The 50 Best Horror Movies of the 1990s, Ranked
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.
50. 'Scream 2'
Sure, it’s essentially just Scream relocated to a college campus, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Mind you, Halloween 2 is merely Halloween relocated to a hospital, even if it is lacking the unimpeachable artistry of John Carpenter. In comparison, Scream 2 still has the late master, Wes Craven, in the director’s chair and the film carries his trademark tone of increasing dread and terror, denoted by a series of solid kills, from Omar Epps getting a knife through a bathroom-stall wall to Sarah Michelle Gellar taking a header off her sorority house balcony. This also might be the least annoying Jerry O’Connell has ever been in a movie, and the additions of Timothy Olyphant, Laurie Melcalf, and David Warner, in a brief scene, lend extra oomph to the movie’s endearing theatrical timbre.
49. 'Baby Blood'
A minor cult sensation in France, Alain Roback’s variation on the birth of the anti-christ tale hinges on the communication between a young woman (Emmanuelle Escourrou) and the gestating devil that she’s been impregnated with by some unknowable creature…at the circus where she works. Like any child, the anti-christ needs to be fed, leading to a series of brutal slayings that end with the mother drinking the blood of her victims. Essentially the trailer-park cousin to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Roback’s film offers a wild-eyed, charmingly cheap satirical take on the holy image that mothers are asked to labor under and epitomize. The film is not short on gore, but it’s the raspy voice of the devil that will soon be birthed into existence that echoes in your mind after seeing Baby Blood.
Guillermo del Toro’s first American film was famously cut to ribbons by the not at all shallow and idiotic suits at Dimension and Miramax, but what remains still shows several flashes of the director’s inventive genius. The clever and intricate story, centered on a group of scientists – fronted by Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam – hunting a man-made evolved killer insect originally created to fight off a plague that killed children, clearly touches on del Toro’s favored narrative concepts – children in danger, horrors born of grief, etc. – and sports his stylish, eloquently designed aesthetics. There was clearly a wiser, more audacious film here, and a stronger, more ponderous script was obviously corrupted in the name of audience-friendly familiarity, but there’s still a solid creature feature at work here, one that is gripping, philosophically attuned, and intermittently quite compelling.
47. 'Body Parts'
A college professor and family man, played by Jeff Fahey, loses his arm in a car accident but, miraculously, is the beneficiary of an experimental surgery that gives him a working transplanted arm, harvested from a recently deceased man. That’s how this engrossing little gem begins, and the story only gets more preposterous and eerie as the film goes on, leading to a wild, bloody climax. The professor soon bonds with two other recipients of the donor, but his fuse becomes shorter as well, leading him to yell at his children and even abuse his wife. No fair ruining how Eric Red’s film unfurls from there, but it’s fair to say that the director gives the Frankenstein tale an inventive twist here, and though the film lacks for expressive imagery, the shocks come increasingly bigger and quicker.
46. 'The Exorcist III'
Very few films, horror or not, come within spitting distance of William Friedkin’s beguiling, breathless The Exorcist. Like most great or even good movies, it didn’t warrant a sequel and its first one, The Heretic, realized everyone’s worst fears as to what such an unneeded production would do with the mythology. The third one, however, takes a far more chilling and strangely playful route in extending the narrative. Jason Miller returns as Father Karras, but The Gemini Killer, a ruthless, perverse butcher played by a thrillingly scary Brad Dourif, has possessed him. The thrust of the narrative involves an aging detective (George C. Scott) investigating a series of extravagantly violent murders, with the case leading him to a mental institution. It’s here that he finds Karras, whom he was friends with, and the center of the film is a series of exchanges between Scott’s policeman and Karras, with the editing switching between Miller’s outer character of the priest and Dourif’s bracing expression of the inner fury of the killer. The rest of the film is marked by fleet-footed editing and mixture of surprisingly ponderous dialogue, focused on grief, loss, and mortality, and haunting imagery, but what goes on between Scott and Dourif is the stuff that could keep you up at night, wondering if the devil’s really out there, waiting.
45. 'Bad Moon'
It’s a sad realization that Bad Moon is the only werewolf film to rank on this list. It’s a sub-genre that has struggled consistently, with its major works being relegated to the 1930s, 40s, and 80s, with a few minor successes in the aughts (Dog Soldiers, Ginger Snaps), the 1960s (The Curse of the Werewolf), and the 2010s (Late Phases). The 1990s is a wasteland in this regard, with only Eric Red’s Bad Moon making a sincere impression. It’s worth noting that Red was the writer behind Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent Near Dark, and the familial undercurrents that delineated that near-masterpiece come into play equally in Bad Moon, which revolves around a series of wolf-like maulings that occur when Mariel Hemingway’s Janet welcomes her black-sheep brother, Ted (Michael Pare), back into her life and home. It’s actually Janet’s german-shepard, Thor, that takes most clear note of Ted’s strange behavior and easy temper, and Red does well by putting focus on the connection between beasts. Ultimately, the film suggests that a loyal animal like the dog is as much family as the wolf in human’s clothing who, though sincerely hoping to reconnect with his family, cannot help but sacrifice him to his inner demons. While Mike Nichols’ Wolf tries and fails to lend maturity to the sub-genre, Bad Moon uses practical effects, creative writing, and an imaginative director to revitalize what we always loved about werewolf stories.
44. 'The Relic'
We begin far away, around a small fire where a white man indulges in local custom by drinking some strange elixir. The filmmaker cuts to a tribesman in headdress crawling up to the white man, but what we see is clearly not what the white man sees. We never find out, but it’s safe to say that its not dissimilar to the horrifying creature that follows him back to his home turf of Chicago’s Field Museum, where a series of savage murders occur only days leading up to an important gala. Tom Sizemore is the lead detective on the case while Penelope Ann Miller is the scientist who begins putting together the clues, and much of this film wouldn’t work if they weren’t both so quietly charming and convincing in their roles. Paced and directed smartly by Peter Hyams, The Relic is a conventional monster movie in many ways, but it’s done with moody finesse, a sense of atmosphere that doesn’t make the film about the atmosphere. And when the big thing shows up, it proves to be yet another testament to the brilliant, nightmarish imagination of Stan Winston, who barely gives you a full look at his creation, but gives enough to ruin a night of sleep or two.
