Gen Z is beyond obsessed with Y2K, but for many ’90s nostalgia reigns supreme. The decade that brought us cheesy classics like Titanic and Forrest Gump wasn’t only about sentimentalism — we also had plenty of scares.
Although 90’s horror is often remembered as mindless dreck, the 90’s actually birthed some of the most critically acclaimed horror films ever made. It’s true that plenty of movies followed the most obvious formulas, but others were deconstructing the genre itself: smartly playing with the cliches of horror to make something starkly new. Meanwhile, while J-Horror was only of interest to the United States in the early ’00s, Japan was laying the blueprint for what would come in the genre long before Western cinephiles would take note in the new millennium.
In celebration of long-forgotten classics, critical triumphs, schlocky remakes, and under-appreciated gems, we’re counting down our favorite 1990’s horror films in this unranked list: ranging from Oscar-winning thrillers to low-budget legends.
As per the title, Arachnophobia is a spider-filled horror comedy starring early 90’s icons like John Goodman, Jeff Daniels, and Frances Bay. Although it’s mostly played for laughs, the movie racked up wins at the esteemed Saturn Awards. Even the notoriously anti-horror film critic Roger Ebert loved it!
Despite its immature sense of humor, Frankenhooker is a crudely glamorous movie about a man who reanimates his wife using body parts he harvested from — you guessed it — a prostitute. Rife for drag parody, the movie’s quirky aesthetic has made it a camp classic.
Bearing almost no resemblance to the original film, Gremlins 2 is a parody of 1980’s hypercapitalism told through cartoonish histrionics and postmodern humor. The special effects are both laughably absurd and oddly endearing. In over-the-topness, this sequel far outshines the original.
The epitome of coulrophobia, this two-part, made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s most notorious novel has some truly cringeworthy moments — but Tim Curry will live forever as the most legendary evil clown in cinema history.
In yet another Stephen King adaptation, Kathy Bates is stunningly terrifying playing a horror writer’s biggest fan. When she discovers her idol is injured following an unfortunate accident, she takes it upon herself to care for the fallen scribe — but she refuses to ever let him go! Bates snagged an Oscar for her part in this oddly violent, minimalist film — despite the academy’s hatred of horror.
Tom Savini, perhaps the greatest horror special effects designer in history, re-made the original zombie movie in 1990. With an assist from the original film’s director, George Romero, this reinvention of the classic mythos doesn’t quite hold up to the first movie — but has garnered cult esteem nonetheless.
Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster are perfect foils playing cannibal psychologist Hannibal Lector and Special Agent Clarice Starling — locked in a respectful intellectual rivalry, Starling tries to penetrate Hannibal’s impervious mind in the hopes of catching a serial killer, before it’s too late! Silence remains one of the greatest horror movies ever made and is often cited as a cinematic achievement, despite certain aspects of the movie not aging so well.
David Fincher’s Alien 3 is usually thought of as one of the weaker entries in this ongoing franchise, but it’s still pretty good. Lieutenant Ellen Ripley crash lands on a prison planet and hopes to warn the incarcerated population about the xenomorph she just encountered, but her efforts are too little, too late. She once again must watch those around her be torn down by a vicious bio-weapon with mysterious origins.
Winona Ryder, Gary Oldman, and Keanu Reeves appear in this lushly gothic thriller but the real star is the late costume designer Eiko Ishioka, whose gorgeous vampiric couture elevates this from a droll adaptation into high art.
Kristy Swanson stars as the eponymous teenage heroine of this camp classic. Although the TV series on which this movie is based is often better remembered than the original film, the movie’s got just as many deadpan laughs and quick witted quips as the widely beloved show.
Candyman got a revival this past year with Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta’s sequel, but the original is a slyly avant-garde masterpiece masquerading as a horror film. Phillip Glass’s moving and menacing score creates a deeply unsettling atmosphere for this introspective film about race and class.
David Lynch’s surrealist soap opera Twin Peaks concluded with a cliffhanger — and his decision to revisit the haunted town several years after the show’s final episode didn’t help clarify anything at all. Without having seen the series, this movie won’t make any sense — and it still might not even if you’ve studied every aspect of the show. That being said, Fire Walk With Me is an aesthetically beautiful and absolutely frightening exploration of sexual trauma.
Although it became a cultural touchstone for anyone who identifies as goth, The Crow feels oddly goofy in retrospect. That being said, those big black trench coats and that ridiculous makeup are somehow both absurdly outdated and oddly fashionable these days! The tragic death of star Brandon Lee tends to overshadow this film, but he is unforgettable as the spooky protagonist of this accidentally campy classic.
