Whether it’s telling tales by the campfire, or projecting them on a giant screen, we will always have monsters in our lives. They may be abstract fears and phobias made flesh but they also represent the darkest parts of ourselves.
Interestingly, when times are tough and fears are high in the real world, the popularity of monster movies rises. Whether it’s pure escape or the catharsis of seeing a hero triumph over a beast, we need monster stories. Their popularity waxes and wanes, usually in 20 to 30 year gaps (1930s, 1950s, 1980s…) and echo the society, science, and politics of the times. The 1990s were one of the “down” periods and not overly heavy on the monster movies, though there are a few notable titles which have become classics. Sadly, many of them have fallen into the category of “B movie.”
We’re taking another look at those stand-out creature features of the ’90s that are worth a bowl of popcorn or two. Not every title is an award-winning film, but as monster movies go, these are some of the coolest of the decade.
Alright you primitive screwheads, listen up. See this? This movie will change your life. It’s director Sam Raimi’s third chapter in The Evil Dead trilogy, starring Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams. This movie has some of the most insane action of any horror comedy ever made. Even if you’re not a fan of monster movies, you would probably enjoy this one. Picking up after the events of Evil Dead 2, Ash finds himself in the middle ages, and must seek out the dreaded Necronomicon Ex Mortis to send him back to his own time. But he botches it and accidentally awakens an entire skeletal army. It happens, right? The evil force itself is a demonic presence which manipulates flesh and mind to create all sorts of beasts, big and small. From “Deadites” to harpies, you’ll get your nutty monster fix with this one in a fun way. Then when you’re done, and want more, you can jump right into Ash vs. Evil Dead on Netflix.
The ocean represents all sorts of fears. There are things down there human beings may never know. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a sea monster movie that has nothing to do with sharks. Before he hit it big with The Mummy (1999), Stephen Sommers made this campy action-filled horror movie that’s kind of like Aliens meets Speed 2: Cruise Control. It stars Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, Wes Studi, Cliff Curtis, Djimon Hounsou and the Sommers staple, Kevin J. O’Connor. It’s still the same eye-rolling dialogue and ridiculous action scenes you’d expect from this writer-director, but this time it’s R-rated, so you get plenty of decent gore and cussing to make up for it. The creature design and effects are outstanding. For all of this movie’s imperfections, it’s still dynamite fun. It’s truly shocking that after 20 years, this movie still doesn’t have one sequel.
Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, and directed by Steven Spielberg, this movie became an instant classic. Stevie proved that he could still make one hell of a monster movie. The only person who can possibly outdo Jaws is Spielberg himself. Just like sharks, these monsters were real. Dinosaurs actually existed on our planet. In Jurassic Park, audiences saw actual moving dinosaurs that weren’t cartoons, animatronics, claymation, or puppets for the first time. The performances from the wonderful cast only helped us to believe what we were seeing. Spielberg really set the mood, too, from the first frame to the last. If you watch the first T-Rex scene on a dark and stormy night, it still makes your hair stand up. It should be said, however, that if they’d followed the book more closely, the movie would have been even scarier.
This early work from Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro is one that he wasn’t too pleased with. Apparently, he and his star Mira Sorvino had to fight tooth-and-nail to make the vision they wanted to, all the while being hounded to change the movie and make it “less depressing” by none other than Miramax producer schmuck Harvey Weinstein. In the end, the producer still got final say on the theatrical cut, but GdT eventually got to create his own director’s cut that brought it a bit closer to his intended vision. The production design and sets are truly creepy and the creature design is inventive and grotesque. This movie keeps on upping the ante, throwing the characters into the thick of it numerous times. It also proves that Mira Sorvino is good in everything. This is the perfect film for a cold rainy day.
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This big budget remake of the classic Universal film The Mummy ended up being one of the biggest hits of 1999. Directed by Stephen Sommers, the movie is more of a cornball family action movie than a legitimate horror film. This movie might be part of the reason why so many modern blockbuster movies have dialogue written for 13-year-olds. But what Sommers did with the monster was fantastic. The mummy was no longer a rotten, bandaged, shambling creature; he was a dark sorcerer, capable of otherworldly curses and powers beyond comprehension. Sommers made the mummy a force to be reckoned with. This movie is loaded with amazing sets, action, and special effects. The cast does a fantastic job considering the campiness of it all. Honestly, between this film, The Mummy Returns, and Deep Rising, it’s no wonder why many folks were very excited for Sommers’ Van Helsing before it came out. The real question is, why were they so surprised by it?
