The 90s as a whole aren’t necessarily considered a decade of cinematic greatness, but one can’t deny the great runs specific genres had from ’90 to the new millennium.
Comedy excelled throughout the decade, as major SNL players like Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Adam Sandler transitioned to film for all-time comedy classics, zany cult hits, and comedy nerd fan favorites. Drama, needless to say, remained the award-winning genre it always has been. Even horror saw a sharp and sleek revival after the slight early 90s lull when slashers finally died out, shlock was losing its flare, and filmmakers were struggling to see what horror fans wanted.
Great thriller films weren’t rare throughout the 1990s. Aside from the renowned classic titles, though, these flicks are seldom mentioned in movie discussions. Frankly, you don’t hear much speak of “90s thrillers.”
It’s not as though thriller films don’t have their buffs, fans, and collectors, but thrillers in general don’t really stir up devout fanfare that forms communities. People love great suspense films, but these flicks don’t spur sequels and franchises the way horror or comedy vehicles do. The same personal obsessions people hold for their beloved comedy movies or favorite horror flicks isn’t there when it comes to mystery/suspense films.
The thriller fans are out there, however. The 90s movie fans are as well. In some instances, those groups overlap in a highly passionate place. 1990 through 1999 was a great window in time for lovers of the suspenseful thriller, the dark stalker flick, or the grim mystery – After all, this decade birthed a directory full of thrilling flicks, many of which came and went almost unnoticed.
There’s a particular electricity to 90s thrillers: They’re stylish, vibrant, often bright in color, as dark subject matter’s tackled with glimmer; sans subtlety. Serial killers were all the rage. Psychological themes ran rampant. Psychos, maniacs, nuts, and creeps were all over. Old tropes meshed with new, as classic film techniques modernized.
Some of cinema’s greatest all-time thrillers came about in the 90s. The Silence Of The Lambs and Misery, most notably. But beyond the respected classics, people tend to ignore 90s thrillers like a harmless cyst. So many above-average yet forgotten or just unloved films from the time deserve a look and some praise.
Let’s review a mix of great but not overly respected thrillers from the 90s. Whether you’re looking for an action-packed road thriller, a psychological serial killer chiller, or an erotic mystery, there’s a good flick from the 90s for you. Those who grew up in these years or were watching a lot of movies throughout the 90s may not see a fresh, obscure title here. My hope is you’ll at least be reminded of a flick you formerly enjoyed. Here are 10 undersung thrillers from the 90s worth revisiting.
Synopsis: Jeff and Amy Taylor are moving cross-country to California. When they find themselves stranded in the desert, a trucker gives Amy a ride to a local diner to phone for help. Jeff goes looking for Amy, only to find the diner goers have no recollection of Amy nor the man she was with. After Jeff confronts the trucker, who claims to have no idea who he or Amy are, it becomes a missing person search and chase for the ages.
Calling a 90s Blockbuster starring Kurt Russell “undersung” or “underrated,” may seem stupid or out of touch, but the fact is Breakdown doesn’t receive enough praise for being an agreeable, fun, and partially frightening chase flick.
Breakdown is about as good as a mediocre film could be, or as mediocre as a good film could be, and that’s entirely up to you. If you’re up for a heart-pumping road thriller that shoe horns in every possible action-thriller cliche imaginable (and to fairly successful effect,) Breakdown is worth your time. There’s much fun to be had: An underwhelming, pansy-ish performance from Kurt Russell. Psychotic truckers. Paranoia. Chase. Gun blastin’. Climbing atop moving vehicles.
This is a nail-biter that ups the ante and heightens tension around every corner. Breakdown is a bit Spielberg’s Duel meets Deliverance, in that it’s big on the chase with horror elements – vulnerable people fighting to survive the senseless wrath of maniacs. You’ll without fail find yourself engrossed by Breakdown; following along with hair raised and blood rushing, as it’s a well-built action thriller, but you might also find yourself genuinely creeped out by the kooky cast of villains, who put our heroes Jeff and Amy Taylor through Hell, purely for the fun of it.
