< Horror Film History — Horror Films in the 1990s

Horror movies of the 1990s: Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Jacob's Ladder, Scream, The Sixth Sense, New Nightmare, Serial Killers

Psychos and Po-Mo: Horror in the 1990s

By the end of the 1980s horror had become so reliant on gross-out gore and buckets of liquid latex that it seemed to have lost its power to do anything more than shock and then amuse. Peter Jackson's Brain Dead (1992) epitomises this; a riot of campy spatter, it climaxes with a zombie orgy through which the bespectacled hero must cut his way with a lawnmower. It's hilarious, and not scary in the slightest. The original creations of the late 1970s/early 80s were simply pastiches of their former selves, their power to chill long having disappeared in a slew of sequels and over-familiarity. It seemed that horror had become safe, a branded commodity (Jason, Freddy, Michael) bringing easy recognition and a rigid set of expectations. The uncanny had somehow become the norm, tame and laughable.

However, each generation needs something to be scared of, and yearns for its fears to be fairly represented on the screen. Finding no satisfaction in sequels and pastiche, Generation X got its own special brand of boogeyman: the serial killer. It can be argued that the so-called psychological thriller took precedence over horror in the first half of the 1990s, and indeed, many dark, disturbing films of this period describe themselves as thriller, not horror. Yet directors such as Jonathan Demme were adopting the codes and conventions of the horror genre, when pacing their plot, when representing their characters, and when manipulating the shock/suspense mechanisms of their audience. It's just that they weren't admitting to making horror films, thus avoiding any association or comparison with the splatter crew. There was a perceived need, as there was at the beginning of the 1960s, for adult, intelligent horror, and it was provided in the form of disturbing, violent thrillers such as Silence of The Lambs. As horror appeared to run out of original ideas, more film-makers turned to re-making old ones, re-interpreting old narratives through a postmodern, 1990s lens. Hence movies like The Exorcist III, which plays not on society's anxieties about its children, but about its old and infirm, and A-list, big budget re-workings of the two classics, Dracula and Frankenstein.

Psychokillers - It's Always The Quiet Ones

Perhaps as a reaction to the splatterfests of the 1980s, and an attempt to create "horror for grown-ups", the 1990s presented monsters that were far more mundane. Ever since Anthony Perkins revealed Norman Bates's taxidermy collection in Psycho (1960), audiences have proven susceptible to the charms of that mild-mannered mother's favourite, the slightly stammering serial killer. Psycho, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,Silence of The Lambs, American Horror Story:Asylum and numerous others, takes inspiration from the murders committed by Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein.

Momma's Boy

In 1957, America was by turns horrified and fascinated by the details of Gein's case. The residents of Plainfield, Wisconsin had known him as 'Weird Old Eddy' for years, but they were as shocked as anyone else to hear of the grisly human remains he was hoarding in his remote farmhouse. Police investigating the robbery of a local hardware store turned up to question Gein and discovered among other things, an armchair with real arms, a belt made of nipples, a bowl made from a human skull and a table made with shinbone legs. Apparently. Gein's macabre brand of handicraft at once captured and repulsed the American imagination and the modern cult of the serial killer was born. But why the fascination? Not only did this man transgress by committing the act of murder, but he trampled society's taboos by fetishising body parts, fashioning them into useful household items and taking a grotesque pride in his work. Surely this fell so far outside the realms of normal human behaviour that it qualifies the perpetrator as totally inhuman, a man-monster, as abhorrent a creation as Victor Frankenstein's experiment? How could he be so totally different from the rest of us? Was he that different.?

Serial killers throughout history have always made good folk heroes, from Dick Turpin to Dr Crippen. Their stories told in legend and ballads, and in the 'penny dreadfuls' of the nineteenth century, mass murderers were always guaranteed a notoriety that lasted long after the last scrap of flesh had rotted from their corpse gently swinging from the gibbet. Even into the 21st century their popularity shows no signs of dwindling. The search term "serial killer" throws up thousands of sites on the internet, and there are electronic shrines dedicated to individual criminals, as well as pop songs, TV shows, paperbacks, comic books and, of course, movies. Serial killers are often represented as having more-than-human powers, which is where movies about them stray into the horror genre, rather than being thrillers; although the monster is human, he has a supernatural edge which makes him all the more frightening.

