Looking back at the best Halloween releases of the 1990s
What better way to kick-off the ’90s than with Tom Savini’s full-colour remake of George A. Romero’s seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead? I suppose that depends on your particular take on a movie that has been nothing if not divisive. Many believe that an almost like-for-like rehash of a movie that proved so important for so many reasons was a futile endeavour, while others see it as a welcome and vastly underappreciated homage to the original, and who else more suited for the job than long-time practical effects collaborator Savini?
Okay, so Savini’s take doesn’t have the sociopolitical punch of the original. It wasn’t the first movie to cast a black man in a lead role at a time when racism was still largely accepted, nor did it set a precedent for independent filmmakers. In fact, so beautifully conceived, influential and of its time was Romero’s masterpiece that a colour reboot seemed like an odd prospect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it as a separate entity, and with Romero himself on writing duties you best believe this was no shameless cash-in. Unsurprisingly, many were unimpressed, Pulitzer Prize winning critic Roger Ebert giving the movie one star and writing, “The remake is so close to the original that there is no reason to see both.”
Still, look past those inevitable comparisons and you have a fairly decent movie, with a superlative cast that includes future Candyman Tony Todd as level-headed protagonist Ben and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘s Tom Towles as insufferable windbag, Harry Cooper. We even get The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2‘s Bill Moseley as the ill-fated Johnnie. But the star of the show is Patricia Tallman as Barbara, who in a delightful twist becomes the movie’s answer to Ellen Ripley.
Moviegoers were not so enthused, the movie grossing just $5,800,000 dollars on a budget of $4,200,000.
If Stephen King reached his adapted works apotheosis during the horror boom of the 1980s (14), then the ’90s saw no signs of his popularity waning. During that period, the prolific horror writer had an incredible 26 shorts, novellas or novels adapted for the big screen, with a couple of original screenplays thrown in for good measure, licencing his works to filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Rob Reiner, Frank Darabont and Tobe Hooper.
The first of those ’90s adaptations came in the form of Ralph Singleton’s Graveyard Shift. Hollywood had already brought rabid dogs and Pet Sematarys to the big screen, so it was only inevitable that someone would pick up on a King tale about rats; the most vicious, verminous creatures of them all. Graveyard Shift featured one of those glorious VHS covers that both intrigued and confused me — not the US version with the skull in the miner’s hat, but the UK version featured below. The sight of a distraught man drinking in a sewer of rats should have been a hint, but for some reason it was never clear to me what the movie was about.
Graveyard Shift is the story of an old textile factory and a series of mysterious worker disappearances that are presumed coincidental until our whiskered antagonist rears its mutated form. Though released in 1990, this very much feels like a straight-to-video affair from the late-1980s. The director excels in establishing a stifling atmosphere, and a welcome appearance from Brad Dourif as a Vietnam-veteran-turned-exterminator will no doubt please horror fans, but a lack of characterisation and general coherency put this somewhere towards the bottom of King’s colossal adapted-for-the-big-screen output — and that’s saying something.
Still, put Stephen King’s name, endorsement or second cousin on a marquee during the late-80s/early 90s and you’re guaranteed butts in seats, though with an estimated return of $11,600,000 from $10,500,000, former horror kings Paramount had to be disappointed as the genre continued to bottom-out.
The early ’90s was a notoriously barren period for horror following an ’80s overindulgence, a decade when the genre was the easiest avenue for many upstart directors, as well as being a potential goldmine for investors looking to tap into the decade’s home video boom. This was never more apparent than in October 1991, which saw only one horror film released during the Halloween season, a super low-budget outing from Dario Argento protege Michelle Soavi. Soavi had honed his craft under the innovative giallo master, acting as assistant director on the sublime giallo/slasher Tenebrae and the hugely cavalier but utterly charming Phenomena, also working as second unit director on the notoriously graphic Opera.
As well as starring as the mysterious masked ghoul giving out theatre tickets in Lamberto Bava’s Demons, Soavi was almost single-handedly responsible for upholding the traditions of Italian cinema during the late ’80s and early ’90s, most notably with 1987 giallo/slasher crossover Stage Fright and 1994‘s cult oddity Dellamorte Dellamore aka Cemetery Man. Soavi made low-budget horror with a surprising amount of technical panache and visual flair, with Bava-esque colour palette’s and suspenseful, Argento-like set-pieces.
