The 90’s. The dawn of CGI and Culture Beat’s Mr. Vain. A lot of the CGI, once groundbreaking, hasn’t aged too well – unlike Mr. Vain, which is as infectious now as it ever was. But even if a lot of CG now resembles a cut scene from a PlayStation 1 game, they were also utilised in a number of bloody fun horror films; some of which made the following list. Horror films which I watched over and over again, moulded by 90’s chic snark and cynicism, forever imposing (for better or worse) a certain frenetically-paced frisson and snappy dialogue which I still look for today in horror films; but not exclusively, mind…I’m not that much of an arsehole that I demand quips in my screenplays. This was a tough list to make, and bear in mind, these are just horror/monster movies which I personally enjoyed most. Ones whose genre and plots feel very streamlined, eschewing slow burning atmospheres of dread and overly internal conflicts, for a scalpel sharp slice of entertaining mayhem and external conflicts. If I have to choose between a slow burn or an explosive finale, I’m going for the latter.
All but two of the following seven horror films fit neatly into that gory B-Movie niche; as for the other two, I just think they’re awesome.
Here we go…
- The Faculty (1998) From the opening minute which motors along to The Kids Aren’t Alright by The Offspring, I was hooked. The fact that what follows is a classic tale of a rag-tag bunch of high school clique bait forced together to quell a bunch of hydrophilic squiddy parasites from taking over their teachers, their parents, their town, and eventually the world, meant that I was instantly infatuated with it. Yes, this in very much in Body Snatchers territory, but with an alt rock soundtrack; Jesus, it even pains me to say it that Creed (gulp) do a solid cover of Alice Cooper’s Eighteen. Much like Elijah Wood’s character Casey, I was also that “geeky Stephen King kid” at the time of the film’s release, and an avid Offspring fan (side note I wish that band had stopped after the 90’s!) so I was practically mainlining adrenaline and frothing at the mouth at the idea of a lowly nerd saving the day. Now throw in a heap of other good character actors including Famke Janssen, Robert Patrick and Josh Hartnett, memorable dialogue, an exciting finale with a damn fine monster with slick CGI (for the time), and a lean pace that moves as fast as a squid can swim, and this was an instant favourite of mine.
- The Relic (1997) Another a heavy dose of CGI carnage, this was a blast back in the day. After an anthropologist immerses himself with a South American tribe, he unwittingly invites something awful into his body, and it isn’t dysentery. And when our poor academic manages to ship himself back to Chicago, his beast-mode transformation has him slaughtering staff at the museum in which he worked, and chowing down on human hypothalamus’s, forcing homicide detective D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) and top resident anthropologist Dr Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) to investigate. The bodies and the mystery escalate nicely, leading up to a gala event going into lockdown with a packed body count in attendance, leaving the intrepid dick and anthropologist to track down and stop the creature before the entire guest list become hors d’oeuvres.
- H2O (1998) At the time, this was the only Halloween sequel (post Halloween 2, because Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, is it’s own beast entirely) that mattered. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Halloween 4, not so much 5 and 6, but this was the first entry which disregarded all that messy sequel business involving Laurie’s adopted daughter, and the Druidic cult of Thorn, and it worked brilliantly. Jaime Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode, having adopted a new identity as a high school English teacher, not to mention a drinking habit and chronic PTSD following her ordeal in the first 2 movies. And equally cool, Myers was once more back to being truly creepy, always slipping just out of sight, hiding in shadows, and popping out just in time to do something horrible. Full of tense moments like the waste disposal scene and being trapped between a locked door and a flimsy gate (you’ll get it when you see it), this film ratcheted up the tension to a gripping finale, all capped off with an absolute perfect conclusion…until Halloween 8 came along and shat all over it. Still, a very strong case could be argued for this being a better sequel than the current trilogy by Teems, McBride and Green, which I do enjoy by the way.
