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Friday, January 22, 2021

30 Years Later: Remembering the Horror Movies of 1991

The ‘90s often ranks among the worst decades for horror, and if we were judging solely on 1991’s output, then the reputation would make sense. Strictly in terms of theatrical showings, the year’s biggest genre releases belonged to franchise sequels, a satirical Wes Craven horror-comedy, and an Oscar-winning film that still elicits debate about whether it’s even horror.

It seemed nowhere close to the boon in horror that the ‘80s brought. Still, between made-for-TV movies, limited releases, direct-to-video offerings, and the theatrical slate, 1991 managed to deliver more than a few cult favorites and notable gems. To give an overview of what horror looked like in 1991, here are some of the major highlights.

Warlock – January 10

Warlock was released in 1989 in Australia and the UK but fell into limbo after its distributor ran into financial troubles. It sat on the shelves until Trimark Pictures picked it up, dusted it off, and gave it a limited release two years later. Written by David Twohy (Pitch Black) and directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part II), Warlock saw its titular character flee from the 17th century to the present to bring about the Armageddon with a witch hunter in pursuit. Julian Sands played the warlock, with Richard E. Grant as witch hunter Redferne and Lori Singer as the unwitting ally in the present. It’s a setup very similar to The Terminator.

Popcorn – February 1

A box office dud, this slasher found its audience upon home release. To raise funds for the film department, film students put together an all-night horror movie marathon, complete with William Castle-style gimmicks, in an old theater scheduled for demolition. The only problem is that a killer is using the marathon as his slaying grounds. Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) stars as the final girl, Maggie, with horror stalwart Dee Wallace appearing as her mother. Kelly Jo Minter makes for a strong supporting character, too, in this highly underrated gem.

The Silence of the Lambs – February 14

Silence of the Lambs

Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award-winning feature begs the eternal question of genre classification among film fans. A young FBI cadet seeks help from an incarcerated cannibal to catch a serial killer that skins his victims to create a skinsuit. Existing at the crossroads of crime thriller and horror, The Silence of the Lambs left an indelible mark on cinema that still resonates today.

The Haunted – May 6

Before The Conjuring, there was the made-for-TV movie The Haunted. Based on the Smurl Haunting case investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Haunted follows the paranormal activity that plagues the Smurl family shortly after moving into their new home. Much of it fixates on Janet (Sally Kirkland). Movies made for the small screen don’t often get much attention, but The Haunted terrified those that grew up with the film.

Sometimes They Come Back – May 7

It was a busy week for made-for-TV horror. Based on a Stephen King short story, a man returns to his hometown with his family but finds himself tormented by teens that died during his childhood. Directed by Tom McLoughlin (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives), the movie stars Tim Matheson and Brooke Adams. It proved to be a big enough hit that it earned two direct-to-video sequels.

The Boneyard – June 12

Alley Oates (Deborah Rose) is a depressed psychic investigating a child murder case with detective partner Jersey (Ed Callum). It leads them to a morgue, where the worker insists the corpses of three children aren’t dead. When he’s arrested, the bodies spring to life, looking for their next meal, leaving Alley and Jersey in a fight for their lives. Special makeup effects artist James Cummins (HouseSlumber Party Massacre II) makes his feature debut here, delivering a trio of effectively creepy ghouls and more.

The Pit and the Pendulum – June 27

Everyone is familiar with Stuart Gordon’s From BeyondRe-Animator, and Castle Freak. This loose adaptation of the classic Edgar Allan Poe short story doesn’t get mentioned much. It’s also more of a combination of many Poe stories in one. Set during the Spanish Inquisition, horror vet Lance Henriksen plays the sinister Torquemada, the one responsible for deciding whether someone is deemed a witch or not. Atmospheric and gothic, it’s a more sedate horror story but features many gruesome torture sequences. Frequent Gordon collaborator Jeffrey Combs does appear in a small role, but it’s Henriksen who shines in his villainous turn as the sadistic Grand Inquisitor of Spain.