A serial killer fulfils several functions within a film's narrative structure. He (or much more rarely, she) can play the part of villain, or antagonist, obviously, and can provide a worthy opponent for the protagonist. However, serial killers onscreen are often portrayed as being supremely intelligent or cunning, and find it easy to foil 'those dumb cops'. Audiences respect this intelligence, and a well-played killer may excite our sympathy as much as our distaste; it's the Iago factor. In Shakespeare's Othello we are presented with a villain who is as reasonable as he is evil, a villain who pours his heart out to the audience and a villain who, in the hands of the right actor, might outshine the bumbling hero. Serial killers in movies (rarely in reality) communicate with their pursuers, forging a bond through enigmatic phone calls and notes. In some ways they can appear as the Helper, aiding and abetting in their own capture. Sometimes they reciprocate respect with the particular agent or officer assigned to their case, and show them kindness: Hannibal Lecter gives Clarice Starling help in solving the Buffalo Bill case in Silence of The Lambs, and Jonathan Doe spares David Mills's life in Se7en. Are we meant to like the killers? Perhaps not, but they exhibit shreds of sensibility and humanity which mean we can't altogether hate them. Is Lecter a villain or an anti-hero?

Serial killers are those who, by definition, enjoy killing and seek their thrills repeatedly. This puts them outside the normal boundaries of humanity. Serial killers, also by definition, manage to kill several times before being caught, their skill at escaping detection perhaps suggesting extraordinary good luck, or supernatural powers. They are not ordinary human beings, and as with any aberration from the norm, we prefer to see them as monsters. There are many films about serial killers, some of them excellent (Silence of The Lambs, Se7en) some of them dire (Resurrection, The Bone Collector). The better ones include:

Pre 1990s

  • M (1931)
  • Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)
  • Manhunter (1986)
  • Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)


Film Year Director Country Plot
Silence of the Lambs
Jonathan Demme
Fledgling FBI agent tries to track down trophy hunting serial killer with the aid of jailed psychopath. Stylish and disturbing, with two Oscar-winning performances from its leads
Man Bites Dog
Rèmy Belvaux
Documentary crew follow day-to-day life of serial killer as he goes about his business. Black comedy, but very thought provoking. The best thing ever to come out of Belgium.
Dario Argento
Anorexic girl tries to figure out why some hooded guy decapitated her parents... and keeps on decapitating her neighbours. Tame for Argento, but nonetheless a bloody and brutal film, with a fascinating riddle at its heart.
Dominic Sena
A writer and photographer get more than they bargained for as they research a book on serial killers and get exposed to the real thing. Similar themes to NBK, good performances, but lacks Stone's flair with images.
Natural Born Killers
Oliver Stone
The definitive serial killer couple movie follows the fortunes of Mickey and Mallory as they slash their way across the Mid-West. Distasteful, excessively violent, morally vacuous - a sharp satire on the cult of the serial killer.
Se7en 1995 David Fincher USA Perhaps the most gripping serial killer movie ever made
Jon Amiel
A psychiatrist is trapped at home by agoraphobia, and must pursue the killer who threatens her via her computer. The killer's MO involves imitations of 'Famous Serial Killers from History'
American Psycho
Mary Harron
Patrick Bateman, folk hero of our times, stalks the upper echelons of New York society. Or does he?

Serial killer movies exist on the cusp between horror and thriller, and which category they fall into depends on several different factors - how they have been marketed, the representation of the killer, the final resolution (does it suggest order - ie the police rounding up the killer and locking him away, or disorder, with a continued threat?), and the nature of the characters who pit themselves against the killer (are they professionals - lawyers, police, private detectives, even doctors? Or ordinary individuals fighting for their lives?).