- The Frighteners (1996) Easily my favourite of Peter Jackson’s movies, this comedic horror is an absolute gem, and stars Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a former architect turned necromantic conman, “cleansing” the homes of clients of his ghost buddies/partners in crime. It seems to be going well for the wily Mr Fox, until he stumbles onto the horrifying realisation that the malevolent spirit of a former notorious serial killer Johnny Bartlett (Jake Busey is suitably nutso and having a blast) is back, continuing his body count. Fox and his two spectral cronies/only friends, set out to try and stop Bartlett’s rampage, with an unhinged FBI agent (Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs) pestering them at every step. Even with some now pretty dire CGI, this is just a really story with some excellent gags.
- Deep Rising (1998) John Finnegan (Treat Williams) is a shady nautical smuggler, whose latest score is to foolishly transport some very sketchy and heavily armed hijackers (including Djimon Hounsou, Jason Flemyng, Wes Studi and Cliff Curtis) to a luxury cruise liner out in the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately for all involved, a giant Kraken-esque monstrosity decides it wants inside the nice vessel, particularly for all the morsels panicking and shitting themselves within. So it’s up to Williams and Famke Janssen’s feisty jewel thief to survive the thugs, the monster, the flooding ship, and find a way to escape. Like an aquatic Aliens with its tongue firmly in its cheek, this is big, dumb and full of fun. Stephen Sommers later went on to make the enjoyable The Mummy (1999) with Brendan Fraser, so that will help you gauge the vibe of this adventure; sadly he was also involved with those Mummy sequels, but he did manage to find some redemption with Odd Thomas (2013), the adaptation of the Dean Koontz book starring the awesome and sadly departed Anton Yelchin.
- In the Mouth of Madness (1994) This was John Carpenter’s swan song as the John Carpenter, the legend who dominated genre filmmaking. Sadly after this, he went on a bit of a slide creatively, but as last hurrah’s go, this is pretty great. John Trent (Sam Neill) is the insurance investigator sent to an eerie bucolic town in search of Sutter Cane (Jürgen Prochnow), a titan of literary horror who has mysteriously vanished somewhere within. Accompanied by Cane’s editor Linda Styles (Fright Night 2’s Julie Carmen), Trent slowly unravels the supernatural mystery, peeling back the rotten layers of Cane’s town, and gradually descending into (yup, you guessed it) madness, as the author’s Lovecraftian nightmare begins to leak from the pages of his new manuscript to consume his legions of fans, and the world at large.
- Tremors (1990) If you don’t like this film, you have earned my contempt, not that that means much. This classic B-movie stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as Valentine and Earl respectively, two blue collar handymen with ideas of getting out of the dull desert town of Perfection, Nevada. They should have left earlier, as on their way out, they discover the corpse of a resident who seemingly climbed a telephone pole and stayed there until death. Very strange. But not as strange as the huge subterranean creatures burrowing through town hungry for locals. Gory, exciting, and funny as hell, with great chemistry between the three leads, rounded out by seismologist Rhonda Lebeck (Finn Carter), this is what all creature features should aspire to be.
I would have included Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic (1997) in this list, as I did enjoy that when I was a kid, and the premise is still brilliant, but knowing now how Dimension Films and Miramax fucked him and his vision so much that he briefly lost his depth perception, I’m choosing not to. Thankfully, GDT has moved onto bigger and better things, but maybe not as big as they deserve to be; still sucks that he didn’t get to finish his Hellboy trilogy.
Whilst we’re in the spirit of monsters and violence, I’ve decided to add the opening chapter to my bleak, body-horror meets druidic revenge fantasy, Heathens. I wrote it with Clive Barker and John Carpenter in mind, trying to mix the former’s lyrical depictions of terror, violence and even beauty, with the latter’s expertise in taut, larger than life thrillers.
The book is available on Kindle and KU at Amazon, but as always, I’m more interested in finding new readers than money.
