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Why I made the list: When I was writing my first piece about underrated 90s films, I realized there were a lot of them I wanted to talk about! And when I saw that about half of them had horror, sci-fi, or fantasy elements, it seemed like I had to split things up, and make another list dedicated to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films from the 90s.
So with a first list dedicated mostly to unseen comedy and drama films from that decade under my belt, and the autumn chill starting to creep in, I decided it was a good time to get around to talking about underrated 90s films that shock, thrill, and transport you to different worlds.
So, let’s dig in!
Let’s start with a film that may be surprising to anyone who expected this list to be made up of hard sci-fi and horror (I did also put fantasy in the title!) On the surface (notably in the cute, bright, misleading poster), Fluke is a family-friendly comedy-drama about a cute little puppy who goes on an incredible journey, a la Homeward Bound (1993).
But the film is based on a 1977 fantasy novel by English writer James Herbert, known primarily for his work in the sci-fi and horror genres. And despite a somewhat sentimental approach to the adaptation, more incredibly dark elements remain in the screen version than the studio probably approved of. For starters, the titular pooch is gradually revealed to be the reincarnation of a workaholic middle-aged man who died in a car crash!
After becoming aware of this fact, Fluke /Thomas sets out on a journey to reunite with the family he left behind in his human life and save them from the seemingly shady former business partner apparently responsible for his death.
Although the film can feel a bit too syrupy at times, it’s also a fascinating look at what reincarnation would entail and the emotional effects it would have on those involved. It’s definitely a tearjerker, so have tissues at hand!
The Faculty (1998)
Written by one of the most promising screenwriters (Kevin Williamson, fresh off Scream) and exciting directors (Robert Rodriguez, fresh off From Dusk Till Dawn) of the time, The Faculty was expected to become the next big horror hit when it came out in 1998. But that didn’t really happen.
This is despite the fact it boasts a beyond impressive cast, including a young Elijah Wood, John Harnett, Clea Duval, and Usher, among many others, who are all likable in their teen roles. Just as good is the adult cast, which features Salma Hayek, Robert Patrick, Piper Laurie, and Famke Janssen (as well as Jon Stewart!) as some of the alien-possessed school faculty members they go up against.
While not as groundbreaking or critically loved as Scream, The Faculty is still a well-crafted, spooky, and exciting sci-fi thriller which deserves more love. While the meta-commentary is not on the same level as Williamson’s previous film, there are still a lot of fun homages and jabs to films in the genre’s past, and some genuinely scary scenes brimming with paranoia.
In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
In my opinion, In the Mouth of Madness is master horror director John Carpenter’s most underrated film (some would argue Prince of Darkness (1987), but I’m not really a fan). Sadly, its seriously meta nature didn’t go down that great on its release in a time before New Nightmare and Scream had been heralded as groundbreaking examples of horror cinema.
The story follows an insurance investigator (Sam Neill) who sets out to locate missing horror author Sutter Kane (a thinly veiled stand-in for Stephen King), only to find himself in a strange small town where Kane’s twisted narratives seem to play out in real life. Soaked in dread and featuring some truly incredible visuals and practical effects, the film is undeniably pulpy but also quite scary and fun.
The debut feature from Spanish-Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others), Tesis is, on the surface, a fairly standard psychological thriller about a group of people who discover there may be a murderer in their midst. But what makes it stand out is its film school setting and the fact that the investigators are all video geeks who discover the crimes via ‘snuff tapes’ left in the university library.
Amenábar has a lot to say about our relationship with screen violence in the film. He does so mostly through the characterization of protagonist Angela, a seemingly well-adjusted young woman who nevertheless, inexplicably, decides to do her thesis on violence in the media and soon becomes increasingly enthralled by the escalating danger around her.
Day of the Beast (1995)
The film that put prolific Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia (The Last Circus) on the map, Day of the Beast is an outrageously over-the-top black comedy horror that greatly showcases the film-maker’s gift at dark comedy and his keen sense of the absurd.
The craziness begins with the basic plot, which concerns a priest who becomes convinced that the only way to stop the impending birth of the Antichrist is to commit as many sins as possible. He then teams up with a heavy metal fan and self-described Satanist to go out and cause as much evil as they can in the service of stopping the apocalypse.
Imbued with manic energy worthy of a Sam Raimi film, the movie is often hilariously funny as its unlikely heroes do unspeakable things in the name of good.
