door (Alba), who might just end up a hell bride if he can’t find it in himself to get the job done for once.
Zipping back and forth between slapstick set-pieces and gross-out gore gags, Idle Hands is a messy, erratic films, but what it suffers from in weird pacing, it makes up for in downright weirdness and zipping, carefree energy. Idle Hands is not a great movie, but it’s almost always a great time.
9. Disturbing Behavior (1998)
Director: David Nutter
Writer: Scott Rosenberg
Cast:, Katie Holmes, James Marsden, Nick Stahl, Bruce Greenwood, William Sadler, Katharine Isabelle, Tobias Mehler
Disturbing Behavior begins with punishingly long and dull credits sequence, and the film takes a bit to find its feet once the action gets going, but eventually, it manages to use familiar sci-fi horror tropes to rouse up some clever commentary on teenage conformity and the ultimate parental control settings. A hormone-fuelled update on The Stepford Wives, set in the halls of a small town high school, Disturbing Behavior follows jaded teen Steve Clark (Marsden) to the seemingly idyllic suburbia, where the resident rebellious teens are transformed into picture-perfect Rockwellian clones by the adults. Mother knows best, after all.
Director David Nutter has gone on to take home Emmys for his directing work on Game of Thrones and Band of Brothers, and he brings some of that style here, but the editing is ramshackle (it’s clear the theatrical cut is missing key material) and the script doesn’t fare much better. Nobody has much of a motivation for anything, be it the good guys, bad guys, and all the folks stuck in between — Nutter directed for The X-Files before landing this gig, and Disturbing Behavior often feels like an X-Files script that was never properly rounded out to a feature film — and at only 84 minutes, it just barely makes the cut.
That said, Disturbing Behavior definitely gets major points for iconography. It has an essential 90s teen horror soundtracks; and not just because Flagpole Sitta became a sensation in the lead-up to the film’s release. The whole soundtrack is the goods. The movie was also a “big deal” at the time because Katie Holmes stepped out against type, fresh off the breakout success of Dawson’s Creek, to play the anti-Joey Potter; a girl wears dark lipstick, shows off her stomach, and skips bras entirely. Indeed, Disturbing Behavior has some disturbing ideas about women’s bodies, including a groping scene that’s legit stomach-churning, but that’s an issue for a whole other article.
8. Urban Legend (1998)
Director: Jamie Blanks
Writer: Silvio Horta
Cast: Alicia Witt, Jared Leto, Tara Reid, Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Rosenbaum, Joshua Jackson, Loretta Devine, Robert Englund, Danielle Harris
Urban Legend is a solid meat and potatoes slasher film, overtly carved in the image of Scream but with a clever enough hook to stand on its own. Set in a sleepy college town, the film follows Natalie Simon (Witt), a nothing-burger of a final girl who realizes that her fellow students are being murdered in ways that match famous urban legends. You know the one… Whether it’s surgically stolen kidneys, a bloody message written on the wall, or the sound of feet scratching against a car roof; Urban Legend has a blast reimagining those well-known tales of terror into slasher set pieces.
The film also boasts a first-rate 90s cast; including a post-My So-Called Life, pre-insufferable Jared Leto, Dawson dreamboat Joshua Jackson, a fantastic use of Rebecca “Noxema Girl” Gayheart, and even Tara Reid is at her best as the local college radio DJ. Urban Legend also dips a toe (or a foot) into slasher homage with cameos from horror regulars Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Danielle Harris (Halloween) and Brad Dourif (Child’s Play). Director Jamie Blanks would go-on to make Valentine at the tail end of the second teen slasher cycle, and both films stand the test of time as entertaining entries in the genre, even if they never quite live up to the promise of their conceptual hooks.
7. Bride of Chucky (1998)
Director: Ronny Yu
Writer: Don Mancini
Cast: Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, John Ritter, Katherine Heigl, Nick Stabile, Alexis Arquette
The Chucky franchise has endured longer than any of its OG slasher peers. While Michael and Jason have been reborn and reimagined again and again, the Child’s Play films have resisted remakes and reboots; debuting in the first slasher cycle, surviving the dead years of the early 90s (and later, the early aughts), popping up in the second cycle, and still going to this day. It’s impressive, and it’s no mistake. There are a couple key reasons for Chucky’s endurance — not least of which is the reliable return of key cast members and the steady hand of returning writer Don Mancini — but above all, Chucky movies are resilient because they are always evolving and fearlessly trying new tricks.
Bride of Chucky is the franchise’s most impressive show of that elasticity; a film that somehow both plays by the rules and reinvents the game. While each new Chucky movie made sure to shake things up a bit, Bride of Chucky was the first to truly innovate the Child’s Play mythology by introducing Jennifer Tilly‘s Tiffany and the idea of multiple living dolls. At the same time, Mancini’s script deftly responded to the creative climate surrounding the film and Bride of Chucky is a distinctly post-Scream slasher. It introduced self-aware comedy to the franchise, and while there was no shortage of that comedic edge in late-90s horror, who better to rattle off snarky meta one-liners than a foul-mouthed little bastard like Chucky?