Se7en (1995)

One movie which deserves special attention is Se7en (1995). Jodie Foster described it as "about as close to a perfect film on the topic as I can think of". Dark, unremittingly pessimistic, with a plausible, reasonable, honest, empathic killer at its core, this is a masterpiece.

Set against the perpetually rainsoaked backdrop of an un-named modern city, David Fincher (best known at this stage for directing some Madonna videos and the disastrous Alien3) presents us with a narrative that, at first glance, seems straight out of the "young cop-old cop" buddy movie textbook. Morgan Freeman is Somerset, the quintessential middle-aged cop who is about to retire, in this case counting down seven, yes that's se7en, more days on the force. Brad Pitt is the equally quintessential David Mills, young, hot-headed, with beautiful wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) in tow. It seems easy to second-guess the script from here on in - initially the two cops clash, but are brought together by a common goal, and grudgingly gain admiration for each others' working methods. We can confidently predict some sort of showdown with an as yet unseen antagonist, in which the two cops need to depend on each other for survival. Se7en provides us with all this, but it twists the conventions in such a way as to be breathtaking.

Grand Guignol setting of a crime scene in Se7en

Structurally, Andrew Kevin Walker's script entwines itself around the number 7; 7 days for Somerset to survive, 7 victims for our killer to provide, 7 deadly sins for Mills to identify, key events on the hour of 7 - the symmetrical world of horror fiction. Yet Walker confounds his own conventions, handing his killer over after just FIVE murders. That killer is John Doe; small, subdued, seemingly incapable of atrocity, but speaking for the dark heart in all of us with a character-defining monologue in the back of the police car:

We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's common, it's trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I'm setting the example. And what I've done is going to be puzzled over, and studied, and followed... forever.

It can be argued that Doe does not commit the murders himself, he merely facilitates them, the Lust crime in particular. He takes the sin that is in people and skewers them on it - if they did not sin they would not die. John Doe is Everyman, that figure of reason straight out of medieval literature. He is us and we are him; the convergence of antagonist and audience, the ultimate voyeuristic thrill.

Further Reading


Jacob's Ladder: Supernatural... Psychological... What's In A Name?

Jacob's Ladder contains no serial killers, but it too occupies the space between the horror and thriller genres. The original trailer (view here) with its flashes of screaming human faces, crashing/exploding vehicles, flapping birds and talk of demons, suggests a horror film, some kind of ghost story or tale of demonic possession. The voiceover intones "Every day Jacob Singer goes to work, and every day he wonders what is happening to him", implying that the hero is some kind of victim, beset by forces that are targeting, at the very least, his sanity. However, the story, which deals with the journey between life and death of a Vietnam casualty, is conceived on a much grander, spiritual scale than a simple genre piece. The screenplay (by Bruce Joel Rubin, writer of Ghost) was originally a discourse on the nature of heaven and hell, and Rubin wanted orthodox medieval images of demonology to represent the forces besetting Jacob. However, director Adrian Lyne wanted something that hadn't been seen before, and settled on a concept of twisted flesh he dubbed "thalidomide". He cast Tim Robbins as Jacob, against type, wanting Robbins' boyish innocence, and innate joy in existence to play against the darkness of the character's gradual unravelling. The obvious choice would have been someone "gaunt" (like Christian Bale in 2005's The Machinist), but this kind of manifestation might have sent the character too far over the edge of human experience. Robbins' guileless face roots the narrative in reality: Jacob struggles to deal with many horrors, but they never overwhelm him, or mark him permanently, meaning that redemption remains within reach.