Pacific Heights (1990)
Synopsis: A couple renovate their dream home in the hopes of being landlords to fund it. One cunning tenant has a different plan.
Though it isn’t remarkable as a whole, John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights is a surreal and entertaining look at a nutty sociopath and their damaging impact on well-meaning people. Schlesinger builds suspense quite nicely, and does what he can with a lackluster script that’s littered with plotting issues. Michael Keaton is of course fantastic as the cunning and manipulative maniac Carter, remaining wacky and likeable despite atrocious behavior.
When I say atrocious behavior, I do mean atrocious. Carter’s a fella who breeds cockroaches in rental apartments, which is gross and pure evil. There’s no reason for such activity except for the sake of being a malicious weirdo. Pacific Heights finds strange ways of depicting a psycho, but those loathsome eccentricities of Carter’s are all a part of the messed up charm. If you haven’t seen it, you can’t miss with an at the height of his young stardom Michael Keaton tormenting yuppies in a bizarre thriller that’s as fevery 1990 as a film from the year 1990 can be.
Unlawful Entry (1992)
Synopsis: A yuppie couple face a violent home invasion. They seek the help of a local cop, who seemingly has their best interest at heart. The cop offers to protect Michael and Karen, but is he a bigger threat to the couple than what they previously feared?
Okay, Unlawful Entry isn’t exactly forgotten, but it isn’t spoken of highly enough given its loveable insanity. Ray Liotta is at his pinnacle of crazy playing bad cop Pete Davis, one of the most deranged (and hilarious) charismatic psychos to bless a thriller. His frighteningly crystal-blue eyes shine with a glow of the deranged, appearing hilariously but grippingly maniacal as he terrorizes a naive and timid couple played by Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe.
As a huge Russell-holic, I have to say Kurt isn’t exactly remarkable in Unlawful Entry. That isn’t to say his performance is poor – he’s just interchangeable with anybody here, but stirring excitement isn’t easy when you’re playing an exhausted victim. Madeleine Stowe is lovely as Karen Carr, or as lovely as someone can be while they’re refusing to acknowledge dangerously psychopathic behavior in favor of seeing handsome cop allure.
Unlawful Entry has a list of fun appearances from the likes of Roger E. Mosley, Ken Lerner, Andy Romano, and others, but everybody’s playing second-fiddle to Liotta’s outlandish aggression and icy glare. The man’s ready to explode anywhere on anyone at any given moment, and it’s a pleasure to watch. Liotta’s harsh intensity carries the show, which is just fine when it’s all said and done. His jumps from composed but cunning to violent with rage set the tone – one that makes for a manic, never-dull thriller, rollercoastering from paranoia to volcanic action. The movie’s crafted to create suspense, so it’s a strong thriller, but the overblown rage of Liotta proves to have the firmest hold on viewers.
Synopsis: After a horrific car accident, a man is left with amnesia and forced to piece together the troubling past that led to the crash.
If you can overlook outlandish implausibility in a suspense flick, and soapy moments with the acting to match, Shattered is a compellingly mysterious, stylish, and weird little early 90s number that’s as early 90s as they come in the most enjoyable way.
Say what you will about Tom Berenger, Greta Scacchi, and their respective acting abilities, they make a dynamite confused couple of adulterous liars in this highly suspenseful mess of amnesia, murder and cheating. Tom Berenger plays it his usual serious self – either stiff, hollow, or visibly acting, or whatever it is Tom Berenger’s deal was in the 80s and 90s. I always felt Berenger’s hard sincerity added to the tension of troubles in films, and that’s the case in Shattered. He does muster up the passion when needed, bringing pulse-pounding thrill in the right places, and a weirdly sensual touch in the saucier scenes.
To describe much of this flick would be to take away much of the fun, as this is a thorough keep ya guessin’ joint, but we’ll touch on a few highlights:
Shattered is set in the hills of early 90s San Francisco. Whether it’s rolling green hills, beautiful ritzy homes, or crisp blue water, you’re almost always going to have your eyes set on something visually appealing. The leads aren’t exactly eyesores either!
