The 1990s brought some of the most iconic horror movies of all time. Wes Craven’s Scream reinvigorated the slasher genre with a meta deconstruction, David Fincher’s Se7en brought a “buddy cop” angle to a grisly serial killer thriller, and Rob Reiner’s Misery deftly translated one of Stephen King’s most compelling character dynamics to the screen.
Every great horror movie needs a protagonist that the audience can root for. The ‘90s brought such likable, unforgettable protagonists as Scream’s Sidney Prescott, The Sixth Sense’s Cole Sear, and The Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling.
10 Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Predator 2)
For the most part, Predator 2 – in which the Predator comes to the big city – is not a great movie. But Danny Glover gives a great performance as Lieutenant Mike Harrigan, an LAPD officer whose investigation into drug cartels becomes an investigation into an alien’s murders.
Like his predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Glover is a likable action hero that the audience can root for opposite the inhuman, otherworldly antagonist.
9 Helen Lyle (Candyman)
Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” is a horror allegory for classism in the UK, but Bernard Rose’s franchise-launching film adaptation Candyman moved the setting to the U.S. and changed the social commentary to deal with contemporary racial issues.
More broadly, the movie is a study of modern mythmaking told through the eyes of Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle, a semiotics graduate student researching urban legends in Chicago.
8 Cole Sear (The Sixth Sense)
M. Night Shyamalan had directed movies before The Sixth Sense, but The Sixth Sense was the global phenomenon that put him on the map and established his style: supernatural thrillers with a shocking twist ending.
It’s easy to see why The Sixth Sense became a blockbuster, because it has a lucrative high-concept premise with a hook: Haley Joel Osment stars as a young boy who claims he can “see dead people.”
7 Seth Gecko (From Dusk Till Dawn)
Played by George Clooney, directed by Robert Rodriguez, and written by Quentin Tarantino, From Dusk Till Dawn’s Seth Gecko is more of an antihero than a protagonist. In the opening act, Seth and his much more sadistic brother Richie (played by Tarantino) take a family hostage to get across the border. Seth ultimately teams up with this family to face a paranormal threat when the movie switches genres at the midpoint.
By the third act, From Dusk Till Dawn is a full-blown horror movie, but it starts off as a slick crime thriller. Seth is introduced as a classic Elmore Leonard career criminal; a gun-toting gangster with flowery, eloquent dialogue.
6 Peyton Westlake (Darkman)
Sam Raimi’s underappreciated gem Darkman is a delightful cross between the “body horror” and superhero genres. Liam Neeson stars as a scientist named Peyton Westlake, who’s brutally attacked and left for dead by mobsters.
Westlake’s experimental attempt to cure his injuries gives him superpowers (and also, unfortunately, turns him into a violent sadist).
5 Somerset & Mills (Se7en)
David Fincher’s gruesome serial killer thriller Se7en is sort of a horror take on the “buddy cop” genre. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt star as Detectives William Somerset and David Mills, respectively.
Somerset and Mills are like Riggs and Murtaugh if they investigated the grisly crimes of a Biblical serial killer: the grizzled veteran on the brink of retirement and the hotshot young detective who likes to take risks.
4 Paul Sheldon (Misery)
Stephen King’s Misery plays like the author’s personal worst nightmare. Paul Sheldon is a famed writer who’s saved from a car crash by an obsessive fan named Annie Wilkes. At first, Annie commits to nursing Paul back to health – but she takes a dark turn when she reads his latest book and it doesn’t match her headcanon.
As a violent metaphor for toxic fandom, Misery was way ahead of its time. In Rob Reiner’s masterfully crafted film adaptation, James Caan plays Paul as a relatable everyman opposite Kathy Bates’ sinister Oscar-winning turn as Annie.
3 Blade (Blade)
Predating the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises that often take the credit for trendsetting, Stephen Norrington’s Blade was the first ever Marvel blockbuster. Effectively, Blade paved the way for the MCU. Wesley Snipes made an icon out of the titular vampire slayer right off the bat.
Snipes defined all the Blade characteristics that fans love today – namely his quippy one-liners, many of which were ad-libbed, like “Some motherf**kers are always trying to ice-skate uphill.”
2 Sidney Prescott (Scream)
A decade after revolutionizing a stagnant slasher genre with supernatural elements in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven revolutionized an even more stagnant slasher genre with the self-aware edge and whodunit storyline of Scream.
Neve Campbell anchors the movie as Sidney Prescott, a badass deconstruction of the “final girl” archetype who breaks all the rules and still survives to the end credits.
1 Clarice Starling (The Silence Of The Lambs)
Jonathan Demme’s wonderfully twisted psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs is one of the few films in Oscar history to sweep all five major Academy Award categories. One of those victories was a much-deserved Best Actress win for Jodie Foster’s portrayal of Clarice Starling.
Clarice is the FBI rookie assigned to profile cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter to help with the investigation into a different serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Foster makes for both a captivating lead that the audience roots for and a riveting scene partner for Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Lecter.
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