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Debate Club: Best '90s horror movies

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Mar 13, 2019

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

Last week, we paid tribute to the best genre films of the '90s, though we didn't include any horror movies because we wanted to spotlight them on their own. One reason is because, honestly, there are too many good ones (sorry, fans of The Sixth Sense and Audition: they didn't make the cut.) And second, the decade was a crucial period for horror, illustrating the genre's commercial viability, creative possibilities, and growing artistic heft.

The five movies on this list speak to the fluidity of what constitutes a "horror film." Two of them won Oscars, while another was directed by a man who would go on to helm the 21st century's most epic franchise. Pigeonhole these gems at your peril.

Bram Stroker's Dracula

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

They don't make 'em like this Francis Ford Coppola film anymore — which was entirely the point. The Oscar-winning director, drawing from the 19th-century novel, consciously wanted to craft an old-school horror flick, using effects that predate the CG-heavy technology that was soon going to overrun Hollywood.

This Dracula is a master class in mood and tone; everything drips with clammy dread. And the whole undertaking is guided by Gary Oldman's monstrously elegant turn as the titular vampire, who is determined to make the beautiful Mina (Winona Ryder) his. Laugh at the overheated performances and operatic style all you want — Bram Stoker's Dracula is a sumptuous, macabre feast.

Dead Alive

Dead Alive (1992)

Before The Lord of the Rings made him into one of the most famous filmmakers on the planet — or before he made anything you'd ever heard of at all — Peter Jackson made a film in New Zealand called Braindead, a schlocky zombie horror film that's both gross and hilarious in excessive amounts.

Called Dead Alive when released in the United States, the film features the most slapstick horror movie sequences you can imagine, including one in which intestines actually stop and primp in a mirror. The movie is insane in every possible way and really must be seen to be believed.

Unfortunately, with the rights still up in the air, that's increasingly difficult to do.

Scream

Scream (1996)

Scream might not be the best '90s horror movie, but it is the most definitive. It's the one that perhaps best reflects the spirit of the decade, the pop culture-riffing, self-reflexive, we've-seen-it-all-before Generation X ethos... with the added bonus of also being legitimately scary in its own right.

Having Drew Barrymore, the film's biggest movie star, wiped out in the very first scene raises the stakes, and Wes Craven makes sure you feel the tension even as you're laughing about it all. Skeet Ulrich might be dated, but this movie sure isn't.

Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

It's not accurate to say that this Sundance sleeper invented the found-footage horror genre — films like Cannibal Holocaust got there first — but The Blair Witch Project's massive success helped popularize the format for decades to come.

This story of a documentary crew investigating a spooky urban legend terrified viewers precisely because its vérité qualities made it seem real — not a fiction film that had been carefully scripted and acted.

One of 1999's highest-grossing movies, this low-budget experiment demonstrated the power of having an audience imagining unspeakable horrors — what's scariest in The Blair Witch Project is what we can't see. Years later, it's still hard to go into the woods without thinking of this nerve-shredder.

Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The greatness of Jonathan Demme's masterpiece is that it never feels like a horror movie, or at least not just a horror movie. It's a thriller, it’s a character study, it's a look at toxic masculinity and its perils — it's even a dark comedy when you need it to be. But never forget just how truly horrifying this movie can be, not just with Hannibal Lecter but also, of course, Buffalo Bill.

That Clarice Starling is able to emerge victorious out of all this, and somehow stronger, is oddly inspirational for a movie as dark as this one. Ignore the sequels (and prequels): this movie stands on its own, forever.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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