Let’s be honest: the 1990s were, at best, a transitional time period for the horror genre, in America as much as anywhere else. Whereas K-Horror and J-Horror just began to find a regular fanbase internationally towards the end of the 90s, thanks in part to the incomparable Ringu and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, America found a revitalized love for the slasher, prompted by the release of Wes Craven’s Scream. There were plenty of good and great horror films, mind you, but this was the era after the initial boom, when the genre was coming down off the high of its three defining franchises: Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th.
It’s interesting, then, to note that the installments of those franchises that came out in the 1990s, looked to broaden their templates into often absurd realms. In Jason Goes to Hell, the man behind the hockey mask became not just an unstoppable killing machine but a being possessed by a demonic-worm who can only inhabit those in the Voorhees clan. Or something. Freddy’s Dead turned Mr. Krueger into a deadbeat dad attempting to connect with his daughter, jumping through time and dimensions, it would seem, to ensure the death of teenagers worldwide. And as for our brutish friend Mike Myers, he was turned into a kind of super-soldier project, and the series attempted to find more interest in the Illinois community where he lives, wrongly assuming that fans of John Carpenter’s unimpeachable original Halloween would care.
There were a few franchise installments that successfully riled dormant inventiveness – Hellraiser 3, The Exorcist 3, Army of Darkness, and Alien 3, to name just a few – but the very best of the decade build on the idiosyncrasies and perverse obsessions of key works of the 1980s, from Possession and The Shining to The Fly and From Beyond. Films like Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs legitimized the artform in ways that not even Kubrick could pull off, while The Vanishing and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer found resonant chills in depicting, detailing, and gazing without hesitation at the work of sadistic psychopaths. Serial killers, and the forensic sciences and psychology that ensnared them, were the bread and butter of the 90s, but the greatest works offered distinct visuals and thematic considerations embedded under the blood and gore. Alien 3 was meant to be a comment on AIDS; the French shocker Man Bites Dog lampooned the moral flexibility and opportunism of artists looking to make a big break.
A lot of these films could arguably be categorized as thrillers – specifically, Cape Fear, The Silence of the Lambs, and Misery – but horror has always shared DNA with the thriller genre. Looking back at the crucial works of Hitchcock or Tournier, the feelings are primarily terror and horror in the psychological realm, rather than in gushing wounds and severed limbs. Which isn’t to say that blood and guts are any reason to take a film less seriously or to accuse it of being immoral simply on the basis of its subject matter. The 1990s were a time where horror solidified itself as an art form, not just capable of a few random works of genius but of dozens that wrestled with politics and societal attitudes in ways that mainstream Hollywood could not deal with without softening its edges and going for saccharine over skepticism, making way for the wildly imaginative genre landscape of the aughts and the 2010s. In this spirit, we decided to gather up the 50 best horror films of the decade, to survey how horror regained its strength and bloomed into narrative vistas that the 1980s barely hinted at.