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The Mirror: Media Reviews by Eve Le Qinu

Horror Films of the 1990s
by John Kenneth Muir
McFarland & Company, 2011
664 pages plus Appendices, References, Bibliography, and a 12-page index.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and at McFarland.

To order direct from McFarland, call 800-253-2187.

Way back in 2007, The Thunder Child reviewed John Kenneth Muir's Horror Films of the 1980s. Now we get the pleasure of reviewing Muir's third encyclopediac overview of horror movies, Horror Films of the 1990s.

In addition to Muir's comments on each year's movies from 1990 to 1999, he has also enlisted the aid of some distinguished guest reviewers whose names will be familiar to fans of the horror genre -- John Bowen, William Latham, Joseph Maddrey, John Morehead and Brian Solomon -- who contributed "short, capsule reviews" in order to "grant a fuller sense of how a movie is perceived and rated overall."

John Kenneth Muir has written more than 20 reference books covering science fiction and horror on film and television, including such award winners as Terror Television, Horror Films of the the 1970s, Horror Films of the 1980s and The Encyclopedia of Superheroes om Film and Television.

He is also the creator of the Internet sci-fi series The House Between and his blog is

Here's the Table of Contents:

Part I: It Depends On What the Meaning of the Word "Is" Is: An Introduction (12 pages)
Part II: The Horror genome Project: A Decade of Aliens, Conspiracies, Interlopers, Serial Killers, Science Run Amok and Other Grim Trends (34 pages)
Part III: The Films by Year (Many hundreds of pages)
Part IV: Conclusion: A New Century Dawns (3 pages) Appendices:
A. 1990s Horror Conventions [in film]
B. The 1990s Horror Hall of Fame
C. Memorable Ad Lines
D. Movie References in Scream (1996)
E. Horror Films of the 1990s vs The X-Files
F. Ten Best Horror Films of the 1990s

As with his previous two books on the 70s and 80s offerings, the Horror Films of the 1990s are analyzed in the following way:

  • Films are listed in the year they were released to American theaters (rather than the year of copyright or production. "Representative" films from foreign countries are included, but most of the movies within are American made.
  • Movies that were direct-to-video" are also covered.

    And how are they covered?

    1. The "critical reception" of each movie is given through a sampling of reviews.
    2. Cast and crew info is then presented.
    3. Brief Synopsis.
    4. Muir's commentary on each
    5. Selected movies also have a quote from the film, or quotes from one of the filmmakers.
    6. Those films that Muir considers to have been important or influential in the development of the genre also have a "legacy" comment - where he discusses that impact.

    Each movie averages about a page and a half of coverage.

    The 1990s...what horror gems are covered within these pages?

    Well, there's a variety. There are some that I would just consider suspense, like Misery (1990), The Silence of the Lambs and Sleeping with the Enemy (both 1992, Basic Instinct (1993), and Natural Born Killers (1994.)

    There's science fiction: Terminator 2 (1991), Alien 3 (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996.)

    There's the supernatural, like Ghost (1990), Flatliners (1990), and The Frighteners (1996).

    And then there's the really graphic, "torture porn" type stuff, which compromises most of the horror offerings of the 1990s, like Basket Case 2 (1990), Childsplay 3 (1991), Hellraiser 3 (1992), Jason Goes to Hell (1993), Pumpkinhead II (1994), Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), Scream, (1996), Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood (1997, Phantasm IV Oblivion (1998) and Children of the Corn 666 (1999).

    Fans of the horror genre will find much to enjoy in these pages. John Kenneth Muir's writing is entertaining as well as informative, and will enable you to revisit each of your favorites with a somewhat different perspective than usual.

    What Muir also does, in his Introduction and Overview of the 1990s horror offerings, is cover the historical context of these films (the 1990s were the decade of President George Bush (41st) and Bill Clinton, and such news items as Loreena Bobbitt's ...bobbing, and so on). Such a detailed overview will also be of interest to the movie historian as well as the horror aficianado.

    Here's a sample of Muir's writing on the various decades of American horror films:

    Other than that tiny matter of trendy nomenclature, one truth remains self evident: horror movies universally mirror the anxieties of their age and their audience. To scare an audience, a filmmaker must understand the audience. He or she must reflect the zeitgeist and pinpoint those things that unsettle and disturb; that torment and terrify. If horror isn't relevant to every day isn't horrifying.

    Successful films from every decade demonstrate this crucial art-imitates-life dynamic. The 1930s gave Americans escapist, romantic fare like King Kong (1933) as the antidote to the Great Depression. Despite economic difficulties, there were still new frontiers, like Skull Island, and new resources, like Kong himself, to harness.

    The 1950s proffered a number of "giant insect films" like Them! (1954) which not so subtly conveyed audience anxieties over the new Pandora's Box blown open: the Atomic Age.