43. 'Interview with the Vampire'
Few directors have had a career as varied and estimable as Neil Jordan, who has swung from grim revenge tales (The Brave One) to emotional melodramas (The End of the Affair) to surreal thrillers (In Dreams). Among the hash, he’s approached the vampire lore twice, first with Interview with the Vampire and then, in 2012, with Byzantium. The latter film is undervalued, but the former is the far more seductive feature, tracing the decades-long path of Louis (Brad Pitt), one of the chief minions of Lestat, played by a surprisingly frightening Tom Cruise. Jordan focuses the action on class struggles and the transformation from human to timeless monster, most profoundly represented by Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia, and the result is an elegant tale of a seemingly endless life of loss and grief, with plenty of petrifying set-pieces to evoke the desperation and terror of being tired of life yet unable to slay one’s hunger for immortality.
There’s not much blood in this smartly paced creature feature, but one might prefer the sight of gushing wounds to the close-up shots of our eight-legged friends as they take over a small California town. Usually a competent purveyor of low-grad schmaltz, Frank Marshall’s light touch actually works to his advantage here, creating a potent sense of idyll, quasi-rural suburbia that is thrown into tumult by a plague of South American killer spiders and their enormous mother-spider. The main character, a doctor played by Jeff Daniels, has arachnophobia, but the series of venomous deaths equally reflect his fear of leaving the city for a quiet life where there’s a sizable plot of land separating you from your neighbor. The climactic sequence, when spiders overrun his house, plays like any spider-haters waking nightmare, leading to the squirm-inducing unveiling of the Momma, but the film’s MVP is clearly John Goodman, who play’s the town’s cocky, ignorant exterminator with buoyant comic energy.
The second best of John Carpenter’s interesting but largely dramatically lacking 1990s output, Vampires expresses a kind of hard-nosed brand of bad-assery that other directors have attempted to pull off but few have ever even brushed up against. James Woods is Jack Crow, the leader of a gang of vampire slayers who are all but wiped out completely when they come up against Jan Valek (The Karake Kid Part 3’s Thomas Ian Griffith), a powerful bloodsucker looking for a talisman that will allow him to walk freely in sunlight. There’s no attempt to make Crow into a role model. There’s not even a minute trace of sentimentality in the production on the whole really, and it’s that simplistic, skeptical perspective that gives Vampires its undeniable edge. The film is shot well, strewn with good use of gore and impactful action sequences, and sports a solid cast that also includes Mark Boone Jr., Sheryl Lee, and Maximilian Schell. All that’s great, but it’s near-textural feeling of Carpenter’s mind at work in every frame that makes Vampires unique in a sub-genre that so often feels plain.
Like the not-so-great Urban Legend, this creepy, grisly shocker is steeped in modern folklore, specifically that of the titular hook-handed killer (Tony Todd) who, according to recreational mythology, was once a slave who was tortured, mangled, and murdered by a gang of white men for fathering a child with a white woman. Working from a Clive Barker story, writer-director Bernard Rose makes the film a lacerating revenge tale, with white society finally feeling the retribution for years upon years of slaughtering African-Americans, often for no reason bigger than boredom and petty jealousy. Not only does Virginia Madsen’s protagonist get set up as the perpetrator of the Candyman’s ghastly butchering, she also gets roughed up for inspecting the ghettos for research, upsetting other kinds of modern mythologies for the sake of her written study. Had Rose pushed his perspective even further into the threads of the narrative, Candyman would be an essential text on hate crimes and racial injustice, but as it stands, he’s simply made one of the most outraged horror films of 1990s.
39. 'The Eternal'
Michael Almereyda followed up his seductive and strange vampire tale Nadja with this similarly erotic, alluring, and sensationally acted Irish witch tale. Alison Elliott, who broke out in 1990s dramas such as The Spitfire Grill and Wings of the Dove, plays Nora, a borderline-alcoholic wife and mother who returns to her home in Ireland with her husband (Jared Harris) and son to meet her grandmother (Lois Smith). Who they meet first is her crazy uncle, played by Christopher Walken, who has resurrected a druid witch from the local bog that might be Nora’s mother but most definitely awakes to cause mass devastation at the family’s mansion. Almereyda’s camerawork is wondrous, pulling us through the long shadowy hallways of the mansion via some alluring long-takes, and the script summons a host of fascinating concepts about lineage, the seduction of the past, and familial bonds. If the trajectory does prove to be a bit predictable, The Eternal nevertheless, and you’ll have to forgive me here, casts a moody spell from the first shot to the haunting last.
38. 'Funny Games'
With this 1997 art-house white-knuckler, Michael Haneke honed his occasionally self-serving indictment of audiences who look toward violence, torture, and death for their entertainments to a fine point. Two pleasant-seeming psychotics enter the home of an affluent family and put them through a series of near-sickening games in which their lives are constantly on the line. The psychotic boys intermittently address the audience, and even rewind the film at one point, suggesting that the viewers are in on their cruel activities and are, in a way, rooting for them. It’s a stunning criticism that hits like a jackhammer at certain moments, but Haneke cops out in one regard, in that he never faces his own place in the making of films that are mainly built on suffering and death. Still, Funny Games is one of the venerable filmmaker’s most exhilarating creations, right up there with Cache, Code Unknown, and The White Ribbon, and though his moral arguments are muddled, the power of his film’s clinical visuals and menacing plot turns cannot be denied.
37. 'Whispering Corridors'
J-Horror and K-Horror were built up as globally recognized sub-genres in the 1990s, and although few can match the likes of Ringu and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s heart-stopping Cure, there were more than a few minor curiosities that reinforced their longevity. Case in point: Whispering Corridors, a remarkably odd and direful ghost tale that pivots on a series of severed friendships and alliances at a small high school. Those expecting a run-of-the-mill fright-fest are in for a surprise, as the film only has a handful of kills and the bulk of the dialogue centers on high school politics – popularity, teachers, rifts, and counseling are the most memorable topics. As such, Whispering Corridors works most potently as a reflection of Japanese society and the insistence on authoritative control to keep citizens in line, but when the film does invoke the power of the specters, the hairs on the back of your neck shoot up and the enduring power of regret can be felt fully.