Released on October 18th, 1991’s La Setta aka The Sect aka The Devil’s Daughter — yet another collaboration with Argento — was a similarly cheapo affair with some beautiful camerawork which toned-down the colour for a supernatural experience that takes its cue from Roman Polanski’s Ira Levin adaptation Rosemary’s Baby. The least known and lauded of his works — partially because it was relatively difficult to come by at the time — script problems would make for a rather uneven experience even by the notoriously cavalier standards of Italian genre films, but it still wows in places and is a worthy addition to any horror fan’s collection.
The first ’90s horror to be whispered on the playground, and into mirrors across the globe, was also the first to terrify me in quite some time. I’m talking, of course, about Bernard Rose’s Clive Barker adaptation Candyman, a movie that would propel actor Tony Todd to horror royalty. As a black marquee killer in the Freddy Krueger vein, Todd would prove a rarity in horror cinema, a fact that would have Rose meet with worried producers and members of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who were worried that the depiction of a black villain was racist. In response, Rose would ask, ‘Why shouldn’t a black actor be a ghost? Why shouldn’t a black actor play Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter? If you’re saying that they can’t be, it’s really perverse. This is a horror movie. . .'”
Barker had previously failed to translate his inimitable literary style to the screen on two adapted projects before he decided to get behind the camera for the stiflingly bleak Hellraiser in 1987, unleashing the infamous cenobites and a decades-long franchise. Candyman would also spawn a couple of sub-par sequels in 1995‘s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and 1999‘s appalling direct-to-video effort Candyman: Day of the Dead, though an upcoming 2020 reboot that returns to the now-gentrified Chicago of the first movie speaks to the character’s enduring appeal.
The story of a mythical monster drawn into reality by an ambitious grad student snooping around in unfamiliar territory, the movie’s dreamy filter proves absolutely intoxicating as Todd’s colossal, hook-handed terror mixes mind games with brutality in a remorselessly bloody picture. Just as memorable is a sumptuous score by revered composer and pianist Phillp Glass that captures the movie’s sense of bittersweet tragedy.
Candyman‘s million-dollar gimmick, one that sees Todd’s purveyor of death summoned when his name is uttered five times into a mirror, was the talk of horror freaks the world over back in the early ’90s, and the figures backed it up, the relatively low-key, low-budget production pulling in $25,792,310 domestically, almost five times its outlay.
The long-moribund slasher continued it’s mini revival in late October with Manny Coto’s deliriously uneven comic book adaptation Dr. Giggles.
This may come as news to even the most ardent comic collector, but Dr. Giggles was part of Largo Entertainment’s exclusive, first-look deal with Dark Horse Comics, with a view to producing movies based on the latter’s fictional characters. If it still doesn’t ring a bell, not to fear. There were only two issues of the comic released in October 1992, so completing your collection shouldn’t prove a problem. Even the movie failed to take off, with the prerequisite sequel nowhere in sight. If this had been released in 1982, the Doc would probably have made it to Manhattan by the decade’s end.
The twisted tale of a delusional faux-doctor who begins murdering folk in the town where his psychotic father was killed, Dr. Giggles failed to light any creative fires save for a deliriously madcap performance from the eponymous Doc (Larry Drake), smacking of a sub-genre in serious need of re-invention. Of the movie, Richard Harrington of The Washington Post would write, “Manny Coto turns to co-writer Graeme Whifler time and again for punchlines in a desperate attempt to revive a script that begins in critical condition and ends up DOA.” Ouch!
So how did the movie fare commercially next to Barker’s Candyman? The answer is rather middling, Dr Giggles recouping $8,205,290 from an undisclosed budget that I presume was less than half of that total. Incidentally, Quentin Tarantino’s blistering debut Reservoir Dogs, released on the same day, managed only $2,832,029 domestically. What a world we live in!
And no, that’s not a typo.
