Welcome back! Here is the continuation of my list of top ten horror films from 1990. If you haven't caught up with the back end of the list, then go check them out, first, here. Here are my selections from 5-1. Hope you enjoy them!
5. Arachnophobia, dir. by Frank Marshall
I don’t like spiders unless they are globe spiders or tarantulas. Any other spider will get flat out crushed if it finds its way onto my radar. So, a film about extremely deadly spiders that reside in showerheads, lamp shades, etc. and multiply like rabbits in basements will always bring a certain visceral feeling of dread into my existence. Arachnophobia was able to make people look under their toilet lids for creepy, crawly things that might attack in one of the most vulnerable moments of each of our days and, for that, it succeeds even if the movie plays more like a dark comedy than it does a straight up horror flick about spiders.
Plus, having Jeff Daniels play an arachnophobic doctor who has to face his fears to save his family and town from this infestation and John Goodman playing, quite possibly, the coolest pest control guy to ever live makes the film an utter joy to watch on repeat viewings. Sure, some of the script and acting is a bit dated, but of all of the films on this list, Arachnophobia is probably the film that gets the balance of humor and actual fear right. I know I certainly hesitate before I put my hands or feet into an area that is obscured from my sight because of this very film.
4. Gremlins 2: The New Batch, dir. by Joe Dante
Joe Dante returns to old stomping grounds, six years later, and creates another classic Dante film with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. While largely being a retread of the first film, Dante ups the ante in just about every way possible—as it is, and should be, with sequels. More mogwais spring from the freshly watered Gizmo—who had been tested and researched at Clamp Industries where Billy and Kate now work—immediately shifting into gremlins by eating after midnight and then the process is repeated when the gremlins discover the fire sprinklers. A gremlin army is created with modifications due to their partaking in random serums from the lab including a genius gremlin voiced by Tony Randall. On paper some of this sounds a little too over the top, but under the direction of Dante, the film retains the same charm while being a more comedic version of the first film.
The acting retains its 80s quirkiness and yet the film—both films—hold up in just about every way. When I was re-watching them again, recently, I was truly astounded by how solid the mogwai/gremlin effects were for the late 80s. Dare I even say that they should be considered in the same ranks as The Thing in their creativity and resonance years down the road. Gremlins 2 is the type of comedy with a dark, nasty edge that seems to have only existed in the 80s/early 90s.
3. Tremors, dir. by Ron Underwood
Giant mutant worms with teeth burrowing under the desert near the Sierra Nevadas. With that description, there is no way that this film could not make it on my top ten list. This is one of those smaller films that made up my earliest interactions with horror. I remember watching this film every time it came on TV and just being enthralled by it, not to mention absolutely cracking up at Val, Earl, the Gummers and all of the townspeople of Perfection, NV. Of my front five films, this is probably the one that holds up the least well with some of the special effects--though I maintain the creature design and gradual reveal is quite good--and some of the 80s/90s cultural elements. However, I think there is enough imagination, creativity and humor in this film to make up for those moments that don’t quite work as well 25 years later.
Kevin Bacon, of course, was on the backend of his 80s popularity, as well as Michael Gross (played the father in Family Ties), but Fred Ward is one of the more enduring character actors in Hollywood, still, today. To be honest, Ward is the essential actor/character in this film because he plays the sounthern redneck/roughneck character to perfection, while Bacon’s portrayal feels a bit too forced. Regardless, this is a horror film that wasn’t meant to be taken seriously and watched through those lens, it continues to give me joy and entertainment every time.
2. Jacob's Ladder, dir. by Adrian Lyne
The 90s were, in a lot of ways, a decade where straight-out horror slipped into the obscure vestiges of the straight to VHS market with the exception of the new wave of slasher flicks that came out in the mid to late part of the decade. Both this and my #1 choice were examples of horror hiding away in the realms of thriller. Jacob’s Ladder is considered psychological horror with an emphasis on the psychological part of that descriptor. However, this film derives all of its nightmarish imagery from the annals of horror. Frenetic vibrating heads, monstrous looking versions of people, a bat-like creature, etc. are incorporated into the visual style of the film in order to make the existential journey of Jacob Singer both delirious and harrowing. It’s attempting to mimic a type of hell that would be warring inside the mind of a soldier who has gone through violent trauma.
Tim Robbins and a surprisingly solid list of supporting actors give the film a delicacy and earthiness that in the hands of other directors and actors might have gone off the rails rather quickly. It is effective as both thriller and horror and the vibrating heads that are featured in Jacob’s visions are some of the most frightening horror imagery that I recall. Unfortunately, that same technique become a trend in the later 90s with films like House on Haunted Hill which overused it—and underutilized it, simultaneously—to the point of destroying any visual power it may have had. This film, however, succeeds because it envisions the darker half of ourselves that we don’t want to tap into while still maintaining its humanity and fragility as a story.
1. Misery, dir. by Rob Reiner
Misery treads that delicate line between horror and thriller as well. What ultimately pushes it into horror realms is it’s horror author, Stephen King, it’s smart, but sparse, use of effects and it’s over-the-top psychosis of the antagonist, Annie Wilkes. This film is #1 on my list because of how Reiner, who is a stranger to the genre, was able to contain the frenzied craziness of the plot into the most suffocating and confined setting. It’s much easier for a book to portray such things, but transitioning to celluloid is a whole other monster. Kathy Bate’s Wilkes, while potentially being a bit over acted looking back, is a force with which to be reckoned. She has no middle; she is either saccharine sweet or twisted up in a fury. This characterization becomes even more distinct with Paul Sheldon’s (James Caan) largely chill characterization.
It is no secret that I am not a fan of the most gratuitous examples of torture porn. I find those films to largely lose their meaning in their need to satisfy the catharsis of their audience’s bloodlust. Misery, if you look at the bare bones of it, is one of the precursors to what would become torture porn. The main conceit is a person held captive and treated like an object to be used by another psychotic person. It is relentless in it’s upping the ante when it comes to violence and psychological horror, however it isn’t gratuitous. Matter of fact, the most startling moments come near the end of the film—the audience is finally given the moments they knew were coming. In one scene of truly bone-breaking torture, I still cringe to this day. I don’t cringe at all in torture porn. Misery succeeds because somehow Reiner is able to tell a story that has a heart and a sense of justice—deeper than just vengeance—where the audience can’t help but be unnerved—not apathetic and desensitized—by what they see on the screen.
Check in next Monday for the first five films of my top 15 horror films of the new century!