Based on the enduringly unnerving literature of American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness explores the cosmic terror of a vast and uncaring universe as otherworldly forces begin awakening in small-town America. Reality begins to unwind when an insurance agent investigates a missing novelist — but what apocalypse is brewing underneath this seemingly banal mystery?
Anne Rice’s sexy vampire fiction is brought to life in this zany yet insidiously romantic horror movie starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as a homoerotic duo of undead lovers. While the gay storyline is hardly subtext, the movie plays it safe with actual depictions of vampiric sodomy. Meanwhile, a young Kirstin Dunst camps it up as a demonic child with a sadistic streak.
By 1994, the Nightmare on Elm Street series had already jumped the shark — but one last attempt at reviving Freddy was made in this smartly self-referential horror film in which Wes Craven and the film’s cast members play themselves — fighting an entity that the iconic horror series has accidentally brought to life through the collective unconscious.
Scientists clamor to stop an alien-human hybrid from propagating her species — but her impossibly seductive powers could bring ruin to all of humankind! In this erotic sci-fi story, Natasha Henstridge plays an outer-space siren that could spell disaster for planet Earth.
An entire generation of social outcasts grew up repeating catchphrases from this story about teenage witches using the dark arts to get revenge on their hateful classmates. Fairuza Balk is beyond iconic as the fashionable goth Nancy Downs, who is driven mad by her sudden mastery of black magic. (Do NOT bother watching the reboot from 2020.)
Scream broke all the rules of slasher cinema by saying them out loud: this postmodern deconstruction of horror movies’ biggest cliches essentially re-wrote all the tropes and defied expectations through subtle subversion of the most obvious formulas. Audiences were scandalized at the time by the shocking, early death of Drew Barrymore but remained transfixed by Neve Campbell’s harrowing battle against a relentless masked murderer.
The premise is simple: after an ill-fated encounter with a mysterious old man, Billy Halleck (played by Robert John Burke) simply can’t stop losing weight, no matter what he eats. His body functions begin to fail as he wastes away from an obese businessman into a hollow shell of a human. The ghastly special effects are satisfyingly gruesome, even if the concept is a bit, well, thin.
Joss Whedon and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s unlikely team up is at times disastrous and at other times oddly brilliant. Although Jeunet is better known for his twee romance film Amelie, he’s always been a sci-fi director — and his skill at highlighting the endearingly grotesque is on full display in this under-appreciated continuation of the Alien franchise. Meanwhile, Winona Ryder and Sigourney Weaver are an iconic on-screen duo.
Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Jon Voight, and Ice Cube make up the cast for this delightfully stupid horror-comedy. Although reviewers hated this movie deeply, it wound up scoring big at the box office and spawned an almost endless amount of sequels. We’ll spare you some jokes about Sir Mix-A-Lot wanting none.
A hyper-violent, Kafkaesque metaphor about the meaninglessness of life, Cube begins when several strangers wake up inexplicably trapped inside some kind of complicated torture device. As they attempt to escape the bizarre machine, they consider how they got trapped there — and why someone would subject them to such malice.
Often unfairly compared to Scream due to its similarities as star-studded teen slashers, Last Summer is a much more straightforward murder mystery (no postmodern shenanigans here). Sarah Michelle Gellar continues her reign as the Supreme Scream Queen of the 1990s while simultaneously revitalizing slasher cinema in this beloved, 80’s-influenced whodunnit.
Guillermo Del Toro directs this sci-fi story about science experiments gone wrong: bioengineers, in an attempt to control an out-of-control cockroach population, accidentally create a monster with a thirst for human blood! Del Toro’s unmatched sense of whimsy and unique object styling is easy to spot, even this early work by the auteur.
Scream 2 is perfectly self-aware in its realization that the only thing more cliche than a slasher is a sequel. While it seemed impossible to match the iconoclastic wit of the first Scream film, the second came close with equally-as-clever subversions of horror truisms, while simultaneously developing an ongoing mythos around its cast of oddball characters.
The world wasn’t exactly crazy about superheroes in 1997, and Todd McFarlane’s visually stunning and deeply nasty story about an undead caped crusader didn’t help endear the American public to comic book adaptations. Nonetheless, the movie’s out-of-control visual aesthetic is far from forgettable, even if reviewers hated it at the time.
The visual styling of Blade predicted the rise of afro-goth fashion long before certain disparate subcultures had properly converged. Wesley Snipes is impossibly cool as a leather-clad vampire hunter — and his fetish-y looks made him a style icon. Blade is considerably darker and much more stylish than the endless superhero tripe we get these days; nonetheless, the film is often credited with helping establish the rise of superhero cinema.
Chucky had been terrorizing America in several films before he met his match in Tiffany, a serial killer fangirl turned into a murderous doll. Child’s Play films before this were much less comedic, but Jennifer Tilly introduced a playful campiness and undeniable sartorial smarts into the franchise, cementing her status as a legendary scream queen.