Editing and effects may be questionable, but such choices make for good ol’ hokey entertainment, with cheesy transitions; transparent shots of waves crashing over love-making scenes, and glass shattering whenever our hero Dan recollects trauma.
The colors in Shattered are from the quintessential vibrant late 80s/early 90s palette – cool blues and glowy purples. Generally, Shattered is high on style.
In terms of performances, Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi are adequate as mentioned, but Bob Hoskins is fantastic and incredibly likeable as pet shop owner/private detective Gus Klein. Hoskins brings a snappy delivery, honest charm, and comforting moments of old school New York dickishness. Gus is a fine friend to Dan; a curious detective, and lovably trashy.
Shattered will surely have you watching along theorizing. From that standpoint alone, it’s a passable mystery. The twists are absurd. The acting comes off as “Lifetime movie” in parts. Some of the effects are almost too silly to match with the film’s grim tone. All of the downsides only add to enjoyment value, if you’re one who can appreciate a melodramatic 90s thriller.
The Vanishing (1993)
Synopsis: A man whose wife was kidnapped at a gas station years prior continues the search for her years later, as the kidnapping creep Barney watches his moves.
Big spoiler in this write-up. Tread wearily if you’re yet to see 1991’s The Vanishing and strangely set on soon viewing.
Throughout watching The Vanishing, you may find yourself asking, “How is this not better?” On the surface, the plot’s exhilarating. The cast is stacked with stars like Kiefer Sutherland, Nancy Travis, Sandra Bullock, and Jeff Bridges. Bridges is playing a maniac creep and having fun with the opportunity. It’s a remake of a legendary Dutch suspense film, directed by the very same guy who did the original. Why isn’t this a knockout thriller with a cult following?
Put simply, The Vanishing follows too standard a route and sticks around safe, 90s blockbuster thriller territory, when it calls for more off-the-wall treatment. Given the insanely evil lengths Bridges’ character Barney Cousins goes to in ensuring Jeff (Sutherland) never lives peacefully, this calls for sharper turns and wilder twists. Don’t get me wrong, The Vanishing is an enthralling ride. There’s both a ferocity and a weirdness that locks you in. Bridges hits a fascinating height of disturbed that semi feels like a joke, and that’s fun to watch and confusing enough to spur discussion. The Vanishing It has its thrills, and I hope I’m not spoiling anything here, but the film’s burying people alive concept is a fun treat. A grim act not seen frequently enough in cinema. Those who love matters growing especially dark in a suspense movie will get their kick and have a memorable moment to hold onto.
As a whole, though, The Vanishing is forgettable. Jeff Bridges burying people alive isn’t, but the rest is run of the mill thriller material. Now that I’ve completely contradicted my original point in writing this I’ll give due praise:
Barney is a creep chemist who’s main kink is drugging people. That’s his big thing. Jeff Bridges plays it weirder than you would think someone should play it. Which is a feat. Frankly, I can’t tell what he’s doing. His accent varies, ranging from Austrian who got hit in the head with a shovel, to Vincent Price on sedatives if he also got hit in the head with a shovel. It isn’t even among Jeff Bridges’ best performances, and the jury’s out on whether it’s even good, but he’s authentically disturbing. Bridges plays a creep and he’s creepy as hell. Let’s give it to him. For that fact alone, maybe it’s an outstanding performance? Maybe the film goes too crazy, action-packed chase thriller and Jeff Bridges heads the way of a depraved, sick suspense thriller? Am I, while writing this, discovering deeper layers to this film that make it seem much better than it did to me upon my last rewatch about 3 months ago? Jury’s out on that too. What I can tell you is this is a thriller in which Kiefer Sutherland is over-the-top and fun, Jeff Bridges wackily unnerving, and there’s one extra dark touch that I SOILED earlier (because of the burying.) You can stream The Vanishing on Starz, among other places
The Substitute (1996)
Synopsis: Retired Mercenary Shale takes a substitute teaching job at the Miami highschool where his teacher fiance has had violent troubles with her students. Shale and his team vow to stop the criminal activity in this school full of young hoodlums.