36.'Bram Stoker's Dracula'
It’s really too bad that Francis Ford Coppola directed the Godfather trilogy. The first two Godfather films, to say nothing of The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, set an impossible standard to live up to in the annals of popular cinema, and when Coppola wanted to get weird, the reaction was either indifferent or straight-up rancorous, despite the director’s tremendous skill and evocative artistry still being evident in nearly every frame. His take on the Dracula lore, specifically, was dismissed as nothing more than a camp item at best, with lead actors Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, and Keanu Reeves receiving their own critical bruises along the way. Revisiting the film, however, what remains so palpable is Coppola’s visual expression of immortality and insatiable lust that goes beyond mere sex, entering into a surreal realm of physical hunger. There’s a cutting sense of menace to the entire production and rather than play the classic tale as soberly frightening, the director goes for the psychological madness, disbelief, and uncertainty of becoming a creature that is sustained on blood alone. Tom Waits makes for a great Renfield, but the film belongs to Oldman, who plays each version of the Dracula character with a lurid uninhibitedness, making his very presence summon feelings of liberation and damnation in equal measures.
35. 'Stir of Echoes'
Richard Matheson’s still-chilling story of ghosts and murder got a potent, buoyantly directed telling by longtime screenwriter David Koepp, but, unfortunately, it came out the same year as The Sixth Sense. Koepp, who has yet to direct another film that’s worth anyone’s attention, indulges in a handful of bump scares but otherwise, this tale of a Chicago telephone lineman (Kevin Bacon) who begins seeing the same specter that his young son is constantly speaking with is all mood and expert technical ability. The editing is remarkable, especially in a scene where Bacon’s everyman rushes home from a local sports game to check on his son, and Koepp neither lets up the tension too much nor makes the film pivot exclusively on plot turns. He has an easy, ingratiating sense of the Chicago area, and gets the tone of the friendships and relationships that Bacon’s character’s family increasingly count on convincing and naturally rhythmic, thanks largely to a great supporting cast that includes Veep’s Kevin Dunn and Kathryn Erb. Like Rosemary’s Baby and, yes, The Sixth Sense, the feel for the city is at once breezily familiar and surprisingly shuddersome, suggesting the piles of neighbors and strangers who have unjustly died in the place that you call home.
34. 'Event Horizon'
“Hellraiser in Space” is how a close friend of mine always described this sole masterwork from “bad auterism” golden child Paul W.S. Anderson but that doesn’t give the film half the credit it deserves. First of all, Hellraiser isn’t nearly as menacing as what’s going on in Event Horizon, which revolves around a spaceship crew who find themselves being murdered off following contact with a experimental gravity drive on the titular, lost spaceship that they answer the distress beacon for. Very few films have summoned the claustrophobia of space travel so well, and that anxiety seems to be at the root of the horror that is visited upon ship’s team, including Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Joely Richardson, and Kathleen Quinlan, which occasionally borders on the sadistic, which is likely where the Hellraiser comparisons come from. The final moments between Fishburne’s head-strong captain and a seemingly possessed Neill are the kind of magnetic and operatic scenes that would seem silly and unearned under a different director, but Anderson’s undeniable grasp of tone and pacing here make them moments that will make you never want to watch a movie with the lights off again.
33. 'Alien 3'
The film that cemented David Fincher’s reputation as Hollywood’s greatest misanthrope. 20th Century Fox, which has a long reputation of fucking up good things in the name of narrative familiarity, cut Fincher’s third installment of the Alien franchise into ribbons. What remains of the film, which finds Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) on a prisoner-run work colony where the xenomorphs hatch and do their business, is not the transcendent comment on the AIDS virus that the director intended it to be, but it’s still a stylish, tense blast of supernatural horror, even if the production lacks thematic or political depth. The sleek imagery, which seems burned to an dark orange in so many shots, is a precursor to the directors excellent work with shadows and dim lighting that would follow, and the film itself features some of the franchise’s most memorable set-pieces, including the gripping final sequence. The promise of the film remains unfulfilled on the whole but what remains is as entertaining and haunting as its predecessor, if not quite as fine-tuned in its terror as the original.
32. 'Dust Devil'
Richard Stanley’s second, and far more accomplished work, following his intriguing Hardware, is a Namibia-set folklore tale, which tells of an immortal creature that takes the body of a man and keeps him all-powerful as long as he continues to kill. As played by Law & Order: SVU staple Robert John Burke, the titular being is at once alluring and furious, using the blood of a lover early on to paint ritualistic messages all over her home, before he burns it and her to a cinder. Stanley complicates the story with the inclusion of a detective (Zakes Morkae) and a woman, Wendy (Chelsea Field), that Burke’s devil is reluctant to butcher, but the story still comes off as the kind of story you would tell around a campfire or, if you’re particularly twisted, at bedtime. Stanley also wrote the screenplay and he goes the length to give the film a sly feminist undertone, as Wendy is escaping a miserable, abusive marriage when she runs into Burke’s devil, and finds neither peace nor joy in either coupledom or picking up with random men. The film ends with her essentially killing two men and walking out to find a new life beyond the desert, suggesting a breaking with tradition and folkloric fear.
31. 'The Frighteners'
Peter Jackson’s first big Hollywood production via Universal Pictures is a clever twist on the ghost story, and a personal comment on a life in the horror racket. In one of his very best big-screen performances, Michael J. Fox plays Frank Bannister, a medium-huckster who works with a tribe of friendly ghosts, played by the likes of Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, and Gomez Addams himself John Astin, to scam homeowners into having him clear their homes of ghosts. Business is somewhat good until a grim reaper-type figure begins killing the living and the dead alike and swallowing them up into nothingness, a figure that ends up being the ghost of an infamous serial killer.
Jackson, rightly, is more playful in his direction and writing, alongside wife Fran Walsh, than morbidly serious, and The Frighteners is nothing if not knowingly old-school in its production and narrative trajectory. Credit a reliably excellent Danny Elfman score and Alun Bollinger & John Blick’s cinematography for adding visual and auditory pep to the proceedings, but The Frighteners also has a clear intimate reflective surface for Jackson, a filmmaker who, at the time, had built much of his own career on ghastly trickery as a way of staying in his comfort zone, whether in the madness of Meet the Feebles or Dead Alive. Some four or five years later, he would follow this moody delight up with the first of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the crowning achievements of modern Hollywood filmmaking, and the seeds of the ambition and emotional openness of those films are clearly visible in The Frighteners.
