The thriller has been a mainstay genre for decades in movies and the 90s was certainly no exception. Among the most celebrated examples are films such as ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, ‘Se7en’ and ‘The Usual Suspects’.
However, many highly notable thrillers were buried by straight-to-video releases, poor box-office returns and have since only managed to garner considerably smaller appreciation. This list aims to shed the light on 20 of most overlooked thrillers; some may have elements of horror, some may have elements of comedy or science-fiction or crime or the supernatural; but essentially, the films are all thrillers in their genre and their purpose.
20. One Eight Seven (1997)
Trevor Garfield is a gifted and dedicated science teacher working in a Brooklyn school; but he is attacked and stabbed multiple times by a student after giving him a failing grade. Trevor survives the attack and he transfers to a different school in Los Angeles only to discover that this school too has violent students who essentially dictate how the school is run. They then instigate a personal vendetta with their Trevor that will have disastrous consequences.
Why It’s So Great
One Eight Seven has a very loose music video form to it that may deter some viewers and it often attempts to be a little too stylish for its own good, but the strong narrative concerning the lack of empathy that teachers often receive and honesty in its portrayal of potentially dangerous students removes all the stops.
Samuel L. Jackson has made so many appearances in films for seemingly the sake of showing his face, quite often he is the best and only redeemable quality of such pictures. 187 however is one of his rare central performances; even better, his acting is solid and appropriately intense, keeping the film afloat all by himself even when it teeters into clichéd melodrama. For that reason, 187 is worth savouring.
19. Ravenous (1999)
Set during the 1840s, Second Lieutenant Boyd is banished to a remote camp in the Sierra Nevada mountain range for showing cowardice during battle. Soon enough, a wanderer named Colqhoun arrives telling a story of his wagon journey that became lost in the mountains and that the party resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. Boyd and a team of misfits from the camp set out to see if there is any survivors, but is Colqhoun all what he seems?
Why It’s So Great
Ravenous is an intriguing films due to its mix of period setting, slapstick comedy, hideous gore and genuine thrills. Inspired by the real-life Donner Party incident that also happened in the 1840s, the film’s main theme is cannibalism, (always a distressing subject) but here the heinous topic is dealt with in morbid glee that inspires some very tongue-in-cheek moments.
Robert Carlyle relishes in the role of the monstrous Calqhoun with Hannibal Lector-like exuberance. He really is a monster and Carlyle has clearly synthesized the maniacal rage of he used in previous roles such as Begbie (‘Trainspotting’) and Albie Kinsella (‘Cracker’) into something that is so deliberately over the top that you will not know whether to cower or laugh.
The Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn composed soundtrack may not work for everyone, but no one can deny that it just goes further to making the film even more unique than it would be without it.
18. Cube (1997)
Five different people with different backgrounds wake up in a cubic room that has hatches on each side that lead to a seemingly endless series of similar compartments. In their efforts to escape the labyrinthine structure, they realize that many of the rooms are elaborately booby-trapped making their escape trickier than they initially thought.
Why It’s So Great
Being a borderline sci-fi horror film, the film evidently had a massive influence on the ‘Saw’ film series but it also is a whole lot smarter and enigmatic than the majority of those films. Cube boasts an almost achingly simple premise but it does not have to rely on gore to maintain its audience’s attention. The questions of why they are they are, if they will escape and who is the mastermind are all kept alive by the characters’ feuding and a lack of a foreseeable outcome is generated from the confined setting. An innovative and surprising thriller.
17. Freeway (1996)
Vanessa is a poor and illiterate but foul-mouthed and rebellious teenage girl living in the slums of Los Angeles. When her prostitute mother and her abusive step-dad are arrested, Vanessa flees her social worker to avoid being returned to a juvenile centre and heads for her Grandmother’s home in Stockton. Along the way her car breaks down and she takes a ride from a man whom she soon discovers is a wanted serial killer, but this is just the beginning of Vanessa’s problems.
Why It’s So Great
Freeway is one of the most darkly comic films on this list; its violence is extreme, but to the extent that it is cartoonish, the characters are vulgar but the majority are most definitely caricatures. In addition, the film has a twisted but farcical nature to it that makes the film one of the most unique thrillers of the 90s that is sadly seldom seen due to a straight-to-video release in most countries.
Essentially, Freeway is an updated and extremely cynical rendition of the classic ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ fairy tale; with Reese Witherspoon performing as a sort of white trash Red Riding Hood in the role of Vanessa and Kiefer Sutherland filling in as the Big Bad Wolf (with his character aptly named Bob Wolverton). Reese Witherspoon simply takes the film by storm in one of her breakthrough roles; you will never look at ‘Legally Blonde’ in the same way!
16. Arlington Road (1999)
After the on-duty death of his FBI agent wife, college professor Michael Faraday has been raising his son alone. When Michael is brought into contact with his new neighbours (the Langs) things start to look up as he and his girlfriend are frequently invited round for dinner and family outings. All is well until Michael starts to notice odd building blueprints in Oliver Lang’s study leading him to take a look at his neighbours past. Is Oliver Lang actually an urban terrorist in hiding, or has Michael’s paranoia gotten the better of him?
Why It’s So Great
Arlington Road is an impressive mix of political thriller and psychological suspense which perhaps has more significance today than the time of its release due to the concentrated threat of terrorism that has been present since the 9/11 attacks. Even though this film deals with domestic terrorism, its impact is no less sobering and even more shocking.
Jeff Bridges gives a great performance as the man who is desperate to get to the bottom of his neighbour’s past; he adds touches of histrionics to his character giving Michael a slightly unstable disposition which in turn keeps the audience unsure about his theories. Tim Robbins’ kind-faced appearance however is used against him to make his character the last person who you would expect to carry out such horrific acts.
The film sometimes finds itself striving for reasoning and a rather large suspension of one’s disbelief may be required at certain moments, but for those who are willing to offer Arlington Road the benefit of the doubt, they will be rewarded with a tense thriller complete with an astonishing twist.
15. The Game (1997)
Nicholas Van Orton is a wealthy business man whose success and autonomous attitude has cost him his marriage and he now lives alone, haunted by the memory of his father’s suicide. Upon his 48th birthday, his brother gives him a subscription to a mysterious but supposedly life-changing “game”. From here on out, Nicholas’s safe life is turned upside down; what starts as a series of small but elaborate pranks quickly turns sinister and even puts his life in danger. What parts of the “game” are real, and what are not?
Why It’s So Great
Fresh from gaining widespread acceptance following his outstanding 1995 effort ‘Se7en’, Fincher returned with this bizarrely striking thriller. The Game works so well due to the heightened level of reality that occupies an otherwise seemingly grounded premise; this allows the already immense paranoia to steadily intensify as Van Orton’s life is torn apart. The film also reinforces the age-old axiom to never, under any circumstances, trust a clown!
Michael Douglas’s casting in the lead role as the intolerant Van Orton is spot on. With him being the only character that the audience can truly trust, he is the centre to which everything and everybody is gravitating towards, quite literally and quite worryingly. One cannot help wondering how Gordon Gekko would react his predicament.
Ultimately, The Game does, again, require a generous suspension of one’s disbelief as it contains an almost terminal number of ‘what ifs’ towards the climax. However, the modernized Hitchcockian premise itself make up for any shortcomings. The Game is a tense and unusual thriller, and certainly one of Fincher’s most overlooked.