Psychos and Po-Mo
In the 1990s, horror movies shifted away from the grotesque masks, buckets of liquid latex, and half-naked co-eds that had defined the genre during the 1980s. The hedonism had to stop somewhere. Repetition, as in the 1940s, threatened to destroy the genre. Over-sequelization meant the original creations of the late 1970s/early 80s had become pastiches of their former selves. Once-terrifying figures wisecracked their way through the same old plot points. They never truly triumphed but avoided defeat, ready to come back from the dead again and again and again. Jason, Freddy, Chucky, Pinhead et al had become as plastic and unthreatening as their action figures. It was time for horror to head back into the shadows, where it belongs.
As in previous decades, 1990s horror movies suckled on contemporary fears and spat them back as fiction. The first Gulf War and recession of 1990-2 set the cultural tone at the beginning of the decade, as the negative consequences of deregulation and rampant capitalism began to have an impact. A small elite had profited from the ‘Greed is good’ mantra of the 1980s, but many were left much worse off – and it would take a couple of decades for them to realize how badly. Major news events (reported globally on the new 24 hour news channels) such as the LA riots (1992), genocide in Bosnia (1992) and Rwanda (1994), the OJ Simpson trial (1995), illustrated the giant cracks in society. The LA riots brought the conflict to Hollywood’s doorstep, causing shockwaves through the power centers of the movie industry. Even though the Cold War was over, people were still being force-fed plenty of reasons to fear, and increasingly, hurt the Other: skin color, gender, sexual preference, religion, addiction, disease, political ideology.
1990s horror movies also reflected fears about the approaching end of the millennium. Were ancient prophecies about to come true? Would the year 2000 trigger the sequence of devastating global events known as the Apocalypse? Followers of new religious movements in Texas (the Branch Davidians, 1993) and California (Heaven’s Gate, 1997) died en masse for their beliefs. Were they right to opt for early salvation? Were the rest of us, left behind, damned for all time? Thankfully, none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up at the tail end of 1999 to save us in End of Days.
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, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Frankenstein.
Across the board, people turned away from the comic excesses of 1980s pop culture. No more hair metal! They rejected neon utopia and sought simpler, more authentic entertainment: stripped back, acoustic, raw, real. A lot less fun. Grunge became the key aesthetic in music and fashion. Horror was part of the trend – horror movies of the 1990s lean towards brown palettes, their muted, earthy tones conveying fin de siècle decay.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) dir. Robert Rodriguez pic.twitter.com/cqX17j4hIC— CINEMA PALETTES (@CINEMAPALETTES) July 26, 2015
1990s horror – and the cynical Generation Xers who made up the bulk of the 15-24 audience – needed new kinds of movie monsters to match this somber mood.
Serial killers became the go-to threat for horror movies in the 1990s. The success of The Silence of The Lambs had a lot to do with this trend, but there were other factors in play – including budget. At a B-movie level, serial killer narratives, which don’t require special effects mayhem, were more economical to shoot than a typical 80s splatterfest and became a favorite of the robust straight-to-DVD market. On a more subconscious level, the focus on human monsters in the 1990s functioned as a mirror to society. Horror movies have always performed this role, reconstructing the worst aspects of human experience as dark fairy tales. In fiction, unlike reality, the monster is vanquished and sunlight peeks through at the end.
There were plenty of senseless killers in the news, from head hoarder Jeffrey Dahmer (arrested on July 2, 1991) to the Hutu extremists who slaughtered 800,000 people over 100 days in Rwanda in 1994. And, thanks to the rise of the 24 hour news cycle, TV audiences were exposed to more sensationalized Who? What? Why? details of crime scenes than ever before. A high-profile case, such as the Austin Yogurt Shop Murders (1991), Nicole Brown Simpson (1994) or JonBenét Ramsey (1996) powered more than just nightly headlines. Court TV, launched in 1991, initially focused on broadcasting trials, creating an appetite for minute by minute updates. To fill time between court sessions, audiences were treated to commentary by expert witnesses of all stripes (including specialists in the latest investigation tool, profiling). True crime, in all its gory, gritty, hard-hitting glory, dominated primetime.
