There will never be another year like 1994. Speaking as one who’s seen a goodly amount of movies and read nearly as many books, I find, looking back from a 20 year span, that the filmic and literary offerings back then were far stronger and more eclectic than any we’ve seen since.
For me the year started quite literally with a bang: a shooting in a movie theater. This was followed two weeks later by the January 17 Northridge earthquake, which if you were living in the L.A. area at the time you’ll surely remember. You’ll also likely remember June 17, when the city was gripped by O.J. Simpson tying up the 405 in that never-to-be-forgotten white Bronco. I actually witnessed that spectacle on my way back from seeing WOLF, and the astounding sight of dozens of cheering people lining either side of the freeway as the Bronco drove past nearly made up for the two hours I’d just wasted.
It was 1994 that gave us Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece PULP FICTION, which provided the nineties indie film movement with its unforgettable apotheosis. Further iconic indies released in ‘94 included Kevin Smith’s CLERKS, Hal Hartley’s AMATEUR, Atom Egoyan’s EXOTICA, John Dahl’s RED ROCK WEST and David O. Russell’s SPANKING THE MONKEY. In the same category are the lesser-known but equally potent Canadian comedies DANCE ME OUTSIDE and LOUIS THE 19th KING OF THE AIRWAVES, and also Roman Polanski’s outrageous BITTER MOON, made back in ‘92 but not released in the U.S. until two years later.
In ‘94 Hong Kong’s Wong Kar Wai provided not one but two arthouse masterpieces, ASHES OF TIME and CHUNKING EXPRESS, while the Farrelly brothers gave us DUMB AND DUMBER, one of the decade’s most momentous debuts (not a joke). Jan de Bont’s SPEED proved that vigorous and exciting PG-rated action movies were still possible (emphasis on were), while in FORREST GUMP the popcorn movie meister Robert Zemeckis reinvented himself as a maker of Oscar-worthy cinema (back then it was a lot easier to forgive that film’s cloying mawkishness than it is now). In THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION director Frank Darabont transformed a Stephen King prison drama into the feel-good movie of the year, while HOOP DREAMS rewrote the rules for documentary filmmaking (i.e. it proved that documentaries didn’t have to be boring). Regarding THE LION KING, people tell me it’s one of greatest animated kid flicks ever, and I’m willing to take their word for it.
As for 1994’s summer movie season, it admittedly wasn’t too strong overall (WYATT EARP wasn’t exactly a classic for the ages, and neither were THE SHADOW, BLOWN AWAY, I LOVE TROUBLE or TRUE LIES), yet it was noteworthy in one respect: outside of CITY SLICKERS 2 (which opened in May) the season contained no sequels. The summer of ‘94 did, however, find room for Oliver Stone’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS, the most controversial film of the decade. I strongly doubt that film could ever find the big studio backing it did these days, and nor could Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, a quirky biopic blessed with a healthy budget and a wide release (contrast that with 2012’s HITCHCOCK, a similarly quirky moviemaker biopic that had to make do with arthouse funding and distribution).
But of course this is a horror site, so I’ll turn my attention to ‘94’s horror offerings–and it turns out that 1994, contrary to popular opinion, was a good–nay, great–year for the scary stuff.
Conventional wisdom has it that the genre was in hibernation at the time, as opined by Chas. Balun’s infamous pamphlet BLED TO DEATH: HORROR EATS ITSELF–which appeared, it just so happened, in 1994. Balun’s findings would appear to have been born out by WOLF and MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN, woeful misfires both, and the year’s other high-profile genre offerings INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE and WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, which weren’t much better.
Yet THE CROW provided a still-unsurpassed neo-gothic joyride, with a strong performance by the late Brandon Lee and a great alt-rock soundtrack. Beyond that, of course, you had to look a little further for the really good stuff, but it was there.
