The 1990’s was not a good decade for science fiction horror films. Join us as we try to pick the 10 best examples and examine their qualities for better and for worse.
While the 1980’s gave us many classic horror-leaning sci-fi films (The Thing, The Terminator, The Fly), and the 2000’s followed suit (Cloverfield, 28 Days Later, Signs), similar films from the 1990’s haven’t yet become as widely revered. While there were some great sci-fi horror films from this time period, they seem to pale in comparison to what came before and after. The 1990’s saw a number of classic horror films which helped to redefine the genre, but those changes did not translate into the science fiction realm until the next decade.
Trends in the industry at the time were actually working against this subgenre. Think about how Scream introduced a tongue-and-cheek nod to traditional horror, something that would be difficult to replicate in the science fiction genre. Similarly, The Blair Witch Project introduced the found footage approach which remains popular to this day. That also was difficult to translate to science fiction without the proliferation of social media, smart phones, and digital video cameras (see Cloverfield). Finally, the 1990’s saw the birth of CGI. Traditional special effects, especially those in grimey B-movies felt more outdated than ever. Low budget science fiction horror films were suddenly lacking the resources to compete.
But don’t blame the lack of standout science fiction horror movies from this decade on lack of watchable films. There were many solid science fiction horror films, but because of one reason or another, they have become somewhat forgotten. To find out why that may be, I selected 10 films which I consider to be the best of the 90’s sci-fi horror subgenre and look at the reasons why they may be worth revisiting (treat) and why they may not be (trick)…
10 – The Faculty (1998)
Premise: To the students at Harrington High, the principal and her posse of teachers have always been a little odd, but lately they’ve been behaving positively alien. Controlled by otherworldly parasites, the faculty try to infect students one by one. Cheerleader Delilah, football player Stan, drug dealer Zeke and new girl Marybeth team up with some of their other classmates to fight back against the invaders.
Stars: Josh Hartnett, Jordana Brewster, Elijah Wood
Treat? This is the 1990’s version of The Thing. Complete with grotesque unexpectedly frightening claymation and stop-motion special effects – it harkens back to cult horror films of the 1980’s. High School was a popular setting for films in the 90’s, and this one tries to be more edgy by taking place there. I think the special effects still hold up, and as a snapshot of 1990’s culture, by way of 80’s B-movie sci-fi camp, it works.
Trick? Originality. If the film took itself a little less seriously, and had a bit more creativity going for it, it would have been so much more enjoyable and probably held up better over time. The High School setting has since become a cliche, especially for a 1990’s film. Finally, it’s an odd fit for director Robert Rodriguez – clearly a paycheck move rather than a film he had a lot of control over.
9 – Species (1995)
Premise: When government scientist Xavier Fitch intercepts a space transmission containing the genetic sequence for an alien life form, he uses it to produce “Sil” — a gorgeous alien-human hybrid. As Fitch’s team grows concerned at her rapid rate of growth, Sil wrecks the laboratory and begins a violent quest for a suitable male human to impregnate her. The U.S. government dispatches top assassin Preston Lennox and a team of experts to stop her.
Stars: Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, Natasha Henstridge
Treat? A 90’s sexulalized pop-culture influenced version of Frankenstein, by way of Venom, and Contact. A rather high-budget, well-casted entry to this list, was reasonably popular at the time of its release and makes great use of that era’s CGI. H.R. Giger provides the design of the creature, and the idea of a super-intelligent, super-strong alien temptress wreaking havoc on Earth might just be peak 90’s science fiction B-movie.
Trick? Elevation of its exploitation roots. It has all of the elements to put together a compelling and frightening alternate version of Men in Black mixed with The Terminator or The Fifth Element, but instead it seeks cheap 90’s movie thrills.
8 – The Arrival (1996)
Premise: After astronomer Zane Zaminski discovers a radio transmission that originated from space, he tells his boss, Phil, who ignores him. Zane is promptly fired, and decides to investigate the signal himself. When he discovers a return radio transmission from Mexico, he goes to explore. There he meets climate scientist Ilana Green, who is studying anomalies in gases in the area. Zane soon makes a shocking finding that puts him in great danger.
