The Brief, Strange, Glorious Period When Horror Went Legit

Chris Tilly
Movies Horror
Movies Horror

It’s been a pretty special year for horror, with Get Out grossing $253m to make it the sleeper hit of 2017, and It becoming a bona fide blockbuster by amassing $653m and counting. Their budgets were (relatively) modest, the former costing $4.5m and the latter $35m. And neither film featured stars, with It author Stephen King the biggest name attached to either project.

Their success has meant the genre is garnering the acclaim and respect it consistently deserves yet so rarely receives. But 25 years ago things were very different. For a brief period, Hollywood took horror seriously, pumping money into lavish, big-budget productions, hiring acclaimed directors to oversee proceedings, and casting the biggest stars on the planet in lead roles.

With only a couple of these features doing any real business at the box office, however, the period was short-lived, but it did result in the following five films gracing cinema screens.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Gary Oldman as Dracula.

Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a big deal back in 1992. The Oscar-winning director assembled an all-star cast, with Gary Oldman playing the Count, Winona Ryder cast as Mina, the object of his affections, and Anthony Hopkins playing grizzled vampire-hunter Van Helsing. Though the less said about Keanu Reeves’ turn as Jonathan Harker, the better.

Together with screenwriter James V. Hart and production designer Dante Ferretti, Coppola turned the gothic horror into a lush, operatic wet dream, sexing up Stoker’s prose at every turn, and throwing in some pretty extreme violence for good measure. He also avoided CG and modern special effects techniques, instead creating much of the film’s startling visuals in camera via matte paintings and forced perspectives. The result is a decidedly odd concoction, but one that scored at the box office, won three Academy Awards (for costume, sound and make-up), and even spawned a hit single in the shape of Annie Lennox’s Love Song For a Vampire.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire.

If Dracula was heavily hyped, that’s nothing compared to the attention — and furore — that surrounded Neil Jordan’s big-budget adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire. Trouble arose when Tom Cruise was cast as vampire Lestat, and Rice made her feelings known, stating that Cruise was “no more my vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler.” The author did a speedy about-turn when she saw the finished film, however, praising the performance by stating “from the moment he appeared, Tom was Lestat for me.”

He’s definitely playing against type as a vampire who loves to kill, but Cruise absolutely nails it, while the homoeroticism that underpins his scenes with Brad Pitt’s Louis is white-hot. Covering a period of 200 years, and traversing Louisiana, New Orleans and Paris, Interview with a Vampire is an atmospheric assault on the senses that should have been followed by a series of equally gorgeous sequels about the sexy vampire duo. Instead, all we got was toothless 2002 adaptation Queen of the Damned, which replaced Tom Cruise with Stuart Townsend. Enough said.

Wolf (1994)

Jack Nicholson in Wolf.

With Jack Nicholson cast as a werewolf, Michelle Pfeiffer his love interest, and Graduate director Mike Nichols on helming duties, what could possibly go wrong? Well a few things actually, the main issue being that Wolf doesn’t know what it is, the film part-romance, part-workplace drama, and part-creature feature. Jack plays a weak-willed publishing editor whose life changes when he gets bitten by a wolf, giving him literal and metaphorical teeth.

Indeed there are metaphors all over the place, most obviously regarding gender and office politics. Storylines that don’t a fun genre movie make. But there’s unmistakable chemistry between Nicholson and Pfeiffer, and the film does feature a memorable scene in which Jack marks his territory by pissing on James Spader’s shoes. But all-in-all, this one was something of a missed opportunity.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Robert De Niro in Frankenstein.

Like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein aimed to be the definitive adaptation of one of the great horror novels. And the ingredients were all there — Branagh had a fortune to spend, Shawshank Redemption writer Frank Darabont was on scripting duty, and Robert DeNiro was playing the monster.

But while the film looked good — a globe-trotting epic that featured action and drama, but focussed on the tragedy at the heart of the story — the finished film was somewhat underwhelming; an overwrought hodgepodge of thoughts and ideas that never really coalesce. So while it might be the most faithful of all Frankenstein adaptations, Branagh’s films doesn’t come close to capturing the power of the novel.

Mary Reilly (1996)

Julia Roberts and John Malkovich in Mary Reilly.

Mary Reilly is the only fully-fledged disaster on this list. A loose adaptation of the Jekyll and Hyde story, this version — based on the novel of the same name by Valerie Martin — instead focusses on the doctor’s maid. And there was trouble from the start.

Tim Burton was initially supposed to direct Winona Ryder in the title role, before Stephen Frears took over helming duties, and Julia Roberts — then pretty much the biggest star in the world — was cast in the lead. But there was trouble behind the scenes between director and star. Roberts’ Irish accent left a lot to be desired. Her chemistry with Jekyll/Hyde actor John Malkovich was non-existent. And the finished film was dull, uninspired, and entirely lacking in scares. Worst of all, it took one of the greatest stories in horror literature, and managed to make it boring.

And that was it for this five-year period when horror was taken seriously. There has been the odd exception since. World War Z (2013) had a big budget and huge star in the shape of Brad Pitt, and the resulting film was a hit. Crimson Peak (2015) also cost a fortune, but fared less well at the box office. And expensive Alien films still continue to get made, with varying degrees of success. But examples are few and far between.

So it will be interesting to see if the success of 2017’s horror films will see the genre once again going legit, and receiving the investment and support it so richly deserves.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.