Lyne eschewed CGI for in-camera special effects, preferring something that was really happening to optical illusions created in a lab. The infamous scene where Jezzie (short for Jezebel, Jacob's girlfriend) appears to have sex with the devil on the dancefloor at a party was achieved using life-size models and shot in real time, albeit with strobe lighting. To capture Jacob's expression as the demons whirl around him at the party, a camera was strapped to Robbins, lens in his face. Very intimate, and authentically conveys the disorientation he feels at what he is seeing.

What we are seeing is never clear, as some kind of hideous winged figure writhes around Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena), intertwines its tail between her legs and finally brings her to orgasm by thrusting its horn out of her mouth. Or so it seems. Jacob flips, upon seeing what he thinks he is seeing, but is castigated for his overreaction to nothing upon waking the next day. Jezzie: "I have never been so mortified in my whole life." Was Jacob wrestling with his own libidinous shame or his girlfriend's public infidelity? Other effects, such as the 'corridor to Hell' which Jacob traverses on a hospital gurney are disturbing precisely because they are genuine, existing in real time and space, as opposed to digital code. Inspired by the art of Joel Peter Witkin, Lyne takes a leaf out of Tod Browning's book and populates his hellish hospital with real-life thalidomide flesh, individuals with foreshortened limbs. This is not trick photography, this is real. The only trick is the 'fast head' motion, with the actors waving their heads around and filmed at 4 fps so they can be speeded up for normal projection. This attention to realism is jarring for the viewer, the special effects appear especially disturbing as they are distortions of reality, as opposed to an imposition of the artificial. Jacob's Ladder can be categorised as horror on the strength of its special effects, which are specifically designed to shock and frighten the viewer, they flash up on the screen and create more enigma rather than reveal the clues necessary for deciphering a thriller.

However, given the benign philosophy at its heart and the absence of a specific threat, it is difficult to classify Jacob's Ladder solely as a horror film. Instead it can be viewed as a movie which uses the paradigms of the genre to convey a sense of spiritual wonder. In The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror David J Skal comments

"By the 1980s, special effects in the popular media were the closest encounter with the miraculous that a secular culture could muster; the vast appetite for transformation illusions bespoke a deep, unmet hunger for images of transcendence and transfiguration".(p313)

Jacob's Ladder uses the patterns of a horror film to speak of the miracles of life and death. In terms of transcendence and transfiguration, there is a transformation scene intended for near the end of the movie, when Jezzie reveals her true self to Jacob. The effects of her skin transforming lead Jacob and the audience to anticipate some kind of horrific monster, but, ultimately, Jacob is looking at himself. Jezzie has been his inner demon all along and can only be exorcised by the self-awareness he has achieved. Lyne took this scene out after test screenings- it left the audience "catatonic", with too many things to deal with. In a spiritually vague world, with old beliefs disregarded, Jacob's Ladder (and Ghost) deal with the "deep, unmet hunger" that Skal mentions, for answers about our existence and what happens at the end. It demonstrates the fluidity of the horror genre, and the purposes to which its paradigms can be put when not directed solely towards the vilification of horny teens.

Postmodern Headcheese

When it seemed that there was nowhere new for the horror narrative to go in the early 1990s, one of its main auteurs, Wes Craven, decided to adopt a self-reflexive approach. Rather than trotting out another linear rehash of the "monster chases kids and kills them one by one" model that had come to dominate the genre, Craven chose to explore the horror narrative from the inside out. Horror films are usually extremely artificial constructs; audiences expect illusion and trickery, that the story will follow genre rules, rather than those of reality, and that events and characters will be contrived to fit the needs of the story, rather than any attempt at representing the truth. No one expects a horror film to be realistic or literal; they are usually viewed as allegories. Craven exploited this, and created a pair of postmodern movies that played off their formulaic forerunners.

He acknowledges that one of the main pleasures of viewing a horror movie involves knowing what will happen, and addresses this directly in dialogue. Thus the characters experience events in a self-aware fashion ("No, please don't kill me, Mr. Ghostface, I wanna be in the sequel! "—Tatum in Scream ), and consciously break the rules of survival ("Never say "who's there?" Don't you watch scary movies? It's a death wish. You might as well come out to investigate a strange noise or something. ") . This definitely offered something fresh for audiences; the approach didn't patronise them, or expect them to accept ludicrous plot holes. Instead,the form, and awareness of the conventions of that form, rather than the content alone, provides the fun.