    In the 1970s, the era of the ERA and Roe v. Wade, horror films obsessed on reproductive rights and women's lib (It's Alive (1973), The Stepford Wives (1975), Demon Seed (1977) and other crises of the age from Watergate-like conspiracies (Jaws (1975), The Clonus Horror (1979), to unemployment and the energy crisis (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

    After the conservative Reagan Revolution of 1980, the popular "slasher" or "dead teenager" movie movie quickly became the most popular of all horror movie plots, showcasing an Old Testament-style response to sin and the "do whatever feels good" counter-culture aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    This reactive "vice precedes slice and dice" paradigm of the 80s saw horny, drug-using teens (usually at camp) punished for moral transgressions by draconian, machete-armed slashers.Pre-marital sex and smoking weed were punishable by decapitation, and the arrival of the silent, avenging slasher was often coupled with lightning and thunder, a cue that these monsters represented a force of nature or even God himself, re-asserting old values and snuffing out transgression.

    The 1980s also witnessed the rise of the AIDS epidemic, and the deadly disease proved a potent bogeyman of the age in such films as John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987).

    And that brings us to the bailiwick of this text. What of the 1990s?

    As in the previous decades of the 20th century, terror was bred explicitly from world and national events, from politics to culture. By 1990, Ronald Reagan was out of office....replaced by his vice-president, George H. W. Bush...

    During Bush's presidency, America underwent a period of sweeping changes. The Cold War came to an abrupt and unexpected end. The Soviet Union fell, and suddenly it appeared that America had no serious enemy, no real international challenge. American uncertainty over what brand of "new world order" might replace the old, familiar one gave rise to a nebulous anxiety.

    Nature abhors a vacuum, and so horror movies began to fill in this "enemy" gap with fictional foes, imagining sinister conspiracies of all types, mostly from inside America's borders.The U.S. Federal government (The X Files: Fight the Future (1998), avaricious Big Business (Carnosaur (1993), organized religion (Stigmata (1999), the affluent upper class (Eyes Wide Shit, and even vampires Blade (1998) and Satanists The Ninth Gate (1999) colluded to re-shape America and the world in many signature 1990s horror films.

    And here's a sample of his writings on movies - a few paragraphs (he devotes four pages) of Alien Resurrection. (1997) which he rates 2 and a half out of 4 stars.

    Following the dark, hopeless (but gorgeous and artistic) Alien 3, the follow-up franchise entry takes absolutely zero chances in reasserting the property as an overtly commercial one. Sigourney Weaver's Ripley returns alive and well (a clone)with a full head of hair, playing basketball, quipping her way past an army of aliens, and vetting a variety of elaborate action scenes.

    Alien Resurrection also boasts a hot young star in its cast (Winona Ryder), evidences some 1990 post-modern humor and wallows in CGI alien hordes. It's a crushing creative disappointment, a total capitulation to the mindless blockbuster mentality of the mid-1990s, and consequently the franchise's most unsuccessful entry. All subtlety, all humanity has been surgically removed from the movie in an attempt to make Alien Resurrection the most crowd-pleasing BMF [Bug-eyed Monster Film] you've ever seen.

    Since 1979, the Alien films have always put a serious mood and an amazing sense of place, of location, first. From the space truckers smoking and eating Chinese food aboard the lived in Nostromo in Ridley Scott's original , to the Colonial Marine environs of James Cameron's Aliens, even to the ruined, industrial blight of Fury 161 in David Fincher's film, reality and atmosphere have been handled with grace. These settings, plus situational appropriate characters, grounded the series so thoroughly in recognizable human terms that the acid-blooded, saliva spewing aliens seemed not only real, but ultra menacing. Alien Resurrection< makes the characters and world of the aliens a live-action cartoon. The frightful strength and power of the aliens has been made a laughing stock, particularly during the horrendous sequence wherein the monster's signature jaw pulps the head of General Perez (a grievously miscast Dan Hedaya).

    Instead of dying instantly from this vicious attack, Alien Resurrection has Hedaya just stand there, alien behind him, looking dazed. He reaches to the back of his skull, picks out a piece of his brain, and looks at it quizzically while the alien waits to strike again. The scene is so poorly acted, so poorly presented that you can't tell if its supposed to be funny or horrific. Finally, it's just a mess.

    Another scene tries...

    Muir continues his commentary by analyzing a few more scenes, and then ends his commentary with:

    But what Alien Resurrection actually involves, it seems, in regards to the aliens and the Ripley clone herself is the intrusion of authority into a realm where it doesn't belong: the creation of life itself without regard to the quality of that life. It's a "don't tamper in God's domain" libertarian tract more than it's a Roe vs Wade-supporting abortion-rights epic.

    The movie urges restraint on the part of scientists who would make monsters out of our DNA. When Ripley destroys her deformed clones with a flamethrower, it may not be an abortion, but it certainly is a mercy killing. One clone begs, "kill me." So perhaps the movie is more about euthanasia and the right to die than it is about abortion, another hot button issue thanks to the acts of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, or "Dr. Death." The analysis of the right-wing critics above [in the part of Muir's commentary that I've ellipsed out, ed.] seems to want to blame Ripley for something terrible, which is weird. What is her evil lifestyle that renders her culpable here?

    This is one case where I wish the movie had actually lived up, more fully, to some of the implications that critics read into it. The bottom line is that Alien Resurrection is a colorful cartoon. Alien Lite.

    Horror Films of the 1990s, like the preceding two books, is published by McFarland, so it's a high-quality, hard-backed book, with cost to match - $59.95. But it's a book that will give you hours and hours of enjoyment, as you revisit your memories of this decade, and revisit the films afterwards.


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