Not the only David Cronenberg film on this list (nor the only one overshadowed by the similarly-themed The Matrix‘s release around the same time), eXistenZ is undeniably very similar to that other big technothriller released in 99, dealing as it does with a twisty story involving artificial realities.
However, as you may expect from Cronenberg, eXistenZ is much ickier than The Matrix and fully delves into body horror with the strange organic video game consoles the characters experiment with, sometimes in overtly sexual ways. Stars Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Lee are good at playing enigmatic, morally ambiguous characters, and Cronenberg crafts a trippy vibe helped by frequent collaborator Carol Spier’s always excellent production design.
The Addiction (1995)
Abel Ferrera’s allegorical vampire drama is maybe a hard sell to horror fans. It’s shot in striking black and white, has a somewhat subdued approach to the trappings of the genre, and leans hard into its metaphor of vampirism as drug addiction.
It’s also moody, atmospheric, and superbly acted, especially by Lili Taylor as the naive academic who gets mixed up with shady bloodsuckers played by Annabella Sciorra and the incomparable Christopher Walken (who was born to play a depressed vampire!).
While not particularly embraced at the time of its release, it’s since gone on to influence a lot of output in the vampire genre, particularly director Ana Lily Amirpour‘s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014).
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
I considered going with David Lynch’s wonderful Wild at Heart (1990) for this list (as its trippy Wizard of Oz imagery pushes it into the fantasy genre), but I went with his later film continuation of the iconic TV series as it features more overt genre elements.
The movie version of Twin Peaks was somewhat roundly rejected when it was first released. Fans looking for the mostly zany vibe and elements of coffee-and-pie wholesomeness of the TV show were mostly left aghast by a much harsher, darker film that delved deep into the life of doomed teenager Laura Palmer in the days before her death.
But with hindsight, many now see Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as Twin Peaks in its purest form, a sincere reflection of David Lynch’s vision for the series after he lost creative control during production on the second season.
While a sympathetic look at Laura’s troubles, the film also leans far more into the horror and sinister supernatural elements that weren’t able to make their way into Twin Peaks on network TV, and which Lynch would also later heavily infuse into the Twin Peaks revival.
Naked Lunch (1991)
Author William S. Burrough’s psychedelic, drug.-fuelled prose had long been considered unfilmable before this adaptation of one of his most famous novels came along. And director David Cronenburg proved that it still was without a great deal of tweaking.
To translate Burrough’s book to the screen, the Canadian auteur opted to mix elements of the novel with aspects of Burrough’s (incredibly bizarre) life story to bring the author’s spirit, in some miraculous way, to the big screen.
Naked Lunch is probably one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see. It’s filled to the brim with Cronenbergian beings like a typewriter that turns into bizarre half-human, incredibly sexual abomination before being forced to jump off a balcony, and lots and lots of other icky creatures that show his body-horror chops off to the max.
It is also a sensitive, and pretty darn funny at times. portrait of the artist himself and an attempt to dig into his tortured psyche, and it mostly works. Just make sure you read Burrough’s biography beforehand and don’t expect to understand what the hell is going on on a first watch!
Dark City (1998)
Possibly one of the most underrated sci-fi films of all time, many people argue that, like Existenz, Dark City was overshadowed by the sheer juggernaut of success that was The Matrix. But that wouldn’t be totally correct, because Alex Proyas’ noir sci-fi film came out the year before its similarly-themed cousin of a film (which actually reused many of the same sets).
The reason that Dark City was a bit of a box office bomb and has since (unfairly) mostly faded into obscurity is that it is just so damn weird. The first time a friend tried to convince me to watch it back in high school by describing the plot, I thought it sounded terrible.
But against all the odds, and now with a large cult following to back up the fact, it’s undeniable that Dark City really works. It has incredible off-kilter, 50s-era production design, an eclectic group of actors including Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Keifer Sutherland, and even Rocky Horror‘s Richard O’Brien as a genuinely sinister villain, and a slow unfurling of heady sci-fi themes. These elements shouldn’t really mix well, but they do, and to fantastic effect.
To go too deeply into the plot would be doing those (still many) people who haven’t seen the film a disservice, but it’s safe to say that Dark City has some incredible imagery and insane twists (that still make sense) that are simply unforgettable. Which makes it even more of a shame that it has never quite gained the classic sci-fi movie status that it so sorely deserves.