So if you decide to read on, and get a taste for it, please note I’ll be uploading a new chapter each day (please excuse the formatting, the novel isn’t actually formatted in this funky way), comprising the whole story. And if you enjoy it, please feel free to reach out on this blog or Twitter, even if its just to tell me I suck. Cheers.
The shotgun lay heavy in Keith Fletcher’s hands, his blood soaking into the wool of his gloves. Or maybe it was somebody else’s blood. There’d been enough of it shed down here in these cold, dark tunnels. A lot of blood, and a lot of screams.
He had led them all to a slaughter.
He stumbled on, half-blinded by the blood leaking into his eyes, pooling in his ashen beard like coppery syrup. The scratches on his scalp were deep, flaps of flesh hanging like a grotesque toupee. Keith popped open the double barrel of his shotgun and shook out the empty shells, his shaky fingers searching for new double-aught buckshot. Would it save him? He tried not to think about it, tried not to think about seeing the sun again, of breathing fresh air to cleanse the damp miasma of piled corpses and animal stink, the aroma of a feeding den thick enough to chew like cud. He didn’t care about his own survival, all he wanted was for Mary to make her escape. Just thinking the name of his beloved was like a vice across his chest.
He dared a glimpse over his shoulder. The darkness ruled in this section of the old tunnel, but he knew it was still on his trail, making a sport of its wounded and terrified prey. Patting down his coat pockets, his bloody gloves made an urgent drumbeat as he double- and then triple-checked the deep pouches. He was out of shells. The shotgun would be a pretty decent club in some circumstances, but this wasn’t it. He drew his hand axe out from under his coat, apt for limb removal. Keith knew he might as well be empty-handed.
There were too many of them down here.
They had blundered right into a nest of the things. He tortured himself with possibilities: how close had they been to the Sheltons’ home? If they had made it there, could they have accomplished what centuries of their forebears had strived and failed to do? To clip the Shelton bloodline, retrieve the Drest Stones, and end all of this.
Dammit O’Hara. She wasn’t to blame, but he needed to curse at something in his pained anguish. It always was a risk relying on her clairvoyant ability, her visions often obscured by dark forces.
Panting, sweating, his scalp a furnace of pain, Keith tried not to think about what had just happened to them. But even half-blinded by darkness and his own dripping blood, he couldn’t shake loose the image of what he witnessed back there. Such a sight didn’t require eyes, it lived forever in the mind, lurking between the dark spaces between more pleasant thoughts, waiting to slink out in the middle of the night when you were at your weakest. The scene had been of a vast high-ceilinged chamber of time-worn brick and mortar, calling to mind a silo or the bottom of a giant well, lit by small mountain-pass arrangements of candles, each stick resembling a melting rib broken and protruding upright from its bony cage. And the remains. Human and rodent, but mainly the former, in all stages of decay across the black rainbow of mortality and decomposition.
Fifteen minutes prior, Keith had watched the twisted things alight, pluck, gouge and rake out the eyes and guts of the twenty-some raiding party — his clan — their screams and pleas overlapping like a blood-gurgling brook. Some were eviscerated up amongst the high iron perches around the walls of that gloomy coop, others were taken apart right there on the filthy stone floor, thrashing limbs kicking and slapping amidst the piles of old bones and corpses of more recent kills. Keith hadn’t seen Mary amongst this number though, or else he would have made his last stand right there with her, charged straight into that abattoir blasting and swinging until they plucked his life and soul from his body. He had unloaded both barrels into the long pick-axe beaked head of the tall creature which had tried to ambush him from behind. The bone and dirt-crusted feathers of its long flat skull erupted easily enough, but they had numbers and a killer’s grace. The thing died headless, but not before a slashing talon had opened Keith’s scalp like tissue paper. With the blood pouring into his eyes, he had stumbled over a rotting femur, fiercely wiped his vision clear and scrabbled back to his feet, blind again, hearing the pecking and tearing, the whimpering of pain too severe to be processed. The living morsels of food seemed to understand that their exhausted calls for mercy had become nothing more than involuntary spasms of tongue, teeth and lips. Some of them, men and women Keith had known for decades and cared for deeply, seemed to know their miseries in split flesh were almost done, and occupied some distant plane of consciousness.