Stars: Charlie Sheen, Ron Silver
Treat? Another film capitalizing on the decade’s interest in SETI, this time setting up one man against a giant alien invasion conspiracy. Think Enemy of the State, but more of a mystery and with aliens disguised as humans. It earns points for exploiting our alien-invasion conspiracy nightmares, and being a little smarter (talking about global warming!) than your typical horror film.
Trick? While generally an interesting movie, it isn’t exactly frightening or very exciting. Plus it has Charlie Sheen in it. The special effects are also pretty bad, and for a movie about a massive alien invasion it doesn’t actually depict very much of that.
7 – Hardware (1990)
Premise: In an America ravaged by atomic warfare, nomads spend their days scavenging for scrap in a blasted landscape. That’s how ex-soldier Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) comes into possession of some spare android parts. He buys them as a present for his artist girlfriend, Jill (Stacey Travis), who plans to put them in a sculpture. What they don’t know is that the pieces come from a new kind of android that is capable of reassembling itself — and is programmed to kill.
Stars: Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis
Treat? Think The Terminator meets Alita: Battle Angel by way of Tank Girl or Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Richard Stanley’s post-apocalyptic cyberpunk horror film is very original, and very creative. With a heavy metal/punk aesthetic and sound and a production which looks like it was dragged straight out of a junkyard, it was very much a product of its age for better or for worse. It’s smarter than most midnight movies, and you can’t say it doesn’t try really hard.
Trick? Lacking in budget, lacking in story. But since when have we let those things spoil an excitedly violent and stylish film? It looks like it was made in 1980 instead of 1990, but again, that’s part of the charm.
6 – Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Premise: On an island research facility, Dr. Susan McAlester is harvesting the brain tissue of DNA-altered sharks as a possible cure for Alzheimer’s disease. When the facility’s backers send an executive to investigate the experiments, a routine procedure goes awry and a shark starts attacking the researchers. Now, with sharks outnumbering their human captors, McAlester and her team must figure out a way to stop them from escaping to the ocean and breeding.
Stars: Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Samuel L. Jackson, L.L. Cool J
Treat? The Ringer calls it “…the finest unabashedly campy B-movie of the ’90s.” I think that sums it up perfectly. The cast is quite good for this type of a film. Think of it as a hybrid of Jaws, Aliens, and Jurassic Park. As far as sheer frightening movie-watching thrills, there are few films which can match this one.
Trick? If you can’t shut your brain off to watch a movie, this one could prove difficult to watch. It’s like the reincarnation of cheesy 70’s disaster movies by way of 80’s mad science. So maybe audiences over time have written it off as just another shark movie. It’s also more of an action movie than a horror film, but I’ll count it.
5 – Alien 3 (1993)
Premise: Ellen Ripley is the only survivor when she crash lands on Fiorina 161, a bleak wasteland inhabited by former inmates of the planet’s maximum security prison. Once again, Ripley must face skepticism and the alien as it hunts down the prisoners and guards. Without weapons or modern technology of any kind, Ripley leads the men into battle against the terrifying creature.
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance
Treat? Returns to the grimy body-horror film roots of the original Alien rather than the action-movie heroics of Aliens. Dark, dingy, and with surprisingly great performances by Sigourney Weaver and the rest of the cast, it’s a surprisingly solid sci-fi horror film which I feel has gotten more appreciated over time. If you can find the rough assembly-cut version of the film, that’s the version to watch even if it isn’t finished.
Trick? Director David Fincher famously disowns this film because he didn’t get to execute his vision. Indeed the troubled production ends up being a rather by-the-numbers approach, and despite good visuals and acting just doesn’t find much excitement.
4 – Event Horizon (1997)
Premise: When the Event Horizon, a spacecraft that vanished years earlier, suddenly reappears, a team is dispatched to investigate the ship. Accompanied by the Event Horizon’s creator, William Weir, the crew of the Lewis and Clark, led by Capt. Miller, begins to explore the seemingly abandoned vessel. However, it soon becomes evident that something sinister resides in its corridors, and that the horrors that befell the Event Horizon’s previous journey are still present.
