After decades of horror films, the 1990s were desperate for a reboot. While genres constantly evolve over time, the 90s were one of the most jarring, dodging the camp of the 80s and taking a hard left for films that featured realistic killers and inverting the rules of horror in both form and story.
The most direct case of this was 1996’s Scream. While this Wes Craven film had the bones of a classic slasher movie, complete with one of the cheapest looking killers, the movie challenged the tropes of the genre. One of the most prominent examples of this was how the film defied the expectations of the final girl by having two women survive, neither of them conforming to the traditional image of a pure virgin.
Scream consistently subverted the genre, from killing Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker, who was thought to be the lead, in the first scene to having two killers be Ghostface, with one of them having a personal motive – something uncommon for most slasher flicks. The film also referenced other horror movies, directly questioned the conventions of the genre with Jamie Kennedy’s Randy – the local film fanatic – and challenged the then popular notion that violent movies created real world violence.
“Don’t you blame the movies,” Skeet Ulrich’s Billy Loomis said as he stabbed Matthew Lillard’s Stu multiple times. “Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.”
The fascination about a villain’s psyche was something commonly explored in the horror films of the 90s, going all the way back to 1990’s Misery, which stripped away all the supernatural and scientific elements of the genre in favor of a simple story. By going this route, the film was allowed to breath and explore the mentality of Kathy Bates’s Annie Wilkes. Getting so personal with characters like Wilkes created a new sense of unease amongst audiences.
What could’ve led to this fascination about the criminal psyche and police procedurals was the mass amount of high profile cases going on during the 90s. Where the 80s were plagued with serial killers, creating a sense of fear in local communities, the 90s were dominated by news reports documenting the downfalls of some of the most notorious killers and criminals, including the Unabomber, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Gotti. With citizens feeling more at ease in their homes and more compelled by how these real life villains were brought to justice, horror movies started to focus on why killers were like this and how they could be stopped, as seen in 1995’s Se7en.
This movie followed the investigation of a John Doe killer whose murders were based on the seven deadly sins. Instead of having the killer stalk the protagonists like a traditional slasher film would, this movie focused on the detectives, Morgan Freeman’s Somerset and Brad Pitt’s Mills, putting the pieces together as well as the horror of the state Doe leaves his victims in.
Perhaps the most famous of these horror-thrillers was 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, which is one of the few horror films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. By having Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter analyze Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill, audiences got a glimpse into Bill’s psyche as well as the process an FBI agent goes through to create a criminal profile.
They also got the satisfaction of seeing the villain brought down by Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in the iconic night vision scene. This differed from a lot of other horror films about killers, which had the final girl getting a way but rarely bringing the bad guy down.
Outside of these crime based films, horror movies that still featured supernatural elements were also challenging what’s come to be expected in the genre. 1999’s The Sixth Sense in particular subverted all expectations through the story, taking audiences by surprise and giving new live to ghost focused narratives.
Meanwhile, that same year, The Blair Witch Project came out, challenging the way horror films were made with it’s found footage cinematography. This cheap, no glitz approach to filmmaking also aligned itself with the grunge movement taking place in the 90s by proving that creators didn’t need big budgets, name recognition or gimmicks to make something captivating and provoking.
Also in line with the grunge movement as well as the goth subculture of the times was the diverse catalogue of vampire films being made, which catered to the aesthetics of both communities. 1994’s Interview with a Vampire as well as 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula leaned into the romanticism and classicism of vampires with their presentation. On the other hand, 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn leaned heavily into the non-conforming and provocative side of vampires with over the top violence and sex appeal.
The 1990s was a restart for the horror genre to a certain extent. Both fictional films and news media went in depth about what made a killer, so audiences said farewell to the slasher genre and welcomed the crime thriller. For those who wanted something in the vein of past films without it completely conforming to those models, other movies were changing the rules of horror in narrative and technique.
Tired of traditional horror conventions, the 90s saw movies break the rules in form and narrative while also dabbling in the more realistic.