John Carpenter also had a go at po-mo, with 1995's In The Mouth of Madness, based loosely on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

General Introduction To Postmodernism - useful context

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994)

"Every kid knows who Freddy is. He's like Santa Claus or King Kong."

After the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, New Line managed to crank out no less than five sequels in the subsequent decade. Freddy, a figure of true menace in the first instalment, was reduced to a stripey clown, the Halloween costume of choice for eight year olds. No longer capable of inducing chills, he resorted to making his audience cringe with terrible one-liners. However, in 1994, his creator, Wes Craven, decided to reclaim the franchise and wrote and directed the seventh entry himself. New Nightmare is a thoughtful piece of movie-making, addressing some thorny topics, such as the responsibility movie-makers have for their horrific creations. It breaks down the 'fourth wall' of movie-making, with actors, writers and even the producer playing themselves, on and off a film set, in the process of making a new Nightmare movie. Pirandello would have been proud.

Heather in an SFX workshop, on the boundary between dream and reality

New Nightmare uses a film set as its setting - a low budget solution to the problem of creating a viable reality onscreen, certainly, but also a way of exploring "the difference between one's imagination and one's life" (as Craven put it). In the original movie he blurred the boundaries between waking and dreaming, and in New Nightmare there is overt scrutiny of the separation between imagination, the screen story and what we perceive to be real life. Heather Langenkamp plays herself, as an actress ten years on from playing Nancy. She starts experiencing nightmares that make her suspect that her screen arch-rival, Freddy, has broken through into reality and is stalking her family. Initially, her fears seem groundless - how could a fictional character pose a threat to those responsible for his creation? Her husband, Chase, works in a special FX shop, engaged in the construction of a mechanical knife-wielding hand (very evocative of Freddy's glove), and he sees no reason to be concerned. Film is just an industry, a factory churning out illusions. However, when Chase is killed after falling asleep at the wheel, Heather's worst fears are confirmed, and she must figure out how to kick Freddy back into the realm of nightmares.

She finds out that Wes Craven is writing a new Nightmare screenplay based on the scenes he dreams each night. Craven tells Heather that Freddy is simply a representation of a demonic force. That force was trapped safely for a while in the stories that were told about him, but once its essence was mishandled, once Freddy was reduced to a figure of fun, the demonic power is let loose.

“It's about this entity, whatever you want to call it. It's old, very old. It's existed in different forms in different times. It can be captured sometimes... By storytellers, of all things. Every so often, they imagine a story good enough to capture its essence. Then, for a while, it's held prisoner in the story.... But the problem comes when the story dies, and that can happen in a lot of ways. It can get too familiar to people, or someone waters it down to make it an easier sell, or maybe it's just so upsetting to society that it's banned outright. However it happens, when the story dies the evil is set free.

The only way to control it is to create a new Nightmare On Elm St, that once again restrains the evil inside the limits of a narrative. This means Heather must adopt her Nancy identity, and face off against Freddy. She is reluctant to do so - she feels she has outgrown the horror genre and perhaps feels guilty about the way she profited from terror in the past - but Freddy respects the fictional power she once had over him. He is also using her child, Dylan, as his main route into reality - the kid appears with a home-made version of Freddy's glove (kitchen knives taped to his fingers) less than an hour in. This plays into Heather's guilt about her past - Dylan has seen all her movies, and this may, according to a child psychiatrist she consults, be causing the boy to behave in a bizarre and violent manner ("I'm convinced these films can tip an unstable child over the edge"). Heather must draw on her fictional persona of Nancy to reprise her role as gatekeeper, and lock Freddy out of our world forever. It's the only way for her to reclaim her son's sanity and stability - and, perhaps, make amends for the damage she has done.

