The Best Sci-Fi/Horror Mash-ups, Part 3: The 90s
Coming off the heyday of Sci-Fi/Horror mash-ups of the 70’s and 80’s era, with the advent of much more impressive CGI effects at filmmakers’ disposal, one would think that the 90’s would be even more impressive. One would think.
Alas, despite the impressive heights achieved by pioneering filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, whose combination of practical and CGI effects were used to create the most impressive dinosaurs ever seen before on the silver screen in the “Jurassic Park” series; James Cameron, who took his “Terminator” film to the next level with the morph-happy “T2: Judgment Day”; and Peter Jackson, who created intricately-detailed entire worlds with his ground-breaking CGI effects in a series of J. R. R. Tolkien adaptations; the truth of the matter is that CGI eventually became more of a creative crutch than another item in the special effects toolbox to put at one’s disposal in key moments.
Witness, for instance, the resurgence of the Creature Feature, via such outlets as the Syfy Network’s seemingly never-ending outpouring of occasionally guilty pleasure-worthy (hello, there, “Sharknado”!), but mostly cringe-inducing and ridiculous animals-gone-amok flicks and Frankenstein-ian combos of different beasties (damn you, “Sharktopus”!). The special effects world giveth, but it also taketh away, resulting in much more of the likes of “Birdemic” than anything that ranked with the best of the best the sci-fi/horror mash-up world had to offer.
Join me with a look at the best the subgenre had to offer in the oft-dark days of the 90’s ….if you dare!
In the grand scheme of things, the 90’s weren’t so bad for the sci-fi/horror subgenre. True, a lot of the effects featured in these early days of combining extensive CGI effects and practical ones can be hopelessly-dated, but, by and large, they remain a lot of fun, for the most part.
Take, for example, “The Lawnmower Man” (1992), a slight-if-fun flick that purported to be an adaption of the Stephen King story of the same name- which clocks in at mere pages in length!- but is actually more of an excuse to experiment with video game-esque digital effects that were like the ones in “Tron” gone dark. (King successfully sued the filmmakers to have his name removed from the project, in fact.)
Be that as it may, it’s actually an entertaining, if hopelessly cheesy affair with an interesting performance by genre fave Jeff Fahey (“Planet Terror,” “Lost”) and none other than former James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, as a mad scientist type that decides to experiment on slow-minded gardener Jobe (Fahey), resulting in at first impressive, then later dangerous results.
If you think about it, it’s sort of a precursor to the likes of “The Matrix,” “Limitless,” “Lucy” and any other flick you can think of in which a normal person gains encyclopedic knowledge seemingly overnight. It’s flawed, to be sure, but it’s nonetheless a fun ride. (There’s also a sequel, but it’s nothing to write home about- nor does it feature anyone involved in the first one- so you might want to skip it.) Director Brett Leonard went on to explore similar territory with the even more successful Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe vehicle, “Virtuosity” (1995), which is also worth a watch.
Even better is the cult classic “Hardware” (1990), a film which had a troubled release at the time, with the film ultimately being heavily-censored and unseen in its intended incarnation until its much-belated release on DVD & Blu-Ray in 2009, making this one ripe for rediscovery for a new generation of fans.
It features then-future star Dylan McDermott in an early role, long before his enormous success with the “American Horror Story” series, and an interesting cast that includes the likes of rockers Iggy Pop and Lemmy and the somewhat underrated genre fave Stacey Travis (“Phantasm II,” “Mystery Men”). It’s less a film than an experience, but if that doesn’t sell you there’s also a killer robot.
The stylish film was helmed by South African director Richard Stanley, arguably best-known for his trouble-plagued “Island of Dr. Moreau” remake in 1996, which he was fired from early on after problems with volatile actor Val Kilmer, and unceremoniously replaced with John Frankenheimer, who didn’t fare much better. The sci-fi/horror affair is laughably bad, regardless, featuring a campy you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it performance from the legendary Marlon Brando, in one of his final efforts. The entire insane affair was so fascinating that it later warranted its own feature, 2014’s documentary “Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau.”
However, well-worth seeking out is his excellent, underrated “Dust Devil” (1992), Stanley’s direct follow-up to “Hardware.” Another troubled affair, the film was heavily-edited upon its initial release in the States, but was later released on DVD in a Director’s Cut, a la “Hardware,” with an additional “workprint” version also released that restores the film to its original cut for the first time since Stanley’s original submission. (Miramax would later cut it down from 110 minutes to a mere 87 minutes for the American release- a considerably different cut that one should avoid at all costs.)