Bride of Chucky also plays to the teen crowd with the introduction of Katherine Heigl and Nick Stabile‘s head-over-heels pair of high school runaways, but there’s a reason the meta-humor stuck and the teens didn’t — they’re just kind of silly. But huge credit goes to Mancini for taking the teen dynamic and making it fit a Chucky film, rather than the other way around. Bride of Chucky is the moment where you see a franchise acknowledge the changing tastes in audiences and evolve to keep up with them, without shedding the personality that made it special in the first place.
6. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Director: Jim Gillespie
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cast: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., Ryan Phillippe, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Anne Heche, Muse Watson
I Know What You Did Last Summer is one of the nearest and dearest to my heart on this list and a major influence in how I learned to love horror movies, but the movie itself doesn’t totally hold up to the fond memories. It’s biggest flaw is mistakenly thinking that Julie James (Hewitt) is the lead when Helen Shivers (Gellar) is clearly the more interesting and enjoyable character. Well, that and the pacing, which is honestly insane.
Nothing scary happens for a staggering amount of I Know What You Did Last Summer. The first fifteen minutes are a lengthy prologue; the kind of inciting incident that sets the stage for big scares, but the forward time jump means the next fifteen minutes are spent setting the stage as well. When the scares do come, they’re incredibly tame — spooky letters and unwanted haircuts — until about the film’s midway mark, when things finally get going and I Know What You Did Last Summer earns its keep as arguably the second most iconic teen slasher of the 90s. Of course, this is also the point where the film turns its attention to Helen, and her extended centerpiece from the Croaker Pageant to the mannequin-lined floors of the department store is an all-timer in leading up to a slasher kill.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to the nostalgia for it, lagging too often and relying on its teen superstars to carry the weight of characters that by and large, just aren’t there. The script comes from Scream screenwriter and 90s horror mainstay Kevin Williamson, but it’s distinctly less witty than his other fare, playing the scares straight to inferior effect. Even with its flaws, I Know What You Did Last Summer is undeniably a key influence on the second slasher wave and an entertaining bare-bones slasher film in its own right, not to mention boasting some flawless 90s fashion to boot.
5. Scream 2 (1997)
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cast: Neve Campbell, Liev Schreiber, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Jamie Kennedy, Jerry O’Connell, Laurie Metcalf, Elise Neal, Timothy Olyphant, Joshua Jackson, Rebecca Gayheart, Portia De Rossi, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jada Pinkett Smith, Heather Graham, Tori Spelling
If you’re looking for the most iconic cast in 90s horror, Scream 2 has got to take the cake and fortunately, that’s not the only thing this unreasonably good slasher sequel has to offer. Scream team Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson reunited for the follow-up film, which hit theaters a year after the original debuted, further cementing the franchise as the single most defining creative factor in the 90s teen horror wave.
The sequel picks up with Sidney and the rest of the surviving Woodsborough clan a year after the horrific events of the first film, transporting the drama to the local college where the throughline of creative commentary takes on literature and theater in addition to cinema. Scream 2 doubles down on the meta-humor, including a literal round of self-analysis in which a class of college film students debates the merits of sequels, but it also enacts the more is more demands of a sequel in its execution, serving up bigger scare pieces and, of course, more “carnage candy”.
Slasher sequels are notoriously poor in quality, but Craven and Williamson manage to avoid the trap by adding new layers to their commentary in addition to the bigger body count. Craven is quick to remind why he’s a master of the genre with no less than five truly pulse-pounding set-pieces packed in (my personal favorite being the chase scene in the recording studio and Sid’s police car escape). He even has the guts to kill off a beloved character in full daylight. Scream 2 doesn’t live up to the innovation and excellence of the first film, but it stands proud in its own right as not just the definitive slasher sequel, but a great horror film period.
4. Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
Director: Steve Miner
Writers: Robert Zappia, Matt Greenberg
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams, Adam Arkin, Janet Leigh, Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, Adam Hann-Byrd, LL Cool J, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Halloween H20 is not only the best Halloween sequel (fight me), it’s also an incredibly effective horror film in its own right, and the perfect overlap between the first and second slasher cycles. Released twenty years after the original Halloween (hence the unforgivable title), Halloween H20 finally brings Laurie Strode (Curtis) back into the picture, catching up with the quintessential final girl as a grown woman, a mother, and the dean of a North California private school where Michael Meyers returns once again for a new Halloween slaughter.
H20 is fascinating because it is clearly a reaction to Scream (Scream 2 can even be seen in the background of a scene, demonstrating how wildly fast these films came out once the trend kicked off), and the teen cast was touted as a huge selling point for the film. However, it’s also absolutely a Halloween sequel, rooted in the tradition of classic slasher films, and directed by the man behind Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part III, no less. It even has the literal mother of all horror cameos with Curtis’ mom and horror legend Janet Leigh appearing in the film. Basically, this thing’s got genre bonafides out the wazoo.
