90s Horror Movies

Exploring horror's overlooked decade

Bats

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If someone made a film about killer bats in 2014, starring Lou Diamond Phillips and a member of the cast of Starship Troopers, that film would be shown on the Sci-Fi channel and then immediately be relegated to one of those 10 movies for 5 dollars on one DVD set you buy at Wal-Mart when Wal-Mart is in the same shopping center with a bar and you’re wasting time in the electronics department at 3AM while you’re trying to sober up enough to drive home. But in 1999, Bats was in fact released into the theaters, and despite the fact that it starred Lou Diamond Phillips and a member of the cast of Starship Troopers, Bats did make a profit of a few million dollars. The killer bats don’t even look too fake.

Bats tells the story of a small Texas town which is invaded by super intelligent killer bats which were Frankensteined into existence by an evil scientist played by the warden from Shawshank Redemption. The CDC calls in a bat expert (Dina Meyer, the hot redhead from Starship Troopers) to find the bats, along with her goofy, squeamish assistant (Leon), and together with Lou Diamond Phillips as the opera-loving sheriff of the small Texas town where the bats are attacking, they have to find the bats’ hideout before the US military destroys the whole area.

Bats moves at a fast pace, and sports some amusing smartass dialogue exchanges, especially between Phillips and Leon. The entire movie offers the same charm as most horror movies set in small town Texas, where you get the sense that places where quirky people living in a one-street business district really would try to fight off unnatural monsters with simple shotguns while Maria McKee plays on the jukebox. There’s not a lot of gore here, but Shawshank fans may enjoy seeing the warden’s ear ripped off by a swarm of his creations. Best of all, from my old-school feminist standpoint, Meyer’s hot but tough scientist character is not written as a “tee hee I’m a scientist who’s a girl, can you believe it” moron, nor does she have to suffer through the horror cliche of falling in love under duress. As a late entry into the monster movie canon, Bats is more fun than it has a right to be.

Although I recommend Bats as a B movie time waster, what I’d really like to direct your attention to here is the presence of one Carlos Jacott as The Man From The CDC. Not that he really has enough of a part to distinguish himself here, but he stars in what is hands down my favorite 90s movie about slackers going to college, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming from 1995. Jacott will forever be in my heart as Otis, a character who captures the essence of that friend we all had in college who made you ask yourself daily, “is this guy a genius or an idiot?” You can find Kicking and Screaming on Netflix streaming.

P.S. On the marquee of the movie theater on the town’s main street you can see Nosferatu advertised. I like to keep track of legible marquees in movies, as they often feature a movie of better quality than the one in which they appear.

Event Horizon

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You don’t have to go to the county fair to ride the Gravitron! Woooooooooooo!!!!!!

Synopsis: In 2040, a manned ship called the Event Horizon disappeared while exploring our galaxy out beyond the planet Neptune. Now it’s 2047, and Sam Neill is having the worst nightmare ever, about a naked woman with no eyes. He wakes up and he’s on a spaceship with Laurence Fishburne, Kathleen Quinlan, and Joely Richardson, and everyone rebuffs his efforts to thank them for letting him on the ship. They all go into suspended animation, where Neill has another horrible dream. They wake up, and we finally find out that Neill has been sent by the NSA to find the Event Horizon because they’ve received a distress signal from the ship. Those sneaky bastards at the NSA had told the public that the ship blew up, but really the circumstances were a secret because get this: Neill is a super scientist who built some kind of Gravitron that could bend space into a U shape and then poke a hole in our dimension and travel through another dimension to get to a far-off place quickly. Fishburne and company are pissed because they are basically a bunch of military dudes who have been forced to go on this mission with spooky Dr. Neill. They’re gonna be even more pissed once they actually get on the Event Horizon and everything goes to hell, because something very bad came back with the ship from the hole in the other dimension, and it wants to kill everyone in nasty ways while making them have a really bad acid trip without drugs. Strap in!

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Good: Event Horizon is scary as hell. There is gore, like the flashes of the Event Horizon’s captains’s log which shows the old crew tearing each other apart with their bare hands. There are jump scares in the form of hallucinations, mainly the new crew seeing people they know from Earth who either couldn’t possibly be there because they’re back on Earth, or who couldn’t possibly be there because they are dead. So, there’s enough gore and jump scares to placate your average horror fan.

