The Best and Worst of the ’90s Teen Horror Movie Craze

Hot take: Final Destination is a better film than just about any 21st century horror movie to date. Argue all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that late-1990s and early-2000s era horror movies are awesome. I’ll take Disturbing Behavior over The Human Centipede any day.

The late-1990s and early-2000s were a transitional period in horror movies and for a brief, shining moment, B-horror movies reigned. During this period the villain shifts from a deranged outsider (the height of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s) to one of the cast on the poster secretly hellbent on revenge. Even thrillers got in on the action, with Dead Man’s Curve, Gossip, and The Skulls. Then as J-horror influenced ghost stories rose in popularity and with torture porn on the horizon, the teen slasher fell by the wayside. The post-9/11 horror movie world wasn’t interested in watching a bunch of pretty people get picked off by dorks leaving disgruntled valentines. There was a last gasp in the mid-aughts as studios re-upped their obsession with 3D and blended gore gimmicks with teen slashers, but they never reached the same level of popularity.

The following flicks have all the cheese of 60s B-movies and practical effects of 80s teen slashers but with the added bonus of self-awareness and sarcastic detachment. Of course nostalgia plays a big role in my undying love, but still. Horror movies today are all nihilism all the time, a game of oneupmanship to see who can produce the most grotesque, gag-inducing festival of guts and gore, but in the late-nineties and early-aughts frights were still fun. No one went into The Craft with an eye on an Oscar. Hating on Idle Hands or Cherry Falls for being terrible movies is easy, but completely misses the point that they’re supposed to be terrible. So come take a walk with me down memory lane past some of the best and worst of a subgenre lost to the sands of time.

 

Sarcasm for the Irony Crowd: Cherry Falls vs. Scream

90s_peerpressure

Pretty much everyone has seen Scream (1996), and even if you’re one of the unlucky few who hasn’t, it’s a sure bet you’re familiar with the premise. In this Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson classic, someone in a ghostface mask is bumping off teenagers in spectacular fashion. But it’s not all just vivisecting jocks and decapitating cheerleaders. There’s a dense layer of postmodern trope subversion on underneath Drew Barrymore’s shrieks. Not only does it skewer 80s teen slashers but it more or less sets the tone for the teen slasher revival.

But while Scream is the best of the subgenre, Cherry Falls (2000) has to be one of the worst. Like Scream, Cherry Falls is a postmodernist satire, but where the former takes its source material seriously, the latter is a failed attempt at coopting someone else’s movement. At least it has a clever twist on an old premise—the killer only kills virgins so the kids put together a literally life-saving orgy—but with each swing at grand social commentary it misses in poor acting and a half-baked plot. Where Scream takes a critical look at its roots, Cherry Falls critiques Scream derivatives with the same depth and meaning as Cher’s speech on refugees in Clueless.

Best death scene: Scream—Sidney drops a TV on Stu’s face.
Best line: Cherry Falls—“She thinks fellatio is a character in Shakespeare.”

 

Vengeance Will Be Mine!: I Know What You Did Last Summer vs. Valentine vs. Urban Legend

90s_vengeance

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) is the most 80s-like of the 90s crew in that the young adults are hunted by a sadistic stranger. There’s a lot of running and screaming and hiding in unlikely places. The killer is set up in the opening scenes as a fisherman the kids accidentally hit with their car and dumped in the water. But maybe homeboy wasn’t dead after all and now his hobbies include standing menacingly in the dark, writing threatening notes, and murdering teenagers with an oversized hook.

Urban Legend (1998) and Valentine (2001) are both movies about young adults with broken hearts meting out revenge against those who wronged them. Urban Legend, a movie where college students are killed in the tradition of local urban myths by someone in a black winter coat, is a clear attempt to piggyback off Scream, but since Wes Craven didn’t have Pacey with frosted tips, points go to Urban Legends. It is also the most quintessentially 90s movie ever made. There’s a scene where the protagonist, Natalie, wears a pastel turtleneck tucked into her high-waisted jeans. The song “Zoot Suit Riot” plays at a frat party. “He likes it! Hey Mikey!” has a prominent role.

Valentine ages up its cast into their early twenties but keeps the wronged lovers in the form of an unpopular kid from middle school hunting the quintet of girls who made fun of him at a Valentine’s Day dance. The killer leaves creepy love notes for his victims then goes completely off script and kills anyone who crosses his path, and also happens to get bloody noses. It toys with feminism in the least committed way possible and offers half-hearted criticisms of what we now call rape culture, but none of that matters anyway because the guy who played Angel is in it.

Best death scene: Valentine—Denise Richards trapped in a hot tub is first stabbed with an electric drill, then electrocuted with it.
Best line: I Know What You Did Last Summer – “Oh, you got a letter? I got run over! Helen gets her hair chopped off, Julie gets a body in her trunk, and you get a letter? That’s balanced!”

