Tis the season for year-end lists and the month of December will be no different here. Since I do not want this site to be dedicated solely to immediately relevant works of horror, I am taking a trip back to 25 years ago.
So, welcome to my countdown of 1990's best horror flicks. Since my new website came into existence in September, I didn't have the foresight to dedicate an adequate amount of time to the films of 1990. However, I have filled in some gaps in the past couple of weeks. I made a list of contenders, researched their critical placement and their popularity with audiences. That research did come into play for my list, however my opinion, of course, has the final say. So without further ado, here are my picks for 10-6.
10. Nightbreed (Director's Cut), dir. by Clive Barker
I have never completely understood the draw to Clive Barker as an author and director. His material often attempts to say something profound about sex, the body and transformation, but never quite—in my opinion—transcends its gore and schlock to develop the undercurrents that could potentially be tapped into by his writing or films. Barker as a director is passable, but not much more. He has some moments of striking direction, especially in 1987’s Hellraiser, but he is never able to give his stories a viscerally, visual meaning like, say, David Cronenberg could. Matter of fact, Cronenberg has always been the better and more perfect Barker. This is why Nightbreed is such a peculiar outing for Clive Barker. He set out to adapt his novella, Cabal, into a film and somehow was able to convince David Cronenberg, himself, to play the film’s central antagonist, Dr. Philip K. Decker.
While the film, itself, has some tragically bad acting and a rather underdeveloped narrative, it succeeds in keeping its viewers invested by the sheer vision created by the visual effects artists that worked on the film. The nightbreed characters are all somehow mythical, gory and frightening all at the same time. Though, maybe, the most iconic character of the film is the non-nightbreed killer that wears the sado-masochistic tan, cloth mask with buttons for eyes and a lopsided zipper (shown above) once again attempting to bring pscyho-sexual undertones into the film that never quite become fully realized. Nonetheless, the underworld of the film is so visually creative, that not even the clunkiness of Barker’s characters and direction could destroy it completely.
9. Flatliners, dir. by Joel Schumacher
It has been several years since I have seen this movie, but I remember watching it several times in my youth. I remember being caught up in the tension and emotion of the main conceit of the film. Five medical students seek out the answer to that ever-enduring question that haunts every human on some level: is there life after death? One after another, they induce their own deaths and what lies on the other side for each is visions of sheer trauma, violence and grief that follows them back into the living once they are resuscitated. The movie derives more existential fear than it does actual scares. It is more concerned with continuing to haunt you long after the projector stops rolling. It leaves the audience with a sense of desperation that maybe the afterlife is simply a continual loop of the guilt, violence and sorrow that we have done to others and has been done to us.
It doesn’t hurt that it had a solid cast of actors that would continue to have successful careers—though to varying degrees when you look at the disparity between the careers of William Baldwin and Julia Roberts. Joel Schumacher was able to bring a rather gothic, old school vibe to a rather modern tale of scientific exploration of the unknown and unknowable gone wrong. Schumacher is one of those bi-polar directors who have some classic films (Lost Boys, Falling Down) and then some unhinged trash (his contributions to the Batman franchise), but here he delivers a balanced vision where humanity stares into the void only for the void to stare right back.
8. Maniac Cop 2, dir. by William Lustig
William Lustig is one of those directors that made a career off of making pulpy horror cinema. The first film I watched of his was the classic exploitation flick, Maniac, and that film alone set the tone for what I expected to see on my first viewing of Maniac Cop 2. Where Nightbreed aimed for the fantastical and Flatliners went for the psychologically dreadful, Maniac Cop 2 goes for straight out violent insanity. At no point can a person take this film seriously because it is infused with a consistent tone of tongue-in-cheek humor throughout its runtime.
The film is a continuation of the story of Matthew Cordell, the officer supposedly unjustly framed by his own police leadership. Maniac Cop 2 is nothing more than slasher liturgy, but what separates this film, and the franchise, from most slashers is in its villain’s identity. He is a cop, the very person that should be the “hero”, the one to catch the bad guys, yet he is the one seeking his own justice apart from the constraints of the badge. It’s not hard to read the recent string of deaths at the hands of the police into this film. In a sense, especially in the eyes of the black community in this country, Matthew Cordell, the maniac cop, could be any of the men and women with badges. The rawness of Lustig’s direction—in all of his films—is what really sets him apart from comparable exploitation directors.
7. It (TV miniseries), dir. by Tommy Lee Wallace
The TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s It is one of those with immense potential, arguably unequaled nostalgic resonance and impeded ability to hold up in the years since it’s release. There are moments in It that truly make me cringe with how dated and silly they play out now. Yet I know few people who don’t list Pennywise the Clown as one of the most iconic horror figures to ever show up onscreen. The sole reason why It still maintains its place within the horror pantheon is because of the one and only Tim Curry who played Pennywise so believably and terrifyingly that if there was to be a big screen treatment of this in the future, whoever they picked to play Pennywise would more than likely fall flat under the weight of Curry’s portrayal. The gutter scene alone and the simple line, “They all float down here,” is enough to scar the toughest, most well adjusted youth. The film lives and dies on the talent of Tim Curry.
Unfortunately, under tougher scrutiny, the miniseries, much like King’s novel, never quite delivers on the suffocating tension and doom that plays out in the lives of the past-haunted adults that return to their hometown of Derry, Maine. Matter of fact, King doesn’t have the best track record of good endings to largely great stories. Wallace does his best to create a film as close to the book as possible, but this may be one of the few times when I wish he had derailed from the book more. The one thing I can say for the miniseries, over the book, is that it was smart enough to not keep the rather odd, and, perhaps, gratuitous, scene where the Losers each take their turns having sex with Beverly—the only female member of the Losers. However, it wasn’t intuitive enough to re-envision the reveal of what Pennywise actually was, which has been one of the biggest failures of horror literature.
6. Un gatto nel cervello [aka A Cat in the Brain], dir. by Lucio Fulci
While far from being Lucio Fulci’s best cinematic work of horror, this film—which I only just recently saw—takes the postmodern narrative turn years before Wes Craven would make the same narrative conceit popular in films like New Nightmare and Scream. A Cat in the Brain stars Lucio Fulci as himself as he goes from the sets of his horror films to his home and other everyday places that inhabit his real life. The viewer follows Fulci as he starts to become affected by the grotesque and horrifying scenes he is filming. He starts seeing his art seep over into his reality. It starts out tame enough at the beginning, but, as the film moves along, his films start inhabiting real life and he starts to doubt his own sanity. In the end, someone who knows Fulci is actually killing women in ways similar to Fulci’s dailies and attempts to frame Fulci himself.
The brilliance of this film, especially coming from my community of Evangelical, largely conservative Christians, is how it takes the Evangelical critique of culture and media and makes it a legitimate argument, at least until we come to realize that it isn’t actually Fulci going crazy because of his work as a horror director. The question of how the media and culture we consume affects us is addressed in a playful and effective way throughout the film. Admittedly, the hardcore Evangelicals will not be happy with where the film lands on that question, but I think this film may actually be the smartest and most insightful film on this list. However, Fulci admits himself that he is the B-movie version of Dario Argento and his films do not always reach the heights of beauty, direction and tone that Argento does. While the ideas brought up in this film are superb, the artistry of the film sets it back from the front five of the list.
Come back next Monday for the conclusion of the list!