However, arguably the most successful sci-fi/horror mash-up of the early 90’s is 1995’s “Species,” which marked the return of notorious artist H.R. Giger to the subgenre after his groundbreaking design on the “Alien” series. As with that film, “Species” also inspired an ongoing franchise, four in all to date. Though the sequels are of varying quality, as sequels are wont to be (“Species III” is arguably the best of the bunch), the original is a top-notch thriller, with a fantastic cast that includes Oscar-winners Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”) and Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) , “CSI”-star Marg Helgenberger, “Reservoir Dogs”-star Michael Madsen, “Spider-Man 2”-star Alfred Molina, and an early role from Oscar nominee Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn”).
That said, the film is arguably best-known for launching the career of the delectable former supermodel Natasha Henstridge (“The Whole Nine Yards,” “The Secret Circle”), as the half-human, half-alien beautiful-but-deadly Sil, a role she would reprise in the first two sequels. The role garnered a memorable “Best Kiss” award at the MTV Movie Awards, for a scene in which she impaled a potential mate with her spiked tongue after he got a bit too aggressive! The undeniably sexy actress is nothing if not engaging here- and oft-scantily-clad, which doesn’t exactly hurt matters.
But it’s the impressive effects that really steal the show here, including work from the FX great Steve Johnson (“Ghostbusters,” “The Howling,” “Spider-Man 2”) and among the first instances of the later-ubiquitous motion capture CGI effects that would be such an integral part of the “LOTR” films for Peter Jackson, here pioneered by the legendary Richard Edlund, of the original trilogy of “Star Wars” films fame. Though the film itself received mixed reviews from critics, it was a huge worldwide hit, grossing over $113 million on a mere $35 million budget, which was low by Hollywood standards. It still holds up well today, thanks to those phenomenal effects and solid cast.
The run of excellent sci-fi/horror flicks continued on in the mid-to-late 90’s with controversial director Paul Verhoeven’s audacious “Starship Troopers” (1997), based on the classic Robert A. Heinlein novel of the same name. Verhoeven had already established himself amongst sci-fi and action fans with the classic “RoboCop” and “Total Recall,” before taking a hard left into erotica- if you want to call it that- with the enormously-successful “Basic Instinct” and the incredibly-campy “Showgirls.”
“Troopers” marked his return to the genre that made him a hit with sci-fi fans, this time with a heavy dose of outrageous horror and gore- to say nothing of the conspicuous Nazi imagery, including an all-but-goose-stepping turn from everyone’s favorite former child doctor, Neil Patrick Harris, aka “Doogie Howser, M.D.” This was long before Harris’ much-lauded comeback as the randy Barney on “How I Met Your Mother” and his pioneering work as a gay-rights activist, so the knowing-now-what-we-didn’t-know-then factor makes for an interesting re-watch in retrospect.
However, the fascist imagery is actually an intentionally satirical prodding of American jingoism and extreme patriotism, which would ironically reach a new nadir mere years later with the 9/11 attacks. That said, though, this is hardly controversial material, as the director’s tongue is clearly planted firmly in cheek throughout, making for a fun- if often grotesque- look at a new kind of “War of the Worlds”- us vs. ginormous bug creatures that don’t hesitate to tear their attackers to pieces.
The film also co-stars genre faves Michael Ironside (“Scanners”) and Clancy Brown (“Cowboys & Aliens”), plus Dina Meyer (“Saw”), the gorgeous Denise Richards (“Wild Things”), and Syfy movie regular Casper Van Dien (“Slayer”). It went on to spawn two direct-to-DVD sequels of varying quality, but stick with the original. It’s action-packed, visually stunning, and those bugs are something to behold! Be forewarned, though- this one’s not for the faint of heart!
That same year brought about another creature feature from famed director, Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy”), the dark, grisly “Mimic,” which is almost like a dry run for his later FX series, “The Strain.” It revolves around hyper-intelligent bugs that have derived from a genetically-engineered breed of cockroaches meant to eliminate a deadly disease and not much else. Instead, the bugs went underground, so to speak, and have been quietly picking off humans for years- albeit disguised as humans, if you can believe that. It’s up to a group of scientists and cops to track down the wily bug-creatures and put a stop to the madness.
As with “Species,” the cast is highly impressive, including Oscar winners Mira Sorvino (who took the role on then-boyfriend Quentin Tarantino’s recommendation) and F. Murray Abraham (“Homeland”), Josh Brolin (“Planet Terror”), Charles S. Dutton (“Alien 3”), Jeremy Northam (“The Invasion”), and Giancarlo Giannini (“Hannibal”). Though Sorvino is sadly miscast, the rest of the cast is in fine form, and it makes for an unusually well-acted flick in a genre not exactly known for such things. As with the previous two entries, it also inspired a series of sequels of varying quality, but, as ever, stick with the original.