We know some action/thriller-type flicks from decades past don’t age well. A larger portion age to be cheese than stay great as they were. There’s a specific, entertaining brand of cheese in thrillers and action movies of the 90s, though, when a film that may very well have been wild, cutting-edge, and badass in its day now appears farcical, or like a fun little mess that’s taking itself all too seriously. And hey, some of these overly outrageous, juiced up thrillers still have a badass quality. The tackiness fuming from the scene where tired story, tame risk, dated production, and extreme badassery collide is what fuels some of us.
If you’re some of us, you would like The Substitute, or you might vaguely remember seeing it and sort of liking it some years back while boozed up or high. The plot, as written above, is ridiculous. We follow a routine action formula for the sake of guys shooting guns, sure, and a fella (Tom Berenger) has to kick a little ass and restore order, but The Substitute has both a heart and a pulse under the guy’s guy shootin’, punchin’, kickin’ spectacle.
Bergeren’s a commanding presence. He’s stone cold and alarmingly serious, as one probably should be when they’re taking down hoards of teen thugs and busting a drug operation. His character, Shale, does have a softness to him though, and it’s nice to see Berenger reach beyond no-nonsense asskicker with a hardened exterior.
2 Days In The Valley (1996)
Synopsis: A dud of a hitman and his assassin partner involved in an insurance scam, a washed up suicidal film director, an uppity art dealer, a sleazy vice cop, a couple of jealous women – For a period of 48 strange hours, the lives and crimes of these LA people intersect.
2 Days In The Valley, from writer/director Jon Herzfeld, is a surprising cinematic force and borderline anomaly that covers ground from hilarious dark comedy to gritty crime thriller while showcasing the fallings, betrayals, anxieties, and redemptions of its absurdly offbeat yet endearing characters. The writing’s sharp, the story has depth, and performances across the board are top-notch. I hate to draw up a Tarantino comparison, but the film sincerely feels like one he would make if he had more heart for empathy. That’s to say, this is a Tarantino-like mesh of violent crime, in-depth character study, and laughable mishaps, with a deeper than your average yet light look into the damaged roots that drive characters’ decision-making.
2 Days In The Valley will have emotions running high if you can stick it through the initially confusing journey that wavers undecidedly between black comedy and straight up grit. It’s high on sex, violence, laughs, fights, and twists. Herzfeld doesn’t neglect to include moving character development, either. You’ll be shocked that a film with a comically brutal fight scene between 2 women can also nearly move you to tears.
Amidst the thrill and comedic moments, Herzfeld covers meaningful themes that speak to anybody – From feeling washed up and worthless, to not being enough, to being used or betrayed. Every character in 2 Days In The Valley is working through their trauma and trying to figure themselves out.
You’ll have laughs with the off-center characters, and succumb to tear-jerking moments. You’ll be intrigued by the violence and at home with smart writing and funny dialogue. Herzfeld’s underrated darkly comic thriller isn’t the most fascinating film of its kind, but it’s intriguing, sincerely funny, and poignant.
Blown Away (1994)
Synopsis: An Irish bomber breaks out of prison and targets his nemesis, a member of the Boston bomb squad.
An explosive thriller about a couple of feuding bomb experts, one of whom is trying to destroy the city of Boston while the other is trying to protect it, starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones? It’s hard to argue there. Blown Away, as is standard with a big-production 90s action thriller, boasts a great cast and abundance of thrills. Add a great soundtrack, composed mostly of U2 songs, and you’ve got a rip-roaring treat.
Bomb-defusing excitement, copious explosions, and fun stunts more than make up for the thinly layered story. Characters are simple but compelling. Bridges is Jimmy Dove, a bomb squad leader who’s a little lost and washed up; marked possibly as crazy or incompetent, who has to protect the city from a renegade bomber who he knows quite well from past experience.
