I have to admit, I almost skipped the 1990s. Initially, I originally didn’t remember many horror films from that era that I actually liked. There were too many slashers (ahem, Scream) and too many really bad remakes of really good older films (The Haunting, etc.). However, all I had to do was go back largely to the beginning of the decade to see some award-winning masterpieces, followed by international films that would shape the future of the genre.
Rob Reiner and William Goldman, who previously brought you The Princess Bride, now bring you… Misery. A charming little tale of an overzealous fan who keeps her injured favorite writer imprisoned in her remote home. Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for her performance, is brilliant as Annie Wilkes and James Caan is likewise great as her victim, author Paul Sheldon. The scenario plays like a good chess match, being tense, smart, and even witty. The psychotic Annie is frightening at times, even resorting to breaking the author’s ankles. The film plays marvelously, and Stephen King himself has called it one of his favorite film adaptations.
What can be said that hasn’t already been said about The Silence of the Lambs? Winner of five Academy Awards, including the Oscars for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture, the film is a cinematic masterpiece, a game of such cunning between the lead characters of F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling and the psychologist-turned-cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter that both Hopkins and Foster put in the performances that will perhaps define their careers. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Dracula is the only story whose adaptations appear four times on this list. This is a very unique, stylish telling of the story, though, despite the title, being little closer to the novel that the previous versions. Particular attention in this version should be paid to Gary Oldman’s star turn as Dracula (playing the vampire in many different incarnations and easily holding his own beside Lugosi and Lee), Anthony Hopkins as his genius, eccentric foe Dr. Van Helsing, and singer-songwriter Tom Waits in amazing form as the lunatic Renfield. The film is filled with Christian theological imagery, yet blending in elements of eastern thought such as reincarnation that almost fits with the east-meets-west makeup of the storyline itself. Although visually stunning (with one of its three Oscars won for best costume design), one of the biggest stars of the movie may still be the unique score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar.
Please forgive the director for casting Keanu Reeves, the only weak point in the cast. He tries.
The film that introduced Guillermo Del Toro to the world, Cronos is a vampire film that plays like a heart-rending drama without wholly loosing its element of horror. Like many of Del Toro’s later films (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth), much of the story plays out through a child and an adult she loves very much. Federico Luppi is a kindly grandfather who wishes for youthfulness. When a robotic golden scarab injects a solution into him, he achieves a vigor that he has not seen in years, but at what cost? His transformation into a vampire-like creature is both disturbing and heartbreaking, a hallmark of Del Toro, and the film is marked with the wise casting and cinematic beauty that would be even more fully achieved in the director’s later films.
Perhaps few films would have more impact on the horror genre for the next decade than Ringu. While overshadowed by its American remake, The Ring, the original established the story and the aesthetic of the film copied by the remake. Uniquely creepy in its imagery and more raw that the remake, Ringu began a trend of importing and remaking horror films from the Asian market, though none as successful as The Ring, and being a visual inspiration for many knock-off American films for years afterward. While many of those were weak relications, however, Ringu stands as a truly creepy, truly chilling entry from Japan into the horror canon.
(Cover image: a still from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)