Although Horror’s barren period would continue into 1993, the month of October offering precisely zero horror flicks to feast upon during Halloween season, fans could still catch Anthony Hickox’s fantasy/horror sequel Warlock: The Armageddon, released on 24th September, though asides from starring Warlock‘s Julian Sands, sequel is pushing it a little, with no narrative connection existing between the two films.
Still, fans of the first movie will probably dig Warlock: The Armageddon‘s tale of high-concept hocus- pocus. This time around, an order of suburban Druids train their children to take on a Warlock with designs on unleashing Satan upon the Earth; this after being born to an unlucky teenager who undergoes a suspiciously quickfire pregnancy thanks to a magical rune stone and an ill-timed lunar eclipse. As you can imagine, it’s all rather potty.
Sands is typically grandiose as the deliciously evil Warlock, devouring every last frame with a zeal an otherwise humdrum affair barely warrants. Variety’s Leonard Klady would write of the movie, “Chewing up the landscape with great relish, Sands almost erases all thought of his colorless adversaries.” Warlock: The Armageddon would do similarly dreary numbers, managing a domestic gross of $3,902,679 on a budget of approximately $3,000,000, which is marginally better than the higher budget original. That didn’t stop them from eking out a trilogy, however, 1999’s direct-to-video effort Warlock III: The End of Innocence at least getting the title right, producers finally realising that the franchise had little-to-no commercial appeal.
On the 14th of October, 1994, Fred Krueger was back after a three-year hiatus, but not in the way in which fans had become accustomed. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a movie within a movie, one so literal that the once imaginary Krueger crosses over into reality to haunt members of the original cast as Wes Craven pens his latest ‘sequel’, one that begins to spell out the fate of its stars before they’ve even signed up for the project. It isn’t perfect, but Craven is at the top of his game, weaving multiple realities in a seamless fashion that evokes the original A Nightmare on Elm Street and proving something of a godsend for fans tired of the character’s Dream Child shenanigans.
Craven’s audacious project would gross $18,090,181 domestically, a rather underwhelming sum for a film that featured the return of one of the genre’s most iconic characters, though it did find itself up against the first independent movie to gross more than $200,000,000 ($212,928,762) in Tarantino’s cultural juggernaut and industry game-changer Pulp Fiction — quite the reprieve following the underwhelming response to the equally star-studded Reservoir Dogs two years prior. For Craven and New Line Cinema, perhaps it was simply a case of bad timing.
New Nightmare was a breath of fresh air for a series banished to commercial purgatory due to lousy corporate parenting, the once fearsome Krueger transformed from a ruthless child killer into an equally ruthless marketing machine who would long outstay his welcome. Such overexposure may also have contributed to the movie’s less-than-spectacular reception, though perhaps mainstream audiences were not quite ready for a meta experiment that was ingeniously repackaged two years later for self-reflexive slasher saviour Scream, a movie that would revive the long-dormant horror genre.
Robert Englund would cite New Nightmare as his favourite ‘Elm Street’ movie, telling comingsoon.net’s Aaron Williams, “I think it stands the test of time, a fun reunion with original cast members like Heather and John Saxon. Wes’ script is clever and original, the self-referential horror story.” The fact that the film’s fritter-faced villain is credited as Fred Krueger probably brought a Krueger-esque grin to his face too.
Having made his name with gangland thriller King of New York (1990) and 1992’s delightfully oppressive Bad Lieutenant (the one starring a drug-addled Harvey Keitel in arguably his finest role), renegade director Abel Ferrara would turn to the horror genre for postmodern vampire flick The Addiction.
The vamp sub-genre would experience a significant makeover during the 1980s, thanks to movies such as Katheryn Bigelow’s neo-western Near Dark and Tom Holland’s loving send-up Fright Night, and the ’90s would play host to a resurgence of its own, Francis Ford Coppola’s distinctly Gothic retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Rodriguez’s glorious genre mash From Dusk Til Dawn showing that one of the oldest horror staples in cinema history still had wings.