Tommy Lee Jones is Ryan Gaerity, a cunning IRA agent with a knack for constructing bombs out of anything. Gaerity’s sharp but frighteningly sick in the head – A smart man who could do a great deal of good but instead shoots for terror and vengeance. Jones is at his best here, evil and depraved, yet strangely entertaining and quite funny when he busts out a dry one-liner.
The Gaerity/Dove feud is one to invest in from the edge of your seat. Blown Away doesn’t bring a lot of new action-thriller substance to the table, but it’s well-acted, action-packed, and it has that Boston Irish touch for added uniqueness. It plays like a classically good cop movie, but with bombs, added spirit, and Celtic flare.
Synopsis: A reclusive psychologist and detective team up to take down a serial killer who has been copying murders from the past.
A serial killer thriller with outstanding performances from Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, and Harry Connick Jr, Copycat missed its due credit through being overshadowed by similar-in-substance standout movies of the day like Silence Of The Lambs or Se7ven. While it can’t measure up to either of those films, Copycat is an above-average stalker venture, with its own heavy atmosphere and modish (for the time) style that’s especially fantastic in how it prioritizes elegant, sharp characters over an expected playout of adrenaline-heightening events and hackneyed thriller tricks.
For some, Copycat may hardly rise above the lengthy list of cat-and-mouse thrillers bred through the 90s. Between the many characters to keep up with, and the twists upon twists to keep an audience engaged, it does have trite points and downfalls, but performances are top-shelf and the mood is what I’d call “grim, paranoid greatness”
Harry Connick Jr. plays a thoroughly unsettling psycho. Sigourney Weaver is a compelling, tortured psychologist mostly confined to her apartment, and most definitely a character to feel for. There’s a complex mystery to try and solve within Copycat. Not a single character is dull, nor particularly useless. Our leads are all layered and compelling. It isn’t the unforgettable disturbing thrill of Silence Of The Lambs, but for serial killer enthusiasts Copycat is a damn fun and disturbingly dark mystery flick that merits a visit or two.
The Good Son (1993)
Synopsis: Following a tragedy, a young boy goes to stay with his aunt, uncle, and cousin of the same age. His cousin exhibits violent, psychopathic behavior, which he has to convince his aunt of.
If you’re 25 or older, The Good Son probably occupies space in your brain. That may be in the form of a vague, weird memory, or you might fondly remember this as a chilling little thriller you saw on TV in your younger years. When you know Macaulay Culkin as good-hearted prankster Kevin McCallister, it’s hard to shake him as the evil, murderous cretin that is Henry Evans of The Good Son.
How you view The Good Son depends largely on the period of life you were in upon first seeing it. Tuning into this disturbing thriller in your youth, when you only know Mac from Home Alone, can be a near traumatizing level of creepy. After all, Culkin plays a disturbed boy disturbingly well. Those who first witnessed Henry Evans and all of his cousin-terrorizing malevolence at a naive young point in life can’t help but recollect this as being a strong, legitimately scary psychological thriller.
That wouldn’t be an outlandish claim. Elijah Wood and Mac are an amazing pair of child actors here, playing 2 very different compelling kids, one of whom you have to feel deeply and fear for. The Good Son will have you rooting for Mark, cousin to the unhinged and dangerous Henry. As you hope for Mark’s safety, you’ll be disgusted by the evil, manipulative antics of Culkin as Henry. He’s your standard madman thriller character, taking pleasure from others’ suffering, but packaged as a seemingly harmless young blonde child. Now that’s a thrill.
The Good Son isn’t a fantastically groundbreaking suspense movie. It is, however, a great minor psychological thriller with disturbing shocks and an outstanding, unforgettable climax. The butt of the terror is carried by a child. That could go comically wrong in many contexts. The Good Son doesn’t have moments of unintentional comedy. It’s a straightforward psychological haunt with a hell of a creepy villain. Any film featuring a young Macaulay Culkin as a bloodthirsty psycho shouldn’t be good, but The Good Son is. The mere fact that it hasn’t aged into camp or laughable stupidity speaks volumes about this film’s quality.