But if that’s all you need to enjoy a horror film, then I literally feel sorry for you. This film would have been scary without all that crap going on. You may have heard that Event Horizon is Hellraiser in space, just because someone ends up on hooks, but it’s not. It’s The Shining in space. It even has large amounts of blood bursting through a door and a naked ghost lady suicide rising out of a bathtub. The undefined thing on board this ship reaches into people’s minds and shows them things they’ve never told anyone. It can possess them and make them kill others, or themselves. This entity is what everyone who considers the possibility of dimensions beyond our own fears most. It is hell, and it is here in our plane of existence, and it can make you turn into a demon. Event Horizon has an emotional and physical effect on me every time I watch it, even though I know what is going to happen. The airlock scene had me shaking and crying when I watched this the other day, and I actually felt physically cold for the entire film. Best of all, the set of the film includes one of those rooms with a metal platform surrounded by a spinning wall, like you see at the Ripley’s Believe it Or Not museum, that gives you the feeling that the platform bridge is swinging, so you can imagine what it does to the crew, and to the viewer of this film.

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Bad: Everyone I have discussed Event Horizon with says it scares the shit out of them, going back to middle-aged redneck men who rented it from the video store where I worked in the 90s, and now including my husband, who told me the other day that he was one of the approximately five to eight Americans who actually saw this in the theater. The problem is that not that many people have seen Event Horizon. Perhaps they were frightened away by the “giant heads staring at you” poster format that plagued the 90s, a poster which in this case makes it look like a space action film. It is in some ways a space action film, especially in the sense that Fishburne’s character becomes a victim of the trope in which a captain did not save a former crew member and is now doomed to repeat the experience. So that element of action waters down the terror in a way by removing the focus, not to mention that Fishburne’s hallucinations are the only ones that are explained. And viewers really hate having to connect the dots for themselves. Also, we are never told exactly what is haunting the Event Horizon. But I don’t mind connecting my own dots, and I think Event Horizon is a serious contender for best horror film of the 90s.

So I’m just speculating on why this film seems to be underrated; none of these “bad” things actually bug me. However, I must as always make the disclaimer that not only do I have bad taste, but I am also very open to suggestion and have a certain ability to suspend disbelief. My best friend once convinced me with no effort at all that the older square guy in tie-dye sitting behind us at the Grateful Dead show was master troll Newt Gingrich, so make of that what you will.

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Verdict: Maybe this is a horror movie with a bit too much of an action feel, but a space film with no action is just some guys on wires in a set ripped from a Geiger drawing. I love Event Horizon, and I believe that in a parallel universe it was a huge hit. Watch the edited but good enough version on Netflix streaming, and then get the collector’s edition DVD so you can see even more blood and shots of the naked thing that is haunting Sam Neill.

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Miscellaneous: Why does Sam Neill always look deranged? He appeared in two of the biggest film hits of the 90s, on opposite ends of the artistic spectrum (Jurassic Park and The Piano), and never changed expressions. Even at the end of Event Horizon, where he has no eyes, he still has crazy eyes.

Also, have you noticed what fun it must be to write science fiction? Science fiction is ridiculous. You don’t have to make it make sense. If I was any good at writing fiction I’d be all like, “Yes, you see, Dr. Bailey has managed to go into the lab and make this hallucinogen out of manioc seeds from the Pirahã people down in Brazil; when you ingest it you can cut a backflip and actually disappear through your own asshole into your immortal soul for the next 12 hours, forever removing the need for modern psychiatry. But something comes back with one man into the teeming metropolis of Jacksonville: the dreaded ASS DEMON.” And then someone would give me 11 million dollars to make that picture.

Ringu: Kanzen-ban

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This 1995 TV movie was the first movie to introduce viewers to the tragically evil Sadako, who has now reset the clock to come and get me in seven days. She has been after me since the 2002 American remake, but hopefully I can get one of you to track down and watch this, thus sparing me.

Here a male reporter who has been demoted to some kind of undesirable editorial position is riding in a taxi when he witnesses a motorcyclist dying of heart failure and fear at 12:50 AM. Across town, at the same moment, the reporter’s high school aged niece also dies, and two teenagers having sex in a car bite the big weenie in the sky as well. Our protagonist begins to investigate despite his boss’s warning that he needs to do the work he’s actually assigned, and ends up in a vacation cabin watching one of Sadako’s crappy shot on video experimental films. (I’m only making fun of this movie because I’m so scared, whistling in the graveyard and all that.)

Realizing he is about to die, the ex-reporter turns to a college professor/parapsychologist who is the reason he was demoted in the first place, and the two of the set out to catch them an angry ghost girl. Except this time she’s a ghost woman, but not really, because she has a little something in common with Old Gregg. And the reporter’s pregnant wife watched the tape, oh no! Will these guys figure out how to stop that angry Sadako-san?