Shot in sumptuous, borderline-oppressive black and white, the movie tackles drug addiction through a vampiric lens after Lili Taylor’s grad student is turned into a bloodsucker and forced to deal with her worsening dependence. In a cute twist, the movie goes one step further, presenting us with victims whose desire is to be bitten, or as film scholar David Carter would write, “dabble in something dangerous and all-consuming”, resulting in a movie that is at once intelligent art house and bloodthirsty enough to appease a more general audience.
Taylor, who would go on quite the mid-90s run with films such as future American Psycho director Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol and mainstream Mel Gibson vehicle Ransom is a revelation as the movie’s beleaguered protagonist, confirming herself as one of the most talented and underrated actors of her generation.
Wes Craven would repeat his left-field Freddy excursion with another experiment of sorts the following year, casting a now overexposed Eddie Murphy long after his Beverly Hills Cop commercial peak and just prior to his mainstream resurgence as crapulent, Jekyl and Hyde professor Sherman Klump.
Vampire in Brooklyn would see the former stand-up act cast as a Brooklyn-based bloodsucker who heads to the US in search of the Dhampir daughter of a vampire from his native Caribbean island, who will enable him to survive the next full moon. The movie would also star Angela Bassett (whose stunt double sadly died on set) and former Family Feud host Ray Combs, who would also pass shortly after filming at the tender age of 40. Murphy would once again assume multiple roles, playing not only a postmodern vamp with a Caribbean twist but a drunk preacher and even an Italian gangster.
In the kind of against-type move that would become something of a Craven trademark, this was the first time Murphy was cast as a villain in would would prove his final film under the Paramount label, finally ending an exclusive contract that went all the way back to Walter Hill’s innovative buddy cop picture 48 Hrs. Ironically, it was Murphy himself who played it safe, ignoring Wes Craven’s suggestion that he play acerbic vamp Maximillian as a vulnerable character in a story that the actor had himself devised.
Vampire in Brooklyn was a flop both commercially and creatively, which isn’t surprising for a movie with such an off-kilter mix of humour and horror. Roger Ebert would describe the movie as a “disorganised mess”, writing, “…the movie is unpleasant to look at. It’s darker than “Se7en,” but without sufficient purpose, and my overall memory of it is of people screaming in the shadows. To call this a comedy is a sign of optimism; to call it a comeback for Murphy is a sign of blind faith.” Such a high-profile movie would fare poorly at the box office, temporarily exacerbating the actor’s commercial decline.
Stephen King’s influence refused to wane with Tom Holland’s body horror adaptation Thinner, based on the novel of the same name. The story of a severely overweight attorney who rapidly loses weight following a gypsy curse, the book was first released back in November 19, 1984 under his Running Man pseudonym Richard Bachman, a name created due to the sheer volume of his literary output.
Thinner was actually scheduled to open in theatres in late spring until a negative test screening forced the crew into last minute re-shoots for the adding of extra gore and a more crowd-pleasing ending. If that wasn’t enough, director Holland was struck down with Bells-Palsy, a virus that would cause paralysis on one side of his face. Though the condition could have been quickly treated with steroids, the refusal of producers to hospitalise him resulted in effects that lasted close to two years.
The movie, which Holland was less than pleased with thanks to studio interference that prevented it from being completely loyal to King’s novel, would remain in production limbo for 6 years due to fears from Spelling Films International and distributors Paramount that the protagonist’s condition was too close to that of the still widely prevalent AIDS virus. This thanks to the kind of SFX deterioration that confined actor Robert John Burke to the makeup chair for 4 to 6 hours daily.
On the whole, Thinner received negative reviews for its refusal to dig deeper ethically, eschewing any real resolution for a conceptual banquet that left audiences feeling somewhat peckish, though Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle called Thinner, “one of the better Stephen King-derived movies.” The film also failed to pull up any commercial trees, just about breaking even following a £14,000,000 outlay.
December 1996 would see the release of Wes Craven’s self-reflexive slasher parody Scream, a movie that would spark the kind of horror resurgence fans had waited years for, though, as with Halloween two decades earlier, most of what it inspired was commercial fodder, ditching the self-awareness and retaining the kind of MTV aesthetics and celebrity casting, resulting in a wave of slickly produced genre filmmaking that would quickly grow tiresome.