Despite some solid reviews, it was a box office disappointment, and del Toro was somewhat displeased with the theatrical release, which was heavily edited without his consent, as he didn’t have final cut on the film. Fortunately for fans, the Director’s Cut has since been released on DVD in 2011, six minutes longer than the original version and restructured to del Toro’s specifications, so you can see the film as del Toro originally intended it. Even if you disliked it the first time around, it’s worth another look, particularly if you didn’t care for the theatrical version, but especially if you’re a fan of the aforementioned “The Strain.”
A direct predecessor to the later enormously-successful “Saw” series, “Cube” contends with a man who wakes up in a confined room, where he is immediately confronted with a booby-trap which kills him instantly. Meanwhile, in another room, a group of people are likewise entrapped, and try and work together to puzzle out where they are, who put them there, why they were chosen and how to escape, while attempting to avoid a host of rigged traps of the same variety that killed the initial man- not always successfully. Sound familiar?
In part inspired by a “Twilight Zone” episode entitled “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” the film may lack a big budget or big names, but it makes up for it with ingenuity, intelligence, and, of course, the inevitable gory death scenes. The genre-friendly cast includes David Hewlett (the various “Stargate” TV series), Nicole de Boer (TV’s “The Dead Zone”), Nicky Guadagni (“Silent Hill”), and, as the unfortunate man in the memorable opening sequence, Julian Richings, who fans of the TV show “Supernatural” will recognize as, appropriately enough, “Death.”
As with “Saw,” each of the main cast has a reason for being there, and something to contribute to the proceedings- assuming they can live through them, which naturally not everyone does. One is a cop, for instance, and another is a mathematician, and yet another a physicist and conspiracy theorist. You get the idea. By working together, the group tries their best to find a way out- or die trying.
That’s about it, but it’s surprisingly compelling, especially if you like “Saw” and movies of that ilk, though it stops short of “torture porn” territory, as the deaths are quick-but-effective, unlike the oft-prolonged “Saw” films’ deaths. Once again, the film inspired various sequels, but this time around, they’re actually worth seeing, particularly the prequel “Cube Zero,” which sheds a bit more light on the proceedings than the other films, including much more in the way of exterior scenes and who controls and operates the cube and what purpose it serves, albeit it seems to be of a different circumstance than the other films. Many consider this to actually be the best of the series, but a lot depends on if you prefer your films of this nature to explain everything or leave it to the imagination. Personally, I like not knowing, so I lean towards the original. Either way, they’re all worth a watch, especially if you like the first one.
If you’re not familiar with this oft-neglected entry in the oeuvre of wunderkind director Richard Rodriguez (“Sin City,” “From Dusk Till Dawn”) and highly-successful horror writer/producer/director Kevin Williamson (the “Scream” series, “The Vampire Diaries”), you really should be. And what a cast! We’re talking a pre-“LOTR” Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett (“Penny Dreadful”), Jordan Brewster (“The Fast & the Furious” series), singer Usher (!), Salma Hayek as a nerdy-sexy teacher, Robert Patrick (“Terminator 2”), Famke Janssen (most of the “X-Men” movies), Bebe Neuwirth (“Frazier”), Piper Laurie (“Carrie,” “Twin Peaks”), and- be still my heart- a pre-“Daily Show” Jon Stewart.
There’s more where that came from, actually, including horror regular Clea DuVall (“The Grudge,” “American Horror Story: Asylum”), Shawn Hatosy (“Public Enemies,” “Southland”), Laura Harris (“24,” “Dead Like Me”), Christopher McDonald (“Happy Gilmore,” “Boardwalk Empire”), Danny Masterson (“That 70’s Show”), Wiley Wiggins (“Dazed & Confused”), Duane Martin (“Scream 2”), and even film critic Harry Knowles, of “Ain’t It Cool News” fame. Now that’s a genre cast!
Lest you think the movie is just an excuse to play spot the celebrity, it’s actually a clever teen movie spin on the old “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” gambit, where the people in positions of power are infested first- in this case, the teachers- with only the students becoming aware of what’s going on, and naturally, no one believing them. There’s even a clever spin on the usual “do drugs, you die” cliché, in which characters are actually cleared of being alien-free by doing drugs! Just as fun is playing spot-the reference, as the film is chockfull of references to other films, including “The Thing” and “The Terminator,” as well as the aforementioned “Body Snatchers.”
