This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
1997 is an intriguing year, and one that is deeper than it may initially appear. It presents us with an array of variety that is unusual for the 1990s in horror, including a top-flight anime example in the form of Perfect Blue, the artsy reinvention of a former blue-chip franchise in Alien: Resurrection and more A-lister horror drama in The Devil’s Advocate. You certainly can’t accuse this year’s films of not taking any chances.
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games provides an unsettling twist here on the framework of home invasion thrillers, going out of its way to play against audience expectations in its most crucial moments. This is perhaps best exemplified by the confounding “rewind” scene, when wealthy housewife Anna briefly gets the upper hand on her invaders by blasting one in the chest with a shotgun … only for the other invader to simply pull out a remote, rewinding events to before she grabbed the gun. The breaking of the fourth wall is a shock, but the message is clear: It’s nothing less than a direct refutation of Hollywood-style heroic convention. In Haneke’s world, there will be no improbable, last-minute heroics—things will simply play out as they likely would in this situation in real life, which leaves the film’s closing moments all the more terrifying. It removes the greatest weapon possessed by so many cinematic protagonists; that they are fated to emerge victorious simply by virtue of being protagonists. Notable is the fact that Haneke very faithfully remade the film in the U.S. in 2007—the two versions are honestly so similar that either will suffice, but we’d lean toward the more naturalistic performances of the original.
One film from this year that has seen a fair amount of modern appreciation is Event Horizon, a thrillingly twisted sci-fi descent into the mouth of hell, starring In the Mouth of Madness’ own Sam Neill. The fact that the director was none other than Paul W.S. Anderson, eventually associated with bad videogame adaptations in the Resident Evil series, seems oddly fitting: Despite not being a videogame adaptation itself, the content of Event Horizon seems both inspired by classic shooter Doom and a deep inspiration on the later videogame franchise Dead Space, which likewise features decaying spaceships filled with demon-like antagonists. Regardless, Event Horizon managed to bring together elements of both spacefaring, “hard” sci-fi and supernatural horror in a potent cocktail that isn’t easily dismissed.
Other notables from 1997 include the sadistic puzzle box challenge of Cube, the superior first sequel to Scream, Guillermo del Toro’s arty monster movie Mimic and the uniquely canted visual style of Alien: Resurrection, shot with fantastical verve by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a director much better known for The City of Lost Children. And of course, there was I Know What You Did Last Summer, which cribbed Scream’s casting of hot young Hollywood talent as its main selling point, en route to huge box office numbers. This formula would prove particularly popular through the remainder of the decade, and into the 2000s.
1997 Honorable Mentions: Funny Games, Event Horizon, Scream 2, Cube, The Devil’s Advocate, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Mimic, Alien: Resurrection, The Night Flier, Wishmaster
The Film: Perfect Blue
Director: Satoshi Kon
The aspiration toward attaining celebrity status—the lust for stardom, in other words—is a cinematic device as old as the medium itself, and one that has been applied toward the horror genre on numerous occasions (Starry Eyes comes to mind). It’s about as universal a motivator (and a universally horrific undertaking) as any cross-cultural experience can be, equally relevant in any film or entertainment industry, even one as insular and unique as that of Japan. Indeed, the entertainment world is the perfect setting for a horror film, whether the protagonist is an average consumer or a wannabe star—both get treated by