The horror genre, always sensitive to the zeitgeist, went in the same direction- but further. Entertainment must always trump information. While true crime ties itself in knots pretending to be educational, it’s a complicated and guilty pleasure. Our moral value system dictates that, within a non-fiction framework, killers should never be regarded as heroes. Serial killers are degenerate, deviant, damned. Their stories should be told in a manner that’s instructive, not salacious, functioning as a cautionary tale for both would-be murderers and murderees.
Fictional horror faces no such constraints – it’s pure entertainment. Serial killers in 1990s horror movies can be simultaneously charming and cutthroat. In some cases they’re simply slashers with their masks off. Others are more complex characters, assigned just as much screen time as the cops and FBI agents on their tails – and given just as much character development. Filmmakers didn’t have to look far for source material. Airport bookshops were bursting at the seams with crime bestsellers, fiction, non-fiction, and somewhere in between, all ripe for big screen adaptation.
Many dark, disturbing films of this period were marketed as psychological or procedural thrillers rather than horror, which carried the taint of 1980s overkill. Nonetheless, many thrillers of this era use horror paradigms for pacing, character representation, and shock/startle mechanisms. Production designers also evoked Gothic and baroque genre conventions when building sets.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs is, on one level, a straightforward procedural thriller, the story of a dedicated agent who follows her instincts, defies her superiors, and catches a serial killer. However, the presence of a caged monster, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, complicates matters in a most intriguing way.
He changes everything about the story, pulling focus from the central murders, making fools of the main players, and redirecting the protagonist to places, internal and external, she really doesn’t want to go. He’s human, but only just, possessing near-supernatural intelligence, strength, and luck. When he kills, it’s the opposite of mindless or casual. Each death is an intricate part of his grand plan, each corpse elaborately displayed. Every time he deals death, he reaches for the sublime, a state that inspires awe and terror in spectators.
Like Frankenstein’s Monster (and many others) before him, Lecter is more than aware of his incompatibility with humanity and wishes only to be left in peaceful isolation. In the first act, he plays the noble beast, accepting his imprisonment benefits the greater good. Hence his initial courtesy towards Clarice.
If Lecter’s captors behaved with the same level of courtesy, all would have been well. However, the self-aggrandizing Dr. Chilton refuses to acknowledge Lecter’s superior nature and thinks he can trick his prisoner-patient. Chilton’s hubris is everyone else’s downfall. Offended, Lecter abandons all pretence and leans into his true nature. The petty attempts of various guards, doctors, even a politician to stop him are as laughable as they are grotesque (a strait-jacket, hockey mask, shackles). Lecter wants to be free, so he becomes free, annihilating anyone who gets in his way without once increasing his heart rate. Within the visual codex of the movie, he finds transformation easy – unlike the ‘true’ villain, Buffalo Bill. Inexorable, he sheds his caterpillar-skin and takes flight to the tropics where he finds a way to settle his score, once and for all, with Chilton.
The Silence of the Lambs won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Actress, and Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Lecter – and Anthony Hopkins portrayal of him – redefined the serial killer for the rest of the decade. He was the civilized sociopath 1990s horror movies needed in order to move on from the clown hordes of the 1980s. In the following years, Lecter inspired many imitators (including a literal Copycat) as audiences sought out more screen stories about dispassionate, meticulous killers working to their own version of a divine plan.
After the success of The Silence of The Lambs, it was inevitable that other filmmakers would set their sights on super-smart serial killer box office gold. Se7en (1995) presents us with another murderer distinguished by his creative intelligence. Additionally, Jonathan Doe (Kevin Spacey) occupies exalted moral ground. Like Nietzsche’s Madman, he speaks the ugliest truths in order to expose society’s deepest flaws. He shows us how far we have fallen to encourage us to rise. All this elevates him to the supernatural level where gods and monsters dwell. His carefully executed homicides aren’t just artistic, they’re instructive. They’re meant to shock people out of their excessive lust, gluttony, sloth, pride, greed, wrath and envy. At the end of the millennium, this means they’ll be better prepared for the imminent end of days.