Jan Svankmajer’s partially animated Czech masterwork FAUST is in my view the screen’s most distinctive interpretation of the Faust legend. It’s certainly the only such movie to combine elements from Christopher Marlowe and Goethe’s versions of the tale, united by the sensibilities of inimitable Svankmajer. Peter Jackson’s New Zealand wonder HEAVENLY CREATURES dramatized the infamous 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case with an exuberant style, some audacious special effects and a debuting Kate Winslet. So iconic was the film that the crime that inspired it is now dubbed the “Heavenly Creatures murder.”
1994 also gave us Rolf de Heer’s Aussie freak-out BAD BOY BUBBY, which played like FORREST GUMP’S psychotic twin. De Heer’s fellow countryman Geoffrey Wright provided METAL SKIN, which remains a singularly caustic depiction of teen angst, auto worship, insanity and witchcraft. From Italy emerged Michele Soavi’s hilarious and surreal DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (a.k.a. CEMETERY MAN), and from Japan Sogo Ishii’s wildly stylish serial killer mind-roaster ANGEL DUST. Canada’s Steve DiMarco provided the crazed SPIKE OF LOVE, which plays like a perverse reimagining of MARAT-SADE, while Hungary’s Ildiko Enyedi gave us the equally bizarre MAGIC HUNTER, in which the devil, the Virgin Mary, time tripping rabbits and cursed bullets all come into play. Finally I’ll have to mention the British stop motion mutation THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB, which in its demented originality ranks with freaky animated classics like FANTASTIC PLANET and PERFECT BLUE.
Onto 1994’s fictional output, which was as potent as the films. Once again, finding the gems required some searching out–with mainstream releases like Stephen King’s INSOMNIA and Clive Barker’s EVERVILLE falling short–but once again, those gems were definitely extant.
RANDOM ACTS OF SENSELESS VIOLENCE by Jack Womack is that author’s unquestioned masterpiece (yes, I’ve been using that term a lot, but it’s appropriate), a gut-wrenching dystopian nightmare that’s easily the equal of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Womack’s use of language is as ingenious as his narrative is relentless, resulting in a bruising reading experience you’ll have a hard time shaking off.
JOYRIDE (a.k.a. ROADKILL) is in my view one of the incomparable Jack Ketchum’s finest novels, an unputdownable evocation of white knuckle insanity that leaves most every other cross country kill fest in the dust. Another noteworthy Ketchum offering from ‘94 was the Bram Stoker Award winning “The Box,” a teasingly ambiguous yet altogether fascinating short story.
SHEEP by Simon Maginn is a classic of elegantly written dread that unfortunately never saw publication in the U.S. (it was supposed to be published by White Wolf but wasn’t). Another notable 1994 novel that never made it to the states was Jack Yeovil/Kim Newman’s ORGY OF THE BLOOD PARASITES, a definite standout in the field of splatterific excess.
Also in 1994, Samuel Delany’s nihilistic opus HOGG, drafted back in the early 1970s but withheld from publication for over 20 years, was finally unleashed upon the world; I’ve never thought much of the novel, with its lack of anything resembling a narrative and over-eagerness to shock, but it has become a classic of sorts. THE STARRY WISDOM, edited by D.M. Mitchell, is in my view the finest H.P. Lovecraft inspired anthology on the market, with offerings that combine the (seemingly) mundane and the extreme by an amazing assortment of luminaries: J.G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, Grant Morrison, Ramsey Campbell and Alan Moore (to mane but a few). THE BLIND GOD IS WATCHING by Nancy Springer is a bleak and brilliant saga of freaks, madness and mutilation that makes for good company with GEEK LOVE. Then there’s THE CONSUMER by M. Gira, an unforgettable collection of outrageously disturbed yet stunningly poetic prose pieces (which can’t quite be called “stories”), and THE CIRCUS OF THE EARTH AND THE AIR by Brooke Stevens, an arrestingly surreal page-turner that gives highbrow horror a good name.
Beyond that, of course, 1994 was important in the world of entertainment for the fact that it was in May of that year that Sony and Philips jointly developed a new home viewing format: the Digital Versatile Disk, or DVD. 1994 can also be marked as the year the internet rose to prominence, as it was then that AOL allowed the general public gateway service to the Web. The following year, of course, was when the net was “fully commercialized” and this site was born–a true horror story indeed!