30. 'Cemetery Man'
After working as an assistant director for the likes of Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam, the Italian filmmaker Michele Soavi made his breakout film with this strange tale of zombie love, with an unlikely Rupert Everett playing a cemetery manager who must deal with the living dead as often as the merely dead. Soavi’s history with Giallo is evident here but he doesn’t go for many gushy, romanticized moments here, even when Everett’s careless lothario falls for the gorgeous wife of a recently deceased aristocrat, who promptly comes to life and infects his former love with his plague. There’s a hint of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the way that Everett’s character continues to follow a murderous path with visions of the widow, and the romance between his overweight, mentally challenged assistant and the living-dead head of a politician’s daughter could have been a side plot in Dead Alive, but that’s not what Soavi is after ultimately. Cynicism is the director’s final fascination, and in this, Cemetery Man works as a sort of cautionary tale. Everett’s character comes to believe that the dead are more useful and friendly than the living, leading him to some outrageous, homicidal behavior. Don’t lose your faith in humanity, Soavi suggests, or you might begin to get comfortable, even envious, of the dead.
29. 'The Day of the Beast'
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a well-meaning Basque Roman Catholic priest (Alex Angulo) travels to Madrid on Christmas Eve, hoping to sin so much that the devil leads him to the sight of the Antichrist’s birth. Yeah, didn’t think so. Alex de la Iglesia’s breakout film, made for well under $2 million, is the kind of wild-eyed political statement that would soon become the director’s trademark, but it’s also an unlikely endearing tale of friendship. The priest’s assistant on his mission is an acid-dropping metal-head named Jose (Santiago Segura), who quickly buys into the mission to tease out the Antichrist, and the inclusion of Professor Cavan (Armando De Razza), a TV clairvoyant that they kidnap, makes for a powder keg of crazed beliefs. Fueled by a few dozen acid tabs and strident belief, the trio search Madrid for the sight of the evil one’s coming and though it’s no fair describing where this ultimately leads them, it’s enough to say that it’s privileged elitists and bourgeoisie preppies that bring out the true evil of the world by the end, making Iglesia’s films one of the most radical yet not boastful atheistic manifestos that the 1990s ever produced.
Rob Reiner never got half as playful and as tight-knit as he did with this macabre supposition on the corruptive power of fandom, which has become all the more relevant in the revitalized age of Star Wars, The Walking Dead, and Marvel Studios adaptations. Stephen King stand-in Paul Sheldon (James Caan) gets into a near-fatal accident on a snowy road near the home of a seemingly beloved fan, Annie Wilkes, played with stunning verve and mercurial creepiness by Kathy Bates, who takes him in and nurses him, until she realizes that he’s killed off her favorite character in the latest book in his popular franchise. Her subsequent torture and further crippling of her literary hero offers a mirror to the violent beliefs of dedicated fans and how their love for the series can become the thing that holds you back from moving forward as an artist. It might be the best adaptation of any King novel other than The Shining and The Dark Half, and it’s easily the number one movie that will make you treasure your two healthy ankles.
27. 'Army of Darkness'
Alright, you primitive screwheads, listen up! Until last year brought us the great blessing that was Ash vs Evil Dead, Army of Darkness was the final word on Bruce Campbell’s legendary chainsaw-handed loser-king, a low-wage slave who doubles as the most bad-ass demon slayer to ever walk this or any other Earth. And it remains about as good as a final chapter can get, with Ash traveling back to 1300 AD to once again find the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis and hopefully secure the continuation of his humble yet worthy modern life. Director Sam Raimi keeps things punchy and gruesome, with a whole host of new deadite villains coming after our hero in the kingdom of Lord Arthur, but it’s the confidence and unhinged sense of humor that has always made this franchise what it is. And thanks to Campbell and Raimi’s no-bull artistry, Army of Darkness remains a rollicking action movie and a bonafide hoot, even in the face of its canonical predecessors and its sensational TV incarnation. Hail to the king, baby!
In any decently run universe, this malevolent dark comedy would have skyrocketed director Antonia Bird to the top of Hollywood’s A-list, and though she developed several projects with the big studios, none of them got off the ground, save this minor miracle. An act of military cowardice lands Guy Pearce’s Lieutenant Boyd at the all-but-deserted Fort Spencer in the Sierra Nevadas, and soon after, the few men left at the Fort, along with an enigmatic stranger (Robert Carlyle), begin eating one another. The story works off the folk tale of the Wendigo, but it’s real thematic meat (ha!) is in the price and rewards of the bloodshed and death of others. Boyd was to be honored as a hero until it’s revealed that he allowed his men to die, and the act of eating flesh does indeed heal wounds and clear disease from the body in Bird’s wild world. The ugly truth that is faced here is that the duplicitous and cowardly live longer than others in high-stakes situations because they don’t pretend to have a moral concept of honor. The late Bird, aided by an excellent score by Michael Nyman and Blur frontman Damon Albarn, has a riotous, occasionally hugely disturbing time peeling back the veil of the frontier hero with wicked relish.
25. 'The Reflecting Skin'
It takes a very special kind of storyteller to get at the ambivalent evil of children without rules or codes of moral conduct, but Philip Ridley pulled off just such a rare coup with The Reflecting Skin. The film defies conventional description, but it’s easy to say it revolves around a young boy, Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), who begins to believe his neighbor is a vampire around the same time that one of his best friends is found murdered. The killer of his friend is obvious straight-away but because the character acts like an American archetype, no one, especially Seth, thinks to consider them implicit in the crimes. It’s easier for Seth, who already shows sadistic tendencies in his young age, to believe in myths and pulp novel creations than it is for him to believe in the monstrous acts of the common man, and Ridley underlines this throughout the film, including revelations made about Seth’s own father, Luke (Duncan Fraser). And when his war-hero brother (a young Viggo Mortensen) begins a romance with the neighbor, Seth ignores all his brother’s sincere talk of love and trust to indulge his own petty fears. Ridley laces this waking nightmare with bizarre, even gross imagery, including a dead fetus that Seth believes holds the soul of a close friend, but it’s the plainness of the film’s end that makes this unique work so deeply disturbing.