But it’s not a resume that makes a film great, it’s the execution, and while H20 may spend too much time on teen romances, the teens themselves are pretty likable and human, and every scene with Laurie Strode is a gem. She’s the ultimate hardened horror survivor and when she goes up against her biggest fear, it’s a payoff two decades in the making (And it would have been a damn good one too if Resurrection had come along and boffed it all.) Perhaps best of all, H20 is old-fashioned in its approach to scares; less interested in outsmarting its audience that lining up the pieces and knocking them down with a super sharp kitchen knife.
3. The Craft (1996)
Director: Andrew Flemming
Writers: Peter Filardi, Andrew Flemming
Cast: Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Skeet Ulrich, Breckin Meyer, Christine Taylor
As the only film on this list to hit theaters before Scream, The Craft managed to tap into the same style and sensibilities of the 90s teen audience (heck it even has two of the same leads) without having its essence defined by Scream‘s pervasive genre influence. That makes it something unique and truly special in the lot; a film that exists in its own right rather than a reaction to a burgeoning trend.
The Craft follows four teenage outcasts who discover a powerful connection to the occult when they’re united to call the corners, and discover that when they abuse that power, it leads to dire consequences in a hurry. The clever script from director Andrew Flemming and screenwriter Peter Filardi approached those lessons through the common concerns of adolescence — the need to be accepted and desired, and all the ways teenagers use looks, race, reputation, or family income to isolate and abuse their peers. In that regard, The Craft is a timeless tale, even if its finger is firmly on the 90s pulse of fashion, music, girl power, and witchcraft, which was trendier than ever in culture, be it on TV (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed) or in movies (Practical Magic).
Like most 90s fare, it has some rough edges when it comes to themes of gender and sexual assault, but more than 20 years later, The Craft is still an effective coming-of-age tale and celebration of individuality over groupthink. And it’s also still creepy to boot at points, especially if you have a fear of snakes. There’s a reason The Craft is still a sleepover essential.
2. The Faculty (1998)
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Clea Duvall, Laura Harris, Shawn Hatosy, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Jon Stewart, Usher Harris, Piper Laurie
Yet another win from 90s teen screenwriter in chief Kevin Williamson, The Faculty fused Williamson’s knack for snappy teen drama with Robert Rodriguez‘s subversive camp to fantastic results. It’s smart without ever taking itself too seriously and campy without ever losing its cool, drawing proudly from the tradition of classic alien invasion movies and casting them in the 90s teen tradition.
Set in the dingy halls of a high school dominated by disaffected youths, The Faculty finds a ragtag bunch of classmates from across the social spectrum teaming up to stop an alien invasion that turns its hosts into mindless drones. The cast is a particular delight in The Faculty, well balanced between teenage heartthrobs, cool kid cred, and a wonderful adult cast that always comes into play just in time for a good laugh or an even better scare. It’s The Breakfast Club by way of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a heavy helping of The Thing, and with Rodriguez bringing his love for B-movies and some great production value to the table, it deserves to be remembered alongside the best of the decade.
1. Scream (1996)
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Kevin Williamson
Cast: Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard, Courtney Cox, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Henry Winkler
It’s impossible to overestimate how much of an impact Scream had on the horror genre when it hit theaters in 1996. At the time, the slasher genre was dead. Aside from the steady stream of subpar ongoing franchise sequels, the genre was washed up and dried out. Until Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson came along and gave the horror genre a pure shot of adrenaline with style and clever reinvention.
In writing, there’s a common saying that you have to know the rules before you can break them, and Scream is the perfect cinematic example of that edict. Craven is a master of the genre; a man who famously reinvented the landscape multiple times over the course of his career, and as the man behind A Nightmare on Elm Street, he was well-versed the rules of first-generation slashers, knowing exactly when to bob and exactly when to lean into a punch.
Set in a California high school where the teens reference movie tropes as freely as a trivia night champion, Scream sets loose the iconic Ghostface on Sidney Prescott (Campbell), a teenage girl mourning the violent rape and murder of her mother a year prior. Craven takes time to tee up his characters, and invest in Sidney’s struggles, but he never lets sentimentality weigh down the fast-moving action of the narrative or sap the life out of Williamson’s snappy dialogue. It’s a perfectly measured balance, dodging tropes as much as it embraces them, and always making sure to stay one step ahead of its clever audience, which it wisely acknowledges is just as well versed in the genre as its characters.
The opening scene is an all-time great in the history of horror; a true gut punch that lets the audience know they know nothing at all, affirming from the get-go that Scream is out for blood and it has all the right moves. That breathless wit survives all the way to the subversive ending, which easily bucks half-formed criticisms that the film is fundamentally as conservative as its predecessors. Scream is built from the pieces of horror’s history, but it remains unique, and a formative shift in horror’s voice that is still heard loud and clear to this day.