Of those Scream-inspired movies, perhaps the most famous was Jim Gillespie’s back-from-the-dead slasher revenge flick I Know What You Did Last Summer, which would pull in an incredible $125,200,000 at the box office thanks to a ’90s Brat-Pack cast and tween rock soundtrack that included the likes of Kula Shaker, The Offspring and Korn, ushering in a generation of celebrity-obsessed, commercial tie-in horror that would bring us movies such as Urban Legend and Cherry Falls. Even the indomitable Michael Myers would succumb to the Dimension Films curse with the Scream-styled Halloween: H20. in 1998.
Starring heartthrob alumni Jennifer Love Hewitt (Party of Five), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Ryan Phillippe and Freddie Prinze Jr., I Know What You Did Last Summer would also be given the Dimension treatment thanks to Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who without the genius and steady hand of Wes Craven would fall into the creative and commercially driven void (he also penned the aforementioned Halloween: H20).
Of the movie, TV Guide’s Maitland McDonagh would write, “Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson takes a step back and writes the kind of movie Scream mocks.” James Berardinelli was more complimentary, noting, “There is one minor aspect of the plot that elevates I Know What You Did Last Summer above the level of a typical ’80s slasher flick — it has an interesting subtext. I’m referring to the way the lives and friendships of these four individuals crumble in the wake of their accident,” though he would later add, “Sadly, this potentially-fascinating element of the movie is dismissed quickly to facilitate a higher body count.”
I Know What You Did Last Summer would spawn a sequel with one of the most ridiculous titles ever committed to the genre in 1998’s I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, but the less said about that particular movie the better.
1998 would prove the busiest Halloween of the decade as the late-90s horror boom continued to swell. It would also mark the return of a bona fide horror icon, this time appearing alongside a similarly iconic female sidekick. Surprisingly, the biggest horror event of the year, Halloween H20, was released back in August in the US, though its DVD release the following year would arrive just in time for the scary season.
Starring a returning Brad Dourif and the inimitable Jennifer Tilly, Bride of Chucky would up the comedy in a series that would push the boundaries of mainstream, tongue-in-cheek horror. This time, Chucky has all but given up returning to human flesh, and instead sets about offing the perfect human sidekick and transferring her into a doll’s body, resulting in a devilish Barbie-esque partner in crime known as Tiffany.
To give you some indication of the film’s playful tone, the opening scene is a devilish banquet of genre nods, the iconic masks of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees both visible along with Leatherface’s chainsaw and Fred Krueger’s razor-fingered glove. There is even a doll sex scene that Tilly would later reveal was fully improvised in what is quite the advertisement for safe sex. What I mean is, there’s an awful lot of rubber involved (PVC if you want to get technical).
Respected horror critic Kim Newman would describe Bride of Chucky as “Chucky’s smartest, sharpest outing,” praising the addition of Tilly’s Tiffany and her, “appealing mix of innocence, smarts and homicidal mania”, adding, “Tilly is a valuable addition to the franchise, and has even more fun when turned into a killer slut Lady Penelope.” Quite the image, Kim!
The presence of Stephen King would once again be felt during Halloween season with the release of chilling psychological thriller Apt Pupil, one of four superlative novellas that would make up the author’s 1982 smash anthology Different Seasons, along with Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption and The Body, the latter becoming the more commercially titled Stand By Me, a movie that King would cite as the best adaptation of his work he had ever witnessed. The fourth of those movies, The Breathing Method, is the only one yet to be adapted for the big screen, though many have tried and failed thanks to difficulties visually translating the concept.
Apt Pupil would star future Magneto Sir Ian McKellen as an aged Nazi war criminal forced to unleash a long-dormant monster after his low-key existence is disturbed by suburban malcontent Todd Bowden, a student whose lust to peek at the kind of atrocities they just don’t teach in history class spectacularly backfiring. Such naivety leads to a macabre relationship of fear, distrust and codependency, as the seemingly helpless old man turns the tables to give his tormentor a crash course in wickedness and manipulation.