Body Parts – August 2

Bill (Jeff Fahey) is a criminal psychologist who agrees to undergo an experimental transplant after losing an arm in a car accident. He soon begins suffering visions of murder and loses control of his new arm. It turns out that the arm belonged to a serial killer, and it intends to keep on killing. Written/directed by Eric Red (Bad Moon), Body Parts also stars Brad Dourif and Lindsay Duncan. Body Parts didn’t fare well at the box office, but it’s worth noting that the film’s ads were pulled ahead of release when Jeffrey Dahmer was captured, and dismembered bodies were found in his apartment.

Child’s Play 3 – August 30

Set eight years after the events of part two, teen Andy Barclay (now played by Justin Whalin) has been sent to a military academy after failing to cope in multiple foster homes. Production on Good Guy dolls resumes after the bad publicity finally dies, resulting in Chucky’s (Brad Dourif) resurrection. Naturally, Chucky continues his quest for revenge against Andy. Directed by Jack Bender and penned by Don Mancini, Child’s Play 3 didn’t fare as strongly as its predecessors and marked the last in the franchise (outside of the reboot) to use Child’s Play in the title. No matter where this one ranks in the series, the final set-piece is a franchise highlight.

Cast a Deadly Spell – September 7

This made-for-HBO movie is more of a loving send-up, marrying comedic horror-fantasy to noir. Set in an alternate 1940s where magic and magical creatures exist, Detective Harry Philip Lovecraft (Fred Ward) is hired to track and retrieve the stolen Necronomicon. That job leads to a much bigger conspiracy involving femme fatales, hitmen, ancient evils, and a bid to bring about Armageddon. It’s a charming creature feature steeped in noir convention, with a stacked cast including Julianne Moore and Clancy Brown.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare – September 13

A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise producer Rachel Talalay made her directorial debut with the film meant to close out the popular slasher series. Her choice to lean hard into the campy tone the franchise had become wound up striking a raw nerve among critics and fans upon release. The new mythology attributed to icon Freddy Krueger likely didn’t help. But the 3D addition and finality of this sequel meant Freddy’s Dead topped its predecessor in revenue. It also helped inspire Wes Craven to return to the franchise with New Nightmare.

Ernest Scared Stupid – October 11

For Ernest P. Worrell’s (Jim Varney) fifth feature, the plucky character accidentally unleashes a troll that wreaks havoc over Halloween. It’s gateway horror featuring a snotty troll with a penchant for turning children into wooden figures and a clumsy hero fumbling his way toward victory with the help of young pals. Ernest Scared Stupid also stars Eartha Kitt.

The People Under the Stairs – November 1

Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) accompanies two adults from his neighborhood on a burglary attempt after facing eviction. The plan is to find the landlords’ rumored valuable coins and save their block. Instead, they find Mommy (Wendy Robie) and Daddy (Everitt McGill) Robeson are far more deranged than your usual landlord. Wes Craven brings the insanity in his satirical depiction of gentrification and class warfare. He never forgets the genre fun- including a basement full of cannibalistic teens.

The Addams Family – November 22

The Addams Family offered another gateway genre gem, and it proved to be a massive success at the box office. The plot sees con artists attempting to scam the eccentric Addams family by using an accomplice that pretends to be their long-lost Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd). The con artists get in over their heads against the masters of the macabre. Anjelica Huston, Raul Julia, Carel Struycken, and Christina Ricci round out the cast. It was the fifth highest-grossing movie of the year.

Critters 3 – December 11

Released direct-to-video, this threequel sees the pint-sized aliens relocate to a Los Angeles apartment building. Outside of the critters and their insatiable appetite, the only other connective tissue is the reappearance of bounty hunter Charlie (Don Keith Opper), aiding the new batch of potential victims. Directed by Kristine Peterson, this sequel is most known for being the one starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio.


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