 

‘Sup, Teach?: The Faculty vs. Disturbing Behavior

90s_schooldaze

Like Joshua Jackson, James Marsden pops up in a bunch of turn-of-the-millennium teen horror/thrillers. In Disturbing Behavior Marsden plays the new kid in town. His high school is ruled by the Blue Ribbons, a gang of spit-polished do-gooders with an uncontrollable urge to beat the ever living shit outta people. He and Katie Holmes, in a bid to sexy up her Joey Potter image, take on the varsity jacket crew and their leader, Dr. Caldicott, after their buddy is turned into one of “them.”

The Faculty plays with similar themes of “high school sucks” and “murdering your way to popularity,” but where Disturbing Behavior goes down a weird low rent X-Files route, The Faculty actually makes its point. Elijah Woods is a nerdy kid who discovers aliens are taking over his school and turning everyone into pod people. The final act features a giant alien parasite chasing Woods, Clea Duvall, and Josh Hartnett through the school. Also features a star-studded cast of famous celebs and “hey, it’s that guy” character actors, including Jon Stewart, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Jordana Brewster, Shawn Hatosy, Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Josh Hartnett, Usher, Danny Masterson, Lewis Black, and Summer Phoenix. Disturbing Behavior thinks adults, like, totally suck, man, but forgets its train of thought every time Katie Holmes’ midriff shows. Likewise, The Faculty drops all pretense as deeper meaning in favor of satisfying male wish fulfillment, but at the end of the day it holds up better.

Best death scene: The Faculty—Tie between Famke Janssen getting decapitated and thrown from Josh Hartnett’s car and Jon Stewart getting stabbed in the eye.
Best line: Disturbing Behavior—“Self-mutilate this, fluid girl!”

 

The Supernatural: Idle Hands vs. Final Destination

90s_fantasyland

(AKA the Devon Sawa Category.)

I don’t know why I own a copy of Idle Hands (1999). I don’t remember buying it, but there it is on my shelf. It has survived countless culls and half a dozen moves. It’s not that good a movie, nor have I watched it in years, and yet. The plot is simple: stoner Anton’s right hand is possessed by a demonic force and murderous hi-jinks ensue. Devon Sawa puts in one of his best performances ever, and the supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of awesome character actors. It’s the least traditional of the “teen goes on a killing spree” bunch and owes more to Evil Dead than Halloween. But that’s what makes it such a firecracker.

Final Destination (2000) is much more old school in style but this time the killer isn’t some creepy stranger with a grudge, but Death itself. It’s basically 90 minutes of watching teenagers get killed in increasingly freaky Rube Goldberg circumstances. Apparently if you turn down Death it will come for you in the most mind-numbingly convoluted way possible. Just for the hell of it. Again, Devon Sawa is great, and another 90s staple, Ali Larter, charms her way through ham-fisted dialogue. The sequel is also worth watching, but best to stop there.

Best death scene: Mrs. Lewton drinks vodka out of a cracked mug, the drops of which spill into a computer monitor causing it to explode. A shard from the screen strikes her in the throat and she stumbles into the kitchen at the same time the drops of vodka catch fire from the lit gas stove. The explosion knocks her down and when she reaches for a towel dangling on a knife rack one of the knives stabs her in the heart. Alex bursts in to rescue her but hastens her bleeding out by yanking out the blade.
Best line: Idle Hands—“Devil girl, with nothin’ to lose, she’s got wind in her hair and gum on her shoes!”

 

Teenage Witch: Little Witches vs. The Craft

90s_magicmayhem

If you, like me, were a teenage girl in the 90s, then The Craft probably fills you with with an inordinate amount of dreamy nostalgia. Nothing was cooler than this movie, and many a thirtysomething woman to this day still fantasizes about dressing like Nancy. The Craft and Little Witches both came out in 1996 (the latter about 6 months after the former) and cover more or less the same ground: teenage girls at a parochial high school get a little too into witchcraft.

In The Craft, retiring Sarah is taken in by a coven led by Nancy (the astounding Fairuza Balk). Each girl uses magic to improve their lives inch by inch, but when Nancy goes too far the other three team up to stop her from killing everyone. On the other hand, Little Witches is about a retiring girl named Faith who is taken in by a coven led by Jamie who discover a Satanic temple buried under their school and decide it would be fun to sacrifice a virgin to summon a demon. While The Craft has an actual plot and decent if melodramatic acting, Little Witches is mostly just softcore porn draped over a plot so thin it barely counts as one. There are two bright spots in Little Witches: the demon puppet thing—I miss practical effects—and the woefully underrated Clea Duvall. Yet even they can’t beat out Nancy’s “HE’S SORRY!!!” scene. I would kill for her shoes.

Best death scene: The Craft—Nancy throws Skeet Ulrich out a window.
Best line: The Craft—“We are the weirdos, mister.”

 

This article was originally published in October 2015.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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