Michael Almereyda is one of the few directors to come out of the 1990s who has kept his audacity intact over the years, and his second feature, Nadja, encapsulates many of his more formally extravagant ideas within the story of the titular Romanian vampire, played by Elina Löwensohn, in modern-day New York City. Nadja is the daughter of Count Dracula and rather than stick close to the turns and familiar blood-sucking legends of the vampire, Almereyda finds fascination with the creature’s surreal power of hypnosis and seduction, and how these powers affect those who hunt the creatures, like Peter Fonda’s Van Helsing and his brave nephew (or perhaps son?), played by Martin Donovan. As the sight of David Lynch as a producer on the film might very well make you think, as well as the 4AD-heavy soundtrack, the emphasis here is on mood and evoking the strangeness of being around vampires rather than their inherent danger to your life. In this sense, Almereyda is surpassingly successful at letting his black-and-white imagery speak volumes. In the director’s vision, Nadja’s strained relationship with her brother, Edgar (Jared Harris), and the madness that she evokes, is a far more alluring invocation of the complex feelings of vampirism than the brutal slayings and transformations that typify something like the aforementioned Vampires.
23. 'From Dusk Till Dawn'
Two murdering, psychopath brothers, played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino, walk into a gas-station market and end up killing some two or three men before torching the whole joint for good. That’s just the opening salvo to Robert Rodriguez’s endearingly madcap story of one bad night in Mexico, wherein the brothers partner with a road-tripping family, led by Harvey Keitel’s Christ-loving paterfamilias, and end up at the go-go-bar den of a bunch of savage, demonic vampires. Co-written by Tarantino and featuring Shaft himself Richard Roundtree and horror icon Tom Savini in supporting roles, Rodriguez’s breakout hit remains a heavy dose of wild horror creativity, with as much fascination with human behavior as with the ghastly hunger of the supernatural bloodsuckers. Indeed, few other films will offer the thrill of the sight of a human body reconfigured into the shape of a guitar as well as a full expression of Tarantino’s quite public foot fetish.
22. 'Dead Alive' (AKA 'Braindead')
Peter Jackson could have only made this gory, gushy, and occasionally outright repulsive zombie film, and he would still be a kind of legend, if not at the level of the man who brought Lord of the Rings to the big-screen. Dead Alive openly toys with one of horror’s most cherished concepts – repression – and when Lionel’s (Timothy Balme) love for a local girl is no longer held down by his controlling mother (Elizabeth Moody), out come the decaying zombie-like creatures to act as a horrifying expression of momma’s villainous control. Like Tobe Hooper and Stuart Gordon’s iconic 1980s output, Dead Alive (also known as Braindead) strives for what Hooper called “red humor,” a melding of slapstick and physical comedy with horror, and the result is the most idiosyncratic and zany effort that Jackson produced, complete with zombie-monster momma and rotted ears and noses garnishing a nice Sunday chowder.
Though Guillermo del Toro didn’t quite reach his potential until he plumbed Mexico’s wartime past in The Devil’s Backbone, his debut feature remains a blueprint of the ideologies and stylistic flourishes that would come to blooming life with the Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth. The story, which revolves around an antiques dealer who is injected with the fluids of a rare bug via a scarab-like mechanism that turns him vampiric, recalls the basis of del Toro’s TV series, The Strain, in its focus on immortality, class, and greed, but here the story is scaled down to the fight between the antiques dealer and a dying titan of industry, who has been searching for the mechanism for years. Del Toro’s stylistic obsessions, from the mechanical creations of toy makers and classical engineers to the thriving natural resilience of insects, are here, as is his interest in the changing shape and state of the body under such circumstances. If the film lacks the historical fury of The Devil’s Backbone, it nevertheless remains one of the most personal vampire films to ever be made, and the first stroke of genius from Mexico’s leading horror maven.
20. 'The Ninth Gate'
It’s not particularly surprising that Roman Polanski’s film tended to involve the search for and belief in evil in the wake of what he’s lost and lived through in his lifetime, from the Holocaust to the grisly murder of his wife, Sharon Tate. It’s potently felt in The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby, but it takes a particularly ominous turn with The Ninth Gate, which revolves around the search for a book that holds the secret to summoning none other than Beelzebub, one that leads private investigator Johnny Depp into a den of secretive, murderous literature buffs and first-edition book-dealers. The film suggests that it’s as much Polanski as those with money and morbid curiosities that lead him to investigate evil with such thoroughness, but The Ninth Gate is first and foremost a dazzlingly inventive, gorgeously shot variation on the noir, one that is given illuminating personal nuance by the director and by Depp, as well as supporting actors Frank Langella and Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s off-screen partner. Based loosely off of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s “The Club Dumas,” it marks a transitional period for Polanski, who would next tackle his experiences in World War II and his attempts to conjure those horrors artistically in The Pianist, but The Ninth Gate remains potent, undiluted Polanski at the height of his devilish powers of expression.
19. 'In the Mouth of Madness'
Not unlike the Peter Jackson of The Frighteners and the George Romero of The Dark Half, the John Carpenter that we see in In the Mouth of Madness is a self-reflective artist facing the ugly realities of his chosen profession as a man who makes his money off of the monstrous and nightmarish. Insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is tasked with hunting down the celebrity author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow), whose latest novel (which shares its name with the film) has been causing people to grow crazy and homicidal. Instances of brutality and lunacy, such as a police officer beating a homeless man to death, and dreams of horrible monsters begin to plague Trent’s life as he comes close to meeting the mysterious Cane in New Hampshire, and from there, things get increasingly weird. Based off of an H.P. Lovecraft parable, Carpenter seems to be toying as much with the power of authorship as the demanding toils of adaptation in this exhilarating, blood-soaked knot of a film, but he’s also facing the impossibility of remaining impersonal when one writes and reads, or films and watches. Carpenter’s stylistic temperament and political philosophies may be more impactful in works like Christine, Halloween, and They Live, but In the Mouth of Madness falls under a rubric of films that only a rare breed of professional filmmakers are brave and daring enough to make at any point in their career.