Calling out Mary’s name, he had staggered out of that feeding vault, literal blind luck guiding him into one of the off-shoot tunnels flowing deep beneath the many acres of park and farmland. He never heard her voice, no matter how hard he screamed her name.
The honking noise came again, bouncing off the cold, wet brick arcades to scrape his nerves. It was the chilling call of his pursuer, the malformed raptor-man coming to end him here in darkness and futility.
A quiet traitor lived in Keith’s head, conspiring with his heart and soul to simply cease his escape attempt and get this over with, calmly arguing its case: he was wounded, lost, outmatched, and worst of all, Mary could still be alive down here. She’s gone, a second, nasty little voice chimed in. They’re all gone. You were the wise one, the leader, and you led them all to a worthless death. No! Anger flared up inside him like a struck match stick, there’s still hope.
He stumbled on tiredly for a few more paces, his barely visible boots kicking a few chunks of broken brick and tiles, the inhaled dust invisible in the darkness. He wanted to scream a futile challenge at the thing behind him, hoping the aggressive roar might give it pause. He knew it wouldn’t though. These beasts didn’t give a damn about their food shouting and cursing. After a few more steps he noticed slivers of weak light luring him on, shining through cracks in the ceiling brick, just enough to tease help and salvation. It wasn’t sunlight filtering through the high ceiling though. It was the weak and milky electric glow from the tunnel above.
The honking call came again, so loud it made Keith flinch. It had covered the distance with frightening speed, a predator’s swiftness. A heavy rustling noise owned the space behind Keith as shadow-stolen wings, black as midnight oil, engulfed the wide tunnel, the tall and skinny frightener gliding over the rubble-dotted floor to seize him.
Keith wasn’t able to lash out with his old Celtic axe. A white-hot slash of pain raced across his back, the long pelican-like beak tearing through labour-built muscle, a trench two inches deep. Gasping, Keith stumbled helplessly, his gloved hands still holding tight to his axe and the club of his shotgun, but the agony thwarted any comeback, and all he accomplished was a deep inhalation of dust and grit which coated his tongue with the taste of too many lost generations.
A pointless, taunting image of Mary being similarly butchered elsewhere in these unchartered caverns bobbed weakly in the dark sludge of his dying brain. The image might have been scolding him, telling him that it was a mistake for his kind, the lineage of this old town’s first settlers — the sect of Merseyside Druids — to have once more raised arms against the Shelton family. Wrong for them to have marched down here into this cold subterranean hell to try and slay them on their turf. The horror continued cutting him up, pecking and chipping away at his spine as his legs went cold and insensate.
He lied to himself as his blood pooled all about him, sweet beautiful fictions of Mary getting out of here and laying down her axe, of going into hiding where the Sheltons couldn’t locate her. He sprinkled some extra gold dust across this fantasy, imagining how it might have been if they had both done that: living as a simple man and wife, young and vital. A man and wife, and their new born child, a vessel for hope of new beginnings, far removed from clan warfare. His body had grown numb to all sensation but the regret burned in his cowed soul.
The huge beak clamped around Keith’s exposed spine, but he couldn’t feel it. The last thing he was aware of was a fleeting sense of motion in the pit of his blood-drunk stomach as he was dragged upwards through a dark vertical shaft hidden deep in the earth.
Deeper than any sane man would want to go.
Deep enough for a mass burial of secrets and bodies.
Chapter 1 will be available tomorrow. Thank you for reading.
Daniel James is an author of speculative (and sometimes dark and weird) fiction from Liverpool, England.
He is the recipient of two Kirkus Star reviews for his character-driven, action-packed urban fantasy novels Hourglass and The Ferryman’s Toll. Hourglass was also voted one of their Best 100 Indie novels of 2021.