Spiritual Wonder in a Secular World
“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.”The Monster Show by David J. Skal, p.313
Numbers can have a strange effect on cultural consciousness. A date with three zeroes, which only occurs once every thousand years, seems significant – even though it’s the result of an arbitrary system. People start to panic, especially if they think the date change is going to wreak havoc on their computer networks. As the year 2000 loomed, concerns about the ‘millennium’ (once a term used only by Biblical scholars) seeped into daily discourse. What would happen as the twentieth century of the Common Era rolled into the twenty-first?
Many Christian prophecies predicted big things in and around the year 2000, including God’s final judgment (probably via nuclear war), the second coming of Jesus Christ, plus the arrival of the anti-Christ, and the elaborate sequence of Apocalyptic events foretold by John of Patmos. Religious leaders from Jerry Falwell to Sun Myung Moon galvanized their faithful with time-sensitive predictions about the coming of Armageddon and the beginning of Christ’s thousand year reign on earth.
However, Bible scholars were still arguing about where 2000 fitted into divine mathematics, specifically the 7,000 years maximum of world history promised in II Peter 3:8 (“one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”). In 525, when the monk Dionysius Exiguus calculated the Western world’s dating system with Jesus’s birth as ‘0’, he may well have been out by a few years. Technically, the new millennium might begin in 1996. Or it might not. It was the end of the world as we know it for the entire decade.
Some people handled their fears and uncertainties about 2000 by stockpiling food and weapons and building family-sized bunkers out in the desert. Others recommitted to their religious faith. Still others soothed their pre-millennial angst by examining the signs and wonders presented to them in that last refuge of the secular mystic, the horror movie.
A number of 1990s horror movies reflect this unique existential anxiety. Rather than exploring big issues of good vs. evil, sin vs. repentance, eternal life and final death through a Catholic lens (like in the 1970s), this new era of horror takes a less-doctrinal, more humanist approach. If you have no faith, are you frightened about what happens after you die? Jacob’s Ladder and The Sixth Sense have some thought-provoking answers. Worried that, outside of a religious framework, the bad deeds of others go unpunished? Try Candyman. And, as always, for those who can’t bring themselves to believe in gods, vampires (Interview With The Vampire; Bram Stoker’s Dracula; John Carpenter’s Vampires; Blade)served as a handy tool for exploring what it meant to be more than mortal.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Jacob’s Ladder contains no serial killers, but it too occupies the space between the horror and thriller genres. The original trailer 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. Like The Shining (1980) it has been interpreted and reinterpreted on many different levels by fans, who read it as everything from a prediction of 9/11 to an exposé of occult influence in Hollywood.
Candyman explores the power of belief in folklore, rather than religion. Graduate student Helen (Virginia Madsen) investigates local stories about the Candyman, who appears if you say his name in the mirror five times. Apparently the Candyman was once the wealthy, successful son of a slave. After he fathers a child with his white lover, he’s lynched by envious white folks. He’s been prowling ever since, eager for bloody revenge. For some, he’s just a creepy urban legend. For others, he’s a real, malevolent presence with the power to destroy lives. Helen is first fascinated, then compelled by the Candyman. She’s sucked into his story so deeply she’s blamed for some of the murders he has committed. Ultimately, she chooses to intertwine her fate with his. Immortality as a folk villainess has got to be better than rotting away anonymously in jail, right?