First of all, I would not be my usual juvenile self if I didn’t point out that either Ringu: Kanzen-ban was made for cable, or Japan has some different rules about TV censorship, because there are nooodz in this movie. If you ever wanted to see a woman with weird puffy nipples getting her pixelated crotch munched on shortly before her demise, this is the movie for you! Also, Sadako gets nekkid, which is something I would think no one ever had wanted to see if I wasn’t all too familiar with the internet and rule 34.

But aside from that mature commentary, I have to admit that Ringu: Kanzen-ban is a pretty enjoyable movie. I especially liked the fact that Sadako’s motivation, powers, and origin are very well explained in detail. Even though the back story is different from the one we’re used to, it’s nice to have one other than “she gets mad and burns things onto tapes and horses don’t like her.” There is a great subplot about psychic phenomena, and some very disturbing shit about Sadako’s family life as well as her brief adult life. Would you believe she moved to the city to become an actress? Although the cheap effects don’t allow her to be as jump-scare frightening as we have seen her in more recent appearances, the creepy story more than makes up for the hokeyness if you’re into TV movies.

Best of all, the title I have given you is an alternate title, and the IMDb lists the actual title for this film as Ringu: Jiko ka! Henshi ka! 4-tsu no inochi wo ubau shôjo no onnen, which I believe translates to Accident, or strange death? The young girl that steals four lives. That has to be in competition for one of the longest movie titles ever. If you can find this movie, I highly recommend it for Ringu fans and J-horror fans, not only because it could save my life if I get you to watch it, but because it’s a fun spook show.

 

The Haunting of Hell House

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When I first heard about The Haunting of Hell House, I thought, “Oh great, they ripped off two movies in one.” But as it turns out, only the title is a ripoff; the story itself is adapted from a Henry James short story called “The Ghostly Rental,” so this one pre-dates either Shirley Jackson or Richard Matheson. It’s not a movie I expected to find lurking in the 90s, because gothic horror had its heyday back in the 60s, but The Haunting of Hell House does share one thing with the 60s gothic horror boom: producer Roger Corman. And like the Corman films of the 60s, this updated Victorian horror is surprisingly good.

A young college student knocks up his girlfriend, which is akin to social suicide for them both in the time period. So he takes her to a back-alley abortionist, aka the only kind of abortionist of the day. Surprise, surprise, she dies. Because they trysted in an old haunted house while she was alive, she now joins the ghosts that were already there. A professor at the unlucky boyfriend’s school not only owns the house, he also has some ghosts of his own, and the two men form an unlikely association. But time is running out for both of them, because the older man’s health is fading, and the younger man is wanted by the police for murder. Will the ghosts get them first?

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Star Andrew Bowen almost did not convince me at first in his role, because he spoke more like a nineties person than an upper class Victorian, and he was the only one talking that way. I would have expected better diction from a person such as he was portraying. But he did manage to convey the appropriate emotions, and even make me feel sorry for him in his fear and grief, although he was a girlfriend-destroying pig. Michael York as the older man gave it everything he had. When I see him, I usually think of his character in Cabaret no matter what, but here he became the haunted old professor. But the best actor in the film was Bowen’s character’s roommate, played by Jason Cottle. He really threw himself into the role of 19th century gentleman scholar, even providing some much-needed comic relief. I think he stole almost every scene he was in.

The ghosts themselves are my favorite kind of ghosts: people in makeup who appear and disappear. There are none of those ridiculous computerized ghosts to be found here. And although this is obviously a B movie, it does have atmosphere. Everything is damp, muddy, windy, and gray, and the winter scenes actually inspired me to grab a blanket to sit under while I watched. Is it a scary movie? Not at all, but the mystery is engaging enough that I didn’t care. And the truth is, just as in “Turn of the Screw,” we’re never sure if there are any ghosts, or just manifestations of guilt. Ambiguity is always fun for me.

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The weirdest thing about The Haunting of Hell House is that I had never heard of it before last weekend when my dad caught it on TV and recommended it, but then I found it streaming on both Netflix and Amazon Prime. So someone is giving this somewhat overlooked older film a push, maybe because of the recent success of The Woman in Black remake. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Woman in Black 2012 as well, and I’d love to see gothic horror make a comeback. For now I just binge on 60s horror when I’m in the mood for cobwebs and candelabras. What about you? Have you seen any decent gothic horror from the last 15 years? Do you think the subgenre is due for a renaissance?

In the Mouth of Madness

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I’m not sure if In the Mouth of Madness is underrated, but I have never heard anyone include it among their favorite Carpenter films. In fact, I have never heard anyone mention liking it at all. But sometimes things fly under my radar, and to tell the truth I wasn’t super interested in watching horror movies in 1995 when this came out. However, after watching this today, I can tell you that when they invent the time machine, I’m going back in time to watch In the Mouth of Madness during its theatrical run. I think this movie kicks nine kinds of ass.