Sadly, the DVD release is anemic at best, utterly lacking in the usual Rodriguez goodies, like his ongoing “Ten-Minute Film School” features, or even a commentary or making-of. Given the level of talent involved and the fun nature of the film, it’s a damn shame that even Rodriguez himself seems to have distanced himself from the project. (He was a last-minute hire after Williamson opted to direct “Killing Mrs. Tingle” instead- his loss, if you ask me.) If you watch but one film on this list that you haven’t seen, make it this one. You won’t regret it.
Though arguably better known as the punch-line in the immortal “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”- say it with me now, those in the know: “Affleck, you da bomb in Phantoms, yo!”- this adaptation of the novel by best-selling author Dean Koontz is actually a lot of fun, if occasionally lunk-headed. But hey, so are a lot of sci-fi and horror movies, so that’s nothing new. The thing is, I actually read the book before I saw the movie, so I was looking forward to it long before the film became a pop culture touchstone fans lobbed in star Ben Affleck’s general direction whenever they saw him in public.
Of course, a lot of critics would disagree, and if you Google the above phrase, you’ll see a lot of people determining that Affleck was not, in fact, the bomb in “Phantoms,” yo, but the film certainly qualifies as one, at least at the box office. I digress, because I actually like the flick, and if anything, I’m glad writer/director Kevin Smith’s playful jab kept the underrated film in the public eye, if only for a little while longer. Whatever works.
The Miramax movie- yep, them again- is puree 90’s cheese, with an oh-so-90’s cast that includes Rose McGowan (“Scream”), Liev Schreiber (also of the “Scream” series), Nicky Katt (“Dazed & Confused”), Joanna Going (“Inventing the Abbotts”), plus the oft-cast as heavies Robert Knepper (“Prison Break”) and Bo Hopkins (“American Graffiti”). It revolves around a doctor (Going), who, along with her sister, visits an isolated resort town in the Rockies, only to discover it near deserted, save the presence of several dead bodies.
At first suspecting a killer on the loose, it turns out to be something far worse, which I won’t spoil here for those who haven’t seen it. Suffice it to say there are comparisons to be made to the mass disappearances in Roanoke, among other places, and the legendary Mothman creature, as well as the 50’s classic “The Blob” and John Carpenter’s version of “The Thing.” So, if any of those sources interest you, you should enjoy this. I’m not going to lie and say that it’s some sort of lost classic, and despite Jay’s claim in the aforementioned quote, Affleck is nothing really special here, to be honest, but it’s an engaging creature feature nonetheless. The book, however, is indeed the bomb, yo, so check it out if you can get a hold of it.
My final choice for the list is a supremely underrated flick with some big name stars, including Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron. Depp plays an astronaut, Spencer, who, along with his fellow voyager Alex (Nick Cassavettes), lose contact with Earth for a few minutes while on a space walk. When they return, they seem okay, but their significant others, including the titular astronaut’s wife, Jillian (Theron), notice something a little off about them. Shortly thereafter, both Alex and his wife die unexpectedly, after the wife tells Theron something strange is going on, then subsequently killing herself. Then Jillian discovers she’s expecting twins….but will they be “normal”- or something else?
A clear influence on the likes of TV’s recent “Extant,” this chilling tale combines “Rosemary’s Baby” with “The Stepford Wives” for an sci-fi/horror flick that has a unique vibe all of its own. Depp deftly underplays his role here, so that you’re not quite sure if something is really off about his character, or if it might all be in his wife’s head.
The casting here is quite clever, featuring stars whose past projects aren’t too removed from the subject matter here, such as Blair Brown (“Altered States”), Samantha Eggar (“The Brood”), Clea DuVall (“The Faculty”), and Joe Morton (“The Brother from Another Planet,” “T2”), Donna Murphy (“Star Trek: Insurrection”), Tom Noonan (“Robocop 2”), plus the Sprouse twins, Dylan & Cole, of Disney’s “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” fame. So, if you always suspected something off about those twins, here’s your chance to prove yourself right!
As with most of the films on this list, critical response wasn’t kind, for the most part, and the film was considered a huge flop at the time of its release, but box office isn’t always the best indicator of a film’s worth, IMHO. In this case, anyway, I think the critics got it wrong. The film may be somewhat derivative of the aforementioned source material, but the sci-fi element makes it stand out from those films, making for a unique spin on the whole fear-of-pregnancy and/or children trope.
I’ll grant that it’s a bit of a slow burn, but it does make one long for the days when Depp knew how to underplay as well as go for broke- something he could stand to do more of these days, if his recent efforts are of any indication, box office results or otherwise. Check it out if you prefer your sci-fi/horror a bit more on the subtle side.
Well, that about does it for now. Join me for a look at the 2000’s and beyond in my next installment. Until then, as ever, keep watching the skies!