Candyman is based on a short story by Clive Barker, The Forbidden, which appeared in his Books of Blood anthology in 1985. Barker worked with writer-director, Bernard Rose, to transpose the original Liverpool setting to Chicago’s blighted Cabrini Green housing project. This adds the all-important racial angle, which gave black horror one of its all-time icons. Tony Todd’s portrayal of the fur-coated Candyman, honeybees dripping from his ruined face, is one of the standouts of 1990s horror. Rose described his reasons for making that change to Fangoria in 1992:
Candyman’s thrust is metaphysical instead of political. My element of social criticism asks how people can be expected to live in squalor, because the housing authority has allowed Cabrini Green to rot instead of trying to maintain it. But Candyman really poses the question that if God exists because we believe in him, what would happen to him if the worship ceased?… People have a deep need to believe in something beyond themselves, especially when they’re living in an appalling place like Cabrini Green. They could be shot at any time, but a creature like the Candyman could do something far worse to them. That belief allows the people to dodge bullets in the stairwells.”
- Candyman: Why this Racially Charged Horror Movie Is Scarier Than Ever by Evan Narcisse, Rolling Stone, October 31, 2018
The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan’s debut blew audiences away in 1999. The Sixth Sense is a classic ghost story that plays with the boundaries between life and death and what might happen as we cross over – like Carnival of Souls or Jacob’s Ladder before it. Made for $40 million, it grossed almost $700 million at the box office, making it the highest earning horror film of all time, until It in 2017.
In the Philadelphia-set The Sixth Sense, child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) works with a young boy, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) whose crippling anxiety stems from – as he tells Crowe – his ability to “see dead people”. Cole’s inability to fit in with normal society has driven his mother, Lynn (Toni Collette) to her wits’ end. However, Cole believes he has a duty to help the wraiths he sees find peace, from an abused teenage girl to a cyclist who is the victim of a road accident.
The Sixth Sense appealed to audiences for many reasons, not least the sterling performances from Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment (both Academy Award nominated) and Bruce Willis (sadly not). This trio of actors give the characters an emotional depth that carries what might otherwise be just a gimmicky twist movie. They also sell, very convincingly, Shyamalan’s secular vision of life after death as an ordered, orderly line. As the world turned towards December 31st, 1999, it was comforting to think that, no matter how cruel and sudden our demise, we might find compassion and understanding on the other side.
- M. Night Shyamalan and Haley Joel Osment reflect on The Sixth Sense
- How The Sixth Sense Conquered Hollywood in 1999 – by David Sims in The Atlantic, August 6, 2019
Postmodernism in 1990s Horror
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.
—General Introduction To Postmodernism – useful context
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.
In The Mouth of Madness (1995)
John Carpenter offers his take on postmodernism with 1995’s In The Mouth of Madness. It’s based loosely on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, whilst also being a satire on the work and popularity of Stephen King. King’s oeuvre lends itself to this kind of self-reflexivity: has any other horror writer written so many books about horror writers writing books?
Sam Neill stars as insurance investigator John Trent. He’s sent by publisher Jackson Harglow(Charlton Heston) to track down the whereabouts of bestselling author, Sutter Cane, whose lurid horror fiction “has an effect on his readers”. Unfortunately, Cane has vanished off the face of the earth when his new manuscript is due. Trent, along with book editor Linda Styles (Julie Carmen) follows Cane’s trail to a small town called Hobb’s End. Wait, what? Hobb’s End is completely fictional (like Derry or Castle Rock). Trent and Styles find themselves trapped in a space they cannot logically be occupying. Hobb’s End appears to operate according to the dark whims of Cane’s imagination, swinging Trent (and the audience) round and around and up and down on an is-this-real-or-am-I-dreaming-or-do-I-even-exist-at-all carousel. It doesn’t end well.
In The Mouth of Madness is a wild ride that asks some interesting questions about how and why we enjoy horror fantasies, as well as poking affectionate fun at the fandom. It wasn’t particularly well-received on its release, but it’s gained cult status in the decades since.
Inevitably, 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.
- Return of The Return of The Repressed : Notes on The American Horror Film (1991-2006) – by David Church, in Offscreen (Nov 2006)
- Independent Horror Cinema – Fangoria article from 1997 which gives a good overview of the time