18. 'Perfect Blue'
An obvious pre-cursor to Darren Aronofsky’s exquisite Black Swan, the debut feature by the late, great Satoshi Kon considers the traumatic effects that performance can have on one’s personal life, as well as the struggles with identity that tend to accompany actors. After leaving her fictional J-pop band CHAM!, lead singer Mima takes a role as a rape victim in a serial detective series, the crew of which begins to be killed off in extravagant fashion. What happens when you change roles and personas so quickly in one’s profession? Kon’s beautifully detailed, beguiling anime gives a fantastical spin on how shifts in how a performer changes one self do not obliterate their old creations, and also touches on the psychological effects this can have on fans who believe them to be the characters they play in pop bands as much as on TV cop shows. Kon would go onto investigate similarly heady material in films ranging from Millenium Actress to Tokyo Godfathers to the unparalleled Paprika, but he never got quite as unsettling and scary as he did with this scalpel-sharp tale of split personalities and murder.
17. 'The Sixth Sense'
It would be so much easier to give up completely on M. Night Shyamalan if he hadn’t made The Sixth Sense and, to a slightly lesser degree, Unbreakable, but the unequivocal success of his 1999 feature has seemingly been enough to keep him working despite a long line of interesting-enough mediocrities and outright disasters that have followed. It’s not entirely surprising, honestly, as The Sixth Sense shows a more assured sense of tone and audaciously expressive direction than nearly any other ghost film that was released in the 90s. The big twist ending often overshadows the story, but it’s important to remember just how elegant his film is in the revelation of its myriad horrors and haunting visions of grief and loss. The scene where Haley Joel Osment’s seer discovers a ghost child in a friend’s home is the stuff of nightmares, while the famous “I see dead people” scene is paced with a conductors patience and precision. Beyond even its hugely admirable tenets as a ghost story, the film offers a strong thematic backbone in its considerations of being left alone to survive, as much with Bruce Willis’ wife (Olivia Williams) as with Toni Collette’s frazzled single mother. Shyamalan’s films have always balanced the troubles of the living with the impending breach of supernatural forces, but he never balanced these forces with such finesse as he did in this breakout thriller.
16. 'The Blair Witch Project'
The film that launched a hundred movies that no one wanted to see. (Okay, Chronicle and Cloverfield are both actually really good when all is said and done.) Perhaps the reason its been so easy to dismiss all pretenders to the throne that have been tossed at the hoi polloi is that The Blair Witch Project seemed so perfectly contained as an experiment (or, arguably, gimmick) when it broke out in 1999. The would-be documentary of a group of filmmakers who go searching for the titular being is a collage of sounds, faint images, expert editing, and intriguing pacing, all of which culminate in an inescapable atmosphere of increasing dread. The film’s sweat-inducing final minutes reveal little more than what we knew at the beginning of the film, but offers a climactic, hard-to-argue example of one of the horror genre’s cornerstone beliefs: less is always, always, always more.
The divide between those who watch horror as a theoretical experience to criticize violence and those who watch violent footage and horror films for pleasure is at the center of Alejandro Amenabar’s Thesis, and the film itself plays out like a mix of analytical distancing and pulpy horror tropes. As an unlikely duo of a horror fanboy and social-sciences major (Fele Martinez and Ana Torrent) investigate the videotaped torture and murder of a series of female students, writer-director Amenabar weaves in an erotic intrigue with the introduction of a playboy filmmaker, played by The Devil’s Backbone and Open Your Eyes star Eduardo Noriega, and begins to consider the seductive nature of violence and danger in ways that tease out uncertainties in Torrent’s character. Amenabar risks going full-on clinical in the Haneke mode but his script, and the extraordinary cast, give the film a potent undercurrent of menace and paranoia that stays with you long after the hair-raising climactic sequence.
14. 'Sleepy Hollow'
Tim Burton put out five great films in the 1990s, and yes, that includes the wildly undervalued Mars Attacks!, and he rounded out the decade with one of his most outwardly folkloric film. In this variation on the headless horseman legend, Ichabod Crane, as played by Johnny Depp, is an early proponent and practitioner of the forensic sciences, and this, along with the bright red splashes of blood and general dismemberment, adds a kick of modernity to an otherwise classical tale. As one would expect from a top-tier Burton production, the wardrobe and production design are impeccable and the supporting cast, including Jeffrey Jones, Christina Ricci, Michael Gambon, and Christopher Walken, is rapturously theatrical with Andrew Kevin Walker’s dialogue, while the kills are nicely varied and occasionally perfectly surprising. Though Washington Irving purists might get up into a huff, the thematic core of Burton’s film is that progress and the modern world are integral to not only the future of societal issues, but of storytelling itself.
13. 'The Addiction'
Abel Ferrara, the dark jester of New York City society, takes the vampire lore as a perfect symbol for drug addiction in The Addiction, casting Lili Taylor as his central monster-junkie under the spell of master vamp Christopher Walken. As always with Ferrara, the turns of the plot are nowhere near as important as the heated, heady discourse and The Addiction offers quite a lot to chew on, especially considering that Taylor’s character is a philosophy grad student. Ferrara mulls over ideas tied to substance dependency and the revelation of the self, with allusions to Sartre, Beckett, Sproul, and Feuerbach in discussions about what exactly becomes of those who become slaves to the “hunger.” At seventy-some minutes, Ferrara pulls in more philosophical and societal considerations than arguably any other vampire film in the history of the sub-genre, and though it’s not death-heavy, it’s grainy black-and-white cinematography has the cumulative effect of dark, violent poetry spilled out on celluloid.
12. 'Jacob's Ladder'
Easily the best film of Adrian Lyne’s career, this 1996 emotional shocker casts Tim Robbins as a troubled Vietnam vet who is trying to get over the death of his son and collect himself to be able to live some semblance of a decent life when he begins having violent dreams and visions of monstrous appendages. The symbolic nature of these images, from a scaly tail creeping out from under a woman’s dress to a face covered over completely by skin, becomes more clear with the final shot, but even before that, the psychological damage that veterans are inflicted with is felt with potency and palpability that few wartime films have mustered over the years. Elizabeth Pena and Danny Aiello are both exceptional as Robbins’ Jacob’s lover and best friend, but Lyne’s atmospheric filmmaking, used to lesser power in Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, gives the dreamlike trajectory of the story a crucial, hypnotic visual timbre littered with dark spaces and heavy haze. Under the erotic-thriller specialist’s direction, Jacob’s Ladder becomes one of the most uniquely meaningful and politically attuned horror films to ever see release in America, leaning on an expressive barrage of disturbing and melancholic images rather than rote sentimentality and easy rhetoric.