As the film begins, Sam Neill is being dragged literally kicking and screaming into the mental hospital as an amused John Glover watches. Neill kicks one of the guards in the balls, and as they are cramming him into a padded room, he yells out his first real line of dialogue: “I’m sorry bout the bhaaawwllls!” Now that right there is funny. A few minutes later, David Warner appears, and you know that can’t be good. He comes into the padded room to interview Sam Neill about whatever the hell has led up to his commitment, and it’s flashback time…

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At some point in the past, Neill is working as an insurance fraud investigator catching bad guys for a company owned by Bernie Casey, when none other than Charlton Heston as some kind of big time publisher is accused of fraud because one of his authors has disappeared. And Bernie Casey doesn’t believe the author has disappeared. This author, named Sutter Cane, writes horror books that have a tendency to make people lose their minds, and Sam Neill starts seeing a bunch of shit that may or may not be there; also, Cane’s agent attacks Casey and Neill with an axe because he has lost his damn mind.

So Sam Neill and a hot chick who is Cane’s editor set off into the middle of some New England state looking for a fictional town using a map Neill constructed using cut up covers of this guy Sutter Cane’s paperback books. Act II begins and the car, with the chick driving and Neill asleep in the passenger seat, flies through the night air and through a magically appearing covered bridge. On the other side of the bridge, they find themselves in daytime in the fictional town, and something is very wrong.

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I don’t want to say a lot more because what happens in Act II and III is so awesome, but I will say that the entire tone of this film is that of intentional comedy, which as we have discussed before is common to 90s horror, and is something that seems to throw people off. I mean, the first thing gleeful John Glover does after Neill is locked up is to turn on “We’ve Only Just Begun” on a loudspeaker, all the mental patients start singing along, and Neill complains about The Carpenters. Get it? Carpenter? I think Neill is purposely playing his role as very smarmy, and that all subtlety in every performance is in fact thrown out in favor of theater style ACTING as if the cast was not on a screen, but on a stage playing to folks up in the balcony. (Except for Jürgen Prochnow as Cane; he is unaccountably underplaying it as the character who is probably the villain, but that just adds to the weirdness.) And at the end of the film, which has become by that time some kind of fictional metafiction, the credits don’t include any of the names of the leading actors in the film, as if they were their characters. And then there’s the matter of the following disclaimer at the end of the credits: “Human interaction was monitored by the Inter Planetary Psychiatric Association. The body count was high, the casualties are heavy.”

On a more serious note, I think In the Mouth of Madness is meant to be a comment by Carpenter on the bullshit claim many people like to make that horror films and fiction cause violence, only he was a bit late to make such a comment. Argento was commenting on criticism of his work in 1982 with Tenebre, and I’m sure there are other examples of such a response in film form by a director. Not only that, but Carpenter has demonstrated a running theme throughout his work of an end-of-the-world scenario via people’s bodies being taken over (The Thing, Prince of Darkness), but this movie is unique in that it is literally horror fiction that takes them over; it should be noted that the people this happens to first are intellectually vulnerable in some way. I really don’t know what this body invasion as the end of the world theme is symbolic of, especially coming from a horror auteur. If you have an idea, please tell me in the comments. But no matter what Carpenter was trying to say, this movie is the kind of thing that pleases me, as there is a handsome lead actor and everything is very surreal and trippy.

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I also think it is significant that this is essentially a detective story, but instead of the main character being a regular detective, he works for an insurance company. This is because nobody likes to see an insurance company win. Neill’s character at the beginning of the flashback is sleazy and paranoid, with a mocking, overconfident air, and there is little to distinguish him from the fraudsters he is trying to catch, morally speaking; this leads naturally into the part of the story when things really go to la la land, where we are not sure if he is a good guy or a bad guy,  and whether he is crazy or telling the truth.

It’s not often that we see a surreal horror film like this as a major release, what with the Old Ones and the town in another dimension. I thought while watching this that if this was a b-movie starring Ron Palillo or someone like that, people would have been more forgiving of its perceived flaws (I could find none, but there is some reason I’m not seeing this on any best-of lists), but A list horror films are expected to be Oscar material. What this comes off as is a John Carpenter version of a Stuart Gordon film, with Lovecraft source material and Industrial Light and Magic sound effects. I don’t have a problem with that, but I get the idea that some people did when it came out. What do you think of In the Mouth of Madness, if you have seen it? Do you think that horror works better when it is independent, and if so, why? Personally, I love this movie, and found it to be one hell of a pleasant surprise, especially since I had expected it to be mediocre.

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