Dylan channels Regan and taps into every parent's Nightmare

New Nightmare works on a number of different levels. It lacks the raw shock value of the original, or the kinetic dream-spaces of A Nightmare On Elm St 3: Dream Warriors. However, it does provide the audience with a different set of thrills - constant references are made throughout to other horror movies, bringing pleasure to the cognoscenti. Previous Nightmare entries are quoted (Freddy's tongue emerges from a phone, and the stairs turn spongy). Dylan, shown clutching a dinosaur straight out of Jurassic Park, harks back to some of the monstrous children of the 1970s; he spouts green goo like Regan in The Exorcist and his haircut brings Damien to mind (a similarity supported by a Carmina Burana reference in the score). A shadow on a wall is directly evocative of Nosferatu.

In addition to this intertextuality, and its exploration of the essence of illusion and fear, New Nightmare also deals in debate. It grasps the Media Effects nettle (does watching violent movies make kids violent? If there was no movie manifestation of Freddy, would Dylan be taping kitchen knives to his fingers?), and the narrative touches on parental responsibility (a squeamish Heather baulks at reading the gory details of Hansel & Gretel to Dylan), the effects of horror movies on those who make them (would you really trust Robert Englund as a babysitter, despite his mild-mannered demeanour in reality?) and the age-old question of why we feel the need for such warped storytelling, and bring such monstrous creatures to life with our imaginations. All-in-all it's a thoughtful, multi-layered movie, which may explain why it didn't play too well with a predominantly teen audience (who else would go to a theatre and see the latest Freddy flick?). It grossed just over $18M domestically, a long way behind Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) which turned over almost $35M in the US. It was received positively by critics, however (a whopping 84% on Rotten Tomatoes), and remains one of the most distinctive horror movies of the era.

Freddy Krueger's Creator Breaks Out of His Genre - New York Times (9 October 1994)

Scream (1996)

It was inevitable that those who grew up with the slasher series of the 70s and 80s would one day want to parody them. Step forward Kevin Williamson. Supposedly inspired by a news story about "the Gainesville Ripper", Danny Rolling, Williamson conjured a tale about a group of high school students who fall prey to a serial killer. Fully aware that they are tumbling through a series of slasher clichés, the characters make constant allusions to Freddy, Michael and Jason as they head for the inevitable bloodbath at the hands of a masked killer. The references are obvious (quips about Sharon Stone's knickerlessness now seem extremely dated) and laboured (the final scene of Halloween is playing on a TV in the background for the entirety of Act Three, just in case you didn't remember what happens to Jamie Lee).

Wes Craven loved the script, and signed on to direct, despite some of the disparaging comments made about "Wes Carpenter flicks". Where New Nightmare attempts to make audiences think about the process of consuming a horror text, and consider the effect that it may be having on their psyche, Scream encourages them to gorge like it was fresh pizza, and screw the calories. The Media Effects debate is trivialised ("Movies don't create psychos, they make psychos more creative") and all the characters desensitised to violent death.

Randy: Listen up. They found Principal Himbry dead. He was gutted and hung from the goal post on the football field.
Drunk teen: Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go over there before they pry him down!

Scream is a crowd-pleaser from the get-go, its wit is accessible, and none of the references too arcane. It makes its audience feel like they know more about the horror genre than perhaps they actually do - the allusions are restricted to a narrow band of mainstream American movies from the 70s and 80s. The nerve-twanging opening sequence aside (Drew Barrymore is excellent as the doomed Casey), true horror moments are few and far between. Nonetheless, the movie scored major box office success ($161M worldwide) and spawned, not just sequels, but a whole sub-genre of lame horror comedies. It seemed that the core teen audience preferred easy laughs to scares, just like in 1948. Despite its billing as a comedy, it unfortunately inspired its very own copycat murders — a sign of how much the times had changed since the days of Abbott and Costello.


Further Reading