11. 'Cape Fear'
Like all of Martin Scorsese’s great works, the director’s ferocious remake of J. Lee Thompson’s tense original, which pitted Gregory Peck against Robert Mitchum, deals with the dangers of wrongful incarceration and how imprisonment breeds violent temperaments, criminal behavior, and a general distrust of the justice system. In Scorsese’s version, crooked lawyer Nick Nolte is visited by wrongly convicted, tattooed madman Robert De Niro, who tortures, brutalizes, and seduces his family, friends, and colleagues in revenge for Nolte pulling unlawful strings to get him convicted in the first place. De Niro makes for a marvelous, frightening devil, whether during his attack on Illeanna Douglas or his breathless seduction of Nolte’s character’s daughter (Juliette Lewis), and the film brings in Peck and Mitchum for supporting roles, alongside Jessica Lange and Joe Don Baker. The striking anger of the film comes from the idealistic view that Nolte’s counselor holds himself in, while De Niro’s killer has become fully consumed with his bestial nature from his days in jail, dealing with creatures even more dangerous than himself. On the other hand, Scorsese never shies away from the ugliness of the violence and disturbing behavior of De Niro’s character, suggesting at once that his crimes are very real and worthy of punishment but they may not have ever happened had Nolte’s self-righteous lawyer let the original trial play out as it was meant to.
10. 'The Dark Half'
Though every one of his films is painted with his scathing brand of left-leaning politics, George Romero never got even half as personal as he does in The Dark Half, which was adapted from a Stephen King novel of the same name. Here, pulp horror novelist Thad Beaumont (Timothy Hutton), who writes under the name of George Stark, attempts to go straight and publish a more mature work of fiction after years of working as a schlockmeister, until a violent creature, calling himself George Stark, begins killing off his friends and work colleagues. To a degree, The Dark Half is a far more mature and established vision from Romero than the Living Dead pictures, Knightriders, or Monkey Shines, but it’s also strewn with brutal, sanguinary deaths enacted by the demented Stark. Like more than a few entries on this list, Romero hashes out his feelings over being primarily a genre filmmaker here, both by facing the resentment that he will never be fully acknowledged for his artistry but also admitting that these violent, horrid ideas and images are inarguably a part of his essential being. By extension, he reflects King’s own frustrations that he has only recently began to break out of, but the film delights in its anti-authoritative dalliances, finally coming to terms that there is talent and indeed art in horror as much as there is in coming-of-age stories or tales of marital infidelity.
For the most part, this J-horror classic keeps to the same plot turns as Gore Verbinski’s exemplary remake: there’s a video out there that once you see it, you die an awful, unexplainable death via (seemingly) a cadre of menacing spirits. Where Verbinski hung his hat on the journalistic investigation into the source of the tape and its confounding imagery, Ringu leans on imagery itself to replicate the effect of the tape on its victims for the audience, smash cutting to more bewitching and disturbing visions of a young woman with long black hair who twitches and contorts in unexpected ways. Like most of the best J-horror films, Ringu is not entirely interested in the logic of its story but rather in expressing the utter eeriness and unexplainable happenings that one would imagine occur around ghosts and sinister forces. In this respect, Ringu counts as one of the most hypnotic and unforgettable works of the sub-genre.
8. 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'
If nothing else, this is the one that will keep you up at night. The one that will have double checking if you locked all your doors and windows, even if you live in a safe neighborhood. Heck, the one that might even drive you to buy a gun. Michael Rooker’s performance as the titular sadistic murderer and the bracingly brutal actions he enacts throughout this movie is the kind of story buried in the smaller passages of those large collections of real-life serial killer stories that the strange kid in your high school class was pouring over during lunch every day. Director John McNaughton, who completed the film in the late 1980s but didn’t get it released until 1990, edits with clever use of time gaps and switches in the graininess of the imagery, but mostly keeps this monster as bare and realistic as possible to an effect that goes way beyond chilling. To give much of any of this revelatory study of violent psychosis and sociopathic behavior would ruin the sheer terror of what Rooker and McNaughton conjure up here. Watch with an acquaintance, and then never speak to them again if possible.
7. 'Lost Highway'
It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to concisely explain any David Lynch movie, but Lost Highway is a particularly challenging toss down the rabbit hole. At best I can tell, Bill Pullman plays an experimental saxophonist, who at some point is recast and played by Balthazar Getty, who comes in contact with a devilish creature, played by a terrifying Robert Blake in chalk-white make-up and enters a nightmarish state of being where very little makes logical sense. What I do know is that Blake is constantly holding a camera, and there’s a sense that Lynch is confronting the darkness that he taps into when he writes and shoots his magnificent experimental nightmare riffs, but even that cannot be backed up with much proof without revisiting the film enough times to constitute a thesis statement. Regardless, to say that Lost Highway is memorable and deeply effective in its wild, erratic, and aggressive assemblage would count as gross understatement, as would be the argument that Lynch is in total control of what he unleashes with this enigmatic, furious film.
Wes Craven’s masterwork shares some DNA strands with Alejandro Amenabar’s Thesis, but whereas Amenabar leaned heavier on the clinical tone, Craven indulges with colorful, anxious imagery that has denoted his pulpiest gore-laden delights, from A Nightmare on Elm Street to The Serpent and the Rainbow. The story itself, however, similarly toys with the moralism of enjoying horror movies, with Jamie Kennedy representing the giddy, know-it-all fanboy contingency and Skeet Ulrich representing the over-it seducer with Neve Campbell’s sanctified Sidney Prescott stuck in the middle as her friends and classmates are carved up by the now-famous ghost-face killer. Sure, there’s a minor kick in watching these stereotypes get gutted, cut-up, and, in one instance, crushed to death by a garage door, but Craven’s post-modern conception here brings an unfussy maturity to a genre that was always denoted for its general cheapness and impersonal feel. Scream marks perhaps the most personal and reflective of all the slashers, and represents a major turn towards big-budget horror as a place for burgeoning auteurs to hone their craft and flourish in distinct new directions.