The Relic has some wonderful moments as well as some very bad ones. Director Peter Hyams (Sudden Death) creates a powerful vision with his photography (usually he acts as DP on his own films). The best way to watch this is with the lights off as Hyams paints truly nightmarish pictures in darkness. Based on the first novel in a series, the script takes many liberties, including omitting a character from the novel who happens to be the main character that the series is based around! There are major plot holes and the creature seems to move around in such a way as to only further the loose story. The acting and dialogue are silly, including some truly over-the-top emoting from Penelope Ann Miller. But the creature design of the Kothoga is a fine blend of CGI and practical puppet effects, courtesy of the great Stan Winston. It’s one of the coolest monsters ever thought up.
Species is another title that isn’t the greatest movie of all time, but is worth it for the creature design. Scientists splice a human embryo with alien DNA, and Sil is born. In appearance, she seems human, but there is something more under the skin. An early line of the film states that the scientists made the embryo a female to “be more docile.” To anyone who knows anything about nature, this is humorous, as in any predatory species the female is always more aggressive. This is the breakout role of Natasha Henstridge (The Whole Nine Yards), and she plays Sil with equal amounts of naive innocence and unwavering confidence. The creature was designed by H.R. Giger, who also designed the titular beast in Ridley Scott’s Alien, and the film is full of Giger’s trademark phallic and yonic body horror. The movie has its moments, but is ultimately a bit silly. It’s also worth it for the performances of Ben Kingsley, Marg Helgenberger, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Madsen as his most famous character, Michael Madsen.
Paul Verhoeven’s gigantic sci-fi extravaganza Starship Troopers is loosely based on a novel. The best way to watch this is to consider the entire movie, from beginning to end, as a futuristic propaganda film. It has all the beats. The characters have things happen to them which are million-to-one odds and just move the story along. The music, the cheesy lines, the perfect wealthy white people from South America…this whole thing feels like it was funded by the very same “Federal Network” it’s being broadcast on, just to get more soldiers to join the mobile infantry. But the movie pulls no punches. The first time you see someone get torn apart by an army of giant bugs, you know you’re in for some intense popcorn-chewing monster action. The creature designs are some of the greatest, and for how much of the movie is laughable, there are some intense battle scenes with brutal violence that stays with you even after the movie. Anyone who’s a fan of the director knows he’s not one to shy away from anything.
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Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight was the first of a planned trilogy of films that finished on a major low note after Bordello of Blood. This movie keeps with the humor-meets-horror aspect of the series and is a wild story with even wilder demon designs. The creatures are slimy, crazy, and in your face, featuring some outstanding costumes and practical effects. The cast of this movie does an amazing job, with killer performances by William Sadler, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Thomas Haden Church, CCH Pounder, the great Dick Miller, and a truly scenery-snarfing performance by Billy Zane. The kinetic energy and camera work is very reminiscent of early Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, and there’s an overall grind-house/drive-in feel to the movie. It also keeps with the series’ horror comic book roots, with rich colors and angled framing. This movie is freaky fun and a good one for a group of friends on a stormy night.
In Tremors, Valentine McKee and Earl Bassett have decided to leave their town of Perfection, Nevada, just one damn day too late. Giant subterranean worms called Graboids are turning the valley into one long smorgasbord. You might not know it, but this movie is actually a parody. It’s a funny throwback to 1950s monster movies. This wonderful blend of action horror mixed with a sort of redneck humor make for a great cocktail. Kevin Bacon and his sizzling-Bacon charm help carry this movie, though great performances are turned in by all. The monster designs in this movie are some of the all-time best practical effects of any monster movie to date. This movie spawned five sequels over the years (with more planned), along with a short-lived 2003 TV series (that’s not as bad as you’d think), and has developed quite the cult following. Michael Gross (as Burt Gummer) has carried the franchise on his own back as the only static character for over 30 years! The sequels aren’t great, but the creature designs are always changing. It doesn’t just stop with Graboids.