Stars: Sam Niell, Laurence Fishbourne
Treat? I never thought I would put a Paul W. S. Anderson movie on a “best-of” list, but it’s still 2020 so anything’s possible. Despite Anderson’s inability to make intelligent movies, the logic holds up in this one just long enough. It’s Alien mixed with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Hellraiser. Somehow the mix of brute violence and sci-fi exploration works well. This is one of the most frightening films on this list, and the production (and cast) has held up very well. Indeed, this film was hated upon release, but has gained a cult following to remain (more?) popular. I’d say only #1 on this list can claim something similar.
Trick? Despite some clever window dressing, the film’s logic is still lacking. The screenplay kind of loses direction after the first half, and multiple climaxes at the end will not really leave the best impression.
3 – eXistenz (1999)
Premise: Video game designer Allegra Geller has created a virtual reality game called eXistenZ. After a crazed fan attempts to kill her, Allegra goes on the run with Ted, a young businessman who falls into the role of bodyguard. In an attempt to save her game, Allegra implants into Ted’s body the video game pod that carries a damaged copy of eXistenZ. Allegra and Ted engage in a series of experiences that blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
Stars: Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Treat? After an incredible run of horror films in the 1980’s Cronenberg’s 90’s output seems like it pales in comparison. However, that’s not the case at all. His 90’s films were less exploitive, less focused on physical body horror and more on the mental side of it. These were more sophisticated, and eXistenz is a very intelligent, and shocking film. The worst thing about it is the title. It is a somewhat tongue-and-cheek take on the digital revolution, and the combination of that type of story with organic manipulations makes it interestingly odd.
Trick? Came out around the same time as The Matrix with a similar kind of world-within-a-world plot, so because of that I feel like it was unfairly compared and forgotten. The plot is a bit confusing, and isn’t nearly as action-packed as The Matrix. It also feels dated when comparing other films which tell similar stories.
2 – Cube (1997)
Premise: Without remembering how they got there, several strangers awaken in a prison of cubic cells, some of them booby-trapped. There’s onetime cop Quentin, scientist Holloway , young math genius Leaven, master of escapes Rennes, autistic savant Kazan and architect Worth, who might have more information on the maze than he lets on. The prisoners must use their combined skills if they are to escape.
Stars: David Hewlett, Nicole de Boer
Treat? A precursor to booby-trap films like Saw, which would be popular in the 2000’s. This one is an edge-of-your seat thrill ride, and the script actually has some brains so the film isn’t just about gruesome deaths and violence. For the first time on this list we have a horror film which doesn’t fall into the horror film cliche deathtrap. Usually those first-of-their kind horror films become cult classics, so it’s surprising this one isn’t more popular.
Trick? It’s a low budget Canadian movie. So the cast is full of no-names, the director is a no-name, and the budget is thin. The film recycles sets over and over again, so it can get repetitive.
1 – Tremors (1990)
Premise: Repairmen Val McKee and Earl Bassett are tired of their dull lives in the small desert town of Perfection, Nevada. But just as the two try to skip town, they happen upon a series of mysterious deaths and a concerned seismologist studying unnatural readings below the ground. With the help of an eccentric couple, the group fights for survival against giant, worm-like monsters hungry for human flesh.
Stars: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward
Treat? Really the only 90’s sci-fi horror film to have any sort of staying power. Tremors is a classic. It was a modern-day version of those cheesy monster films from the 50’s and 60’s. The film’s ability to be funny and frightening at the same time was something that had only really been accomplished at the time in the Evil Dead series. Above all, Tremors is a very entertaining film. And it has held up very well over time (maybe even gotten better with age?)
Trick? Of course its cheesy. Of course it has cheap special effects. But who cares? That’s the vibe it’s trying for, and it achieves it near-perfectly. And yes, poor sequels have certainly tarnished the reputation of the original film.