5. 'The Vanishing'
As with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the true horror of this Dutch chiller, which originally was released in the 1980s but didn’t hit stateside until the 90s, is the patience and confidence that the filmmakers show in letting the unnerving truth of what happened after a young woman goes missing at a gas station unfurl in its own unique way. The story is split between the search manned by the boyfriend she was arguing with before she vanished and the family man who abducted her and made her suffer psychological torment that not even your worst enemy deserves. Director George Sluizer would go onto remake the film for the American budget, making the killer more demented and the boyfriend more heroic while tipping towards a happier ending to abysmal effect. The original film, titled Spoorloos in its home country, gets at the torture of not knowing what happened, of not being able to have a meaningful goodbye to someone you care about. The devastating, outrageous final moments reflect the lack of catharsis that often typifies the way people pass away, whether friends, lovers, or family, and how that itself can be the death of you.
4. 'Man Bites Dog'
You could label this French wonder as a mockumentary of sorts, but that descriptor seems too small for such an extravagantly depraved tour of hell. In essence, Man Bites Dog reimagines Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a pitch-black comedy, with a film crew following around the intensely charming and aggressive Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde), a serial killer who haunts the streets of France and flies into sudden, murderous ranges for seemingly no reason. Poelvoorde’s performance is a thing of sublime daring, inventive in its comic twists and unsettling in its more quiet, angry moments, but the film goes beyond the bravura acting to comment on the moral duty of filmmakers, specifically documentary directors. The director, who is seen on screen a handful of times, excuses and even joins in on murders, rapes, beatings, and even the execution of his crew members in the name of finishing his masterwork, aligning him with the immoral instincts of Ben but only worse because he sees some batshit righteousness in his ability to endure such horrors. Poelvoorde is actually credited as a co-director alongside Remy Belvaux and Andre Bozel, who appear in the film and co-wrote it with Vincent Tavier, which gives the entire project a potent reflexivity that still packs an ideological wallop some two decades after this wild thing was released stateside.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa remains one of the best directors currently working out of Japan, alongside Ozu disciple Hirokazu Koreeda, Koji Wakamatsu, and Hayao Miyazaki, but even if he had only released Cure, he’d have to be celebrated as one of the great masterminds of the horrific thriller. This supernatural curiosity begins with a series of murders, done for seemingly no reason, at least that’s the opinion of the man who is investigating the killings (Kurosawa axiom Koji Yakusho). The murderers have no explanation for their violent acts after they commit them, even though they readily admit to their deeds. When he thinks he’s found a suspect, he is blocked by the suspect’s inability to remember where he is, which day it is, and anything about his past. It’s no fair to divulge what happens from here, but Kurosawa’s filmmaking utilizes quiet and the shocking ordinariness of murder to striking effect in Cure, to the point that you don’t even fully realize what’s happening until its over. The bloodcurdling simplicity of killing is something that Kurosawa has returned to throughout his career, and he similarly never over-explains that supernatural bend of his narratives, keeping the viewer perched permanently at the edge of their seat.
David Fincher’s films often pivot on a central, cooperative relationship that is symbolic of the partnership between the writer and the director; one character is obsessed with facts, writings, and codes while the other seems to be obsessed with images and the look of things. In Se7en, his masterful second feature, that delineation is muddled a bit, as Brad Pitt’s wet-behind-the-ears detective seems to be more a moral reactionary to the heinous murders he follows with Morgan Freeman’s wise, cynical Somerset. Freeman’s detective knows the ropes, and sees the killings in terms of texts, as storytelling painted on a vibrantly violent canvas, whereas Pitt’s character sees the human side of things, the outrageousness of any person doing these things to another person.
In Fincher’s perpetually stormy metropolis of the damned, these two men come to hunt down the deadly-sins-obsessed serial killer who comes to be known as John Doe, played with bone-chilling restraint by Kevin Spacey, who offers another crucial perspective. While Pitt’s Mills is disgusted with the crimes, John Doe is disgusted by the acceptability of society, the way we’ve come to allow immoral and amoral people to thrive and live within. This configuration reaps a variety of dazzling insights into the nature of morality and godliness, and the pitfalls of cynicism, but this is all ultimately minor in comparison to how staggering Fincher’s technical abilities are, and how beautifully they drape around Andrew Kevin Walker’s script. There’s a great conceptual and philosophical backbone to Se7en, but that simply does not compete with sheer joy of watching the movie in all its gleaming grotesqueries.
1. 'The Silence of the Lambs'
Jonathan Demme can do anything. That sounds like a bold statement, but if you take a close look at his track record, the man has made some of the best films of the decade for the last three-to-four decades. This is true of his work perfecting the romantic comedy in Something Wild or putting some much-needed blood into the timely political drama with Philadelphia or redesigning the Altman-esque multi-character melodrama with Rachel Getting Married. Yet none of these successes are within the realm of his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, an almost operatic treatment of the horror genre.
Not for nothing is The Silence of the Lambs also a work of layered psychological confession and warfare. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter gets fleeting but substantial kicks out of breaking down the psychological walls that Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), a talented FBI cadet, has been building up in the fallout of her father’s death. And yet, it’s his needling of the cadet that brings her to become the stellar agent she becomes, through both offering her his opinion of the crimes and liberating her from her conditioned wanting for masculine security and dominance that she’s been looking for after her father’s death. The influence of Hannibal, another man, may signal a complication but Hopkins’ devious creation is a thing beyond power over others and when he’s done pressing the anguish out of Sterling, he relinquishes his power, leaving her calling after him, as if calling after her father one last time.
This is just one angle to take on this superb film – its views on sexuality are far more knotty subject matter – but like Se7en, the pleasures of the artistry on every level here supersede its vast intellectual applications. The acting, from Foster and Hopkins to Scott Glenn and Ted Levine, is continuously daring, attuned to physical and emotional nuances, and riveting in every sense of the word, and Demme’s direction is the kind of expert work that looks effortless on the outside and yet attains a kind of grace that few other films of any year can cop to. Over two decades later, I’ve seen The Silence of the Lambs well over 50 times and still don’t get tired of its visual and dialectical details, its contours never particularly predictable despite knowing nearly every line that is spoken. This is what progressive horror looks like, and it’s a shattering realization that only a handful of films have come within its sanctum since its release.