McKellen is a revelation as the sadistic outcast who once again whets his Draconian whistle, but equally impressive is the late Brad Renfro, who at 14 was only a decade away from the heroin overdose that would tragically take his life. Inevitable comparisons would be made with the equally talented River Phoenix, who would succumb to similar demons earlier the previous decade. Producer Richard Kobritz had optioned the feature film rights almost two decades earlier, though a series of actor deaths and other unfortunate incidents meant the project was shelved until the late ’90s.
Critically, the movie received mostly positive reviews, thanks in large part to the movie’s two leads. Jay Carr of The Boston Globe would compliment the “duet between Renfro’s smooth-cheeked latter-day Faust and McKellen’s reawakened Mephistopheles”. Roger Ebert was similarly complimentary of the film’s performances, though he would criticise the film for being “unworthy of its subject matter.” Surprisingly, Apt Pupil would drown at the box office, recouping a little over half of its estimated $14,000,000 budget.
John Carpenter’s work would show a marked decline in quality following an ’80s boom period that forged such classics as The Fog, Escape From New York and The Thing. Many attribute this to an over-reliance on ever evolving CGI techniques, the kind that seemed to rob him of his legendary resourcefulness. Movies such as the failed, Chevy Chase-led Memoirs of an Invisible Man, John Wyndham adaptation Village of the Damned and the hugely underwhelming Escape From LA would see the filmmaker’s stock plummet and would ultimately leave him doubting himself.
It wasn’t all bad. The ’90s actually threw up a couple of relatively low-key Carpenter gems in 1994’s underrated meta-horror In the Mouth of Madness and 1998’s vamp slayer romp Vampires. The latter stars a group of vampire killers given the postmodern upgrade. Instead of traditional methods of bloodsucker extermination our gang of vengeful warriors bring the heavy artillery, and are actually hired by the Catholic church to dish out some locked and loaded retribution. If Sergio Leoni did vampire flicks, he’d make something like this.
James Woods is in top form as battle-hardened gang leader Jack Crow, a man whose entire family was wiped out by vampires. The same fate ultimately befalls his brethren thanks to vampire chief Jan Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), a colossal villain who swamps every frame. In the end, it is left to Crow, remaining pal Anthony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin) and recently turned but still valuable love interest Katrina (Sheryl Lee), who acts as a visual conduit to the whereabouts of Valek thanks to a physic connection they now share.
Carpenter would cite Vampires as the movie that kept him behind the camera, the director actually considering retirement following a slew of creative and commercial flops, his time working on Escape From LA pushing him to the brink. Fans were also tiring it seemed, the movie barely breaking even after having its budget cut by two thirds just prior to production.
The teen horror resurgence would tread remake territory under the Dark Castle Entertainment label during the late nineties/early noughties, most notably with 2001’s Thir13en Ghosts and 1999’s House on Haunted Hill, the latter described by William Malone of The New York Times as ‘a sorry reincarnation of the 1950’s William Castle horror film in which an eccentric millionaire played by Vincent Price offered five strangers $10,000 each to spend the night in a spooky old mansion.’
By the turn of the millennium that sum has gone up to a cool $1,000,000 a piece, though the evolving traditions of horror tell you that 1999’s cast are gonna have to go through a lot more than their primitive predecessors, succumbing to all kinds of bloody mishaps along the way. House on Haunted Hill was released on the 40th anniversary of the original, though why anyone would want to remake what was a pretty lousy film to begin with it anyone’s guess.
As you may imagine, 1999’s House on Haunted Hill is slicker and scarier than its kitsch predecessor at a time when production values on the whole were on the rise, though weak characterisation and a severely outmoded plot seem at odds with the film’s excessive violence. Though screenwriter Dick Beebe attempts to expand on the guests-in-a-haunted-house concept, it’s all rather passé and lacks the originality to stand on its own merit, the film’s early promise petering out to resemble something much more easily consumable.
Unsurprisingly, House on Haunted Hill did terrific numbers, more than doubling its outlay with a $40,800,000 US domestic gross. Twenty years on and just about everything has been rebooted in an industry that sees little value in originality. Will there come a time when people are nostalgic about the ‘great’ remakes of the early 21st century? Now there’s a scary thought.