Filled with 90’s teen heartthrobs like Josh Hartnett, Clea Duvall, Elijah Wood, and Piper Laurie, The Faculty took a sci-fi spin on high school horror. John Stewart makes a memorable cameo as a possessed teacher in this movie about extraterrestrials invading an unsuspecting suburb.
The chronology of several Halloween sequels was totally erased with this continuation of the Michael Myers story, which picks up with PTSD-suffering Laurie Strode (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) attempting to eradicate her attempted-killer once again. H20 rebooted the Halloween story and is remembered as one of the franchise’s better films — even though this movie’s events were also retconned when the franchise was rebooted a second (and third!) time in the interceding years.
Gus Van Sant’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s most notorious movie couldn’t hold a candle to the original but is a sometimes unintentionally hilarious attempt nonetheless. Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Vigo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Vince Vaughn star in this almost shot-for-shot re-envisioning of the Norman Bates story that is — stunningly, somehow — much better than it’s often given credit for!
Based on the novel by Koji Suzuki (often considered the Stephen King of Japan), Ringu was later remade into the beloved American horror film, The Ring. Although Gore Verbinski’s adaptation is much easier to swallow, Ringu was starkly original when it was released in 1998 — and the cursed videotape depicted within it remains a surrealistic and nightmarish triumph of meta-filmmaking. Sadako differs significantly from the American haunted girl Samara, and it’s interesting to see the character’s original context — even if the movie sometimes doesn’t make much sense.
Often unfairly dismissed as “torture porn,” Takashi Miike’s Audition is a brutal critique of Japan’s harsh cultural standards around femininity. Beware: although smart and often poetically beautiful, the movie is relentlessly violent and features extremely long and unbearably realistic scenes of sadistic torment.
Blair Witch is often considered one of the most profitable horror movies ever made — thanks in part to its gimmicky marketing campaign, which asserted the movie was real found footage and that its stars had actually gone missing. Accidentally avant-garde, the movie utilizes frightening minimalism to depict its protagonists’ journey into the woods of Maryland, where they encounter a series of dark occurrences.
When a team of biologists genetically engineer a pack of hyper-intelligent sharks, things inevitably veer towards disaster. Samuel L. Jackson is particularly absurd in his role as a deep-sea scientist, and the movie is both purposefully and accidentally hilarious.
Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luke Wilson, and Lily Taylor have a truly weird synergy in this baroque haunted house thriller in which participants of a sleep study come up against supernatural forces. The set design is oddly astounding considering how bad the script is, but there’s something undeniably loveable about the film’s absolute commitment to excess.
Jaws, but then make it a crocodile: that’s the concept. While the premise is simple, the movie is actually far more action-packed — and Bill Pullman is effortlessly cool, as always. Nothing too sophisticated here, just a goofy, good-time monster movie with a few moments of ultra-violence.
A perfectly delicious artifact of late 90’s shlock, The Rage copies the original Carrie’s concept in a beat-for-beat sequel filled with absurd style flourishes and an oddly emotional story underneath. Emily Bergl has awkwardly inspired the protective instincts of audiences for decades, and it’s hard not to feel something for the psychokinetic protagonist in this kitschy follow-up that no one really asked for.
Sleepy Hollow hits all the predictable Tim Burton cliches (swirls, stripes, Halloween-adjacent tricks and treats) but remains a stylish sendup of the eponymous American myth by Washington Irving. Johnny Depp plays a deranged Ichabod Crane (re-imagined by Burton as a sort of steampunk forensic scientist) opposite Christina Ricci — both decked out in lavish costumes by Colleen Atwood.
Incomparable to horror movies from the West, Wild Zero is a queer punk musical about zombies, rock and roll, gay love, and motorcycle gangs. The music by Japanese punk band Guitar Wolf is lo-fi rock heaven, and the movie’s wacky undead antics are both putrid and oddly heartwarming.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up for this bonkers story about vampires invading a biker bar. Salma Hayek’s role as a crazed vampire queen is unforgettable, as are the movie’s cartoonish depictions of violence.
Speaking of cartoonish violence, Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness stars the devilishly handsome Bruce Campbell in a continuation of the Evil Dead series. Protagonist Ash Williams is transported to the Middle Ages where he fights an endless array of miscreants from Hell in a veritable gauntlet match filled with truly silly amounts of bloodshed.
An oddly cerebral and experimental horror movie, Jacob’s Ladder is a contemplation on post-war trauma and schizophrenia. “Hope is hell’s final torment,” said director Bruce Joel Rubin, summarizing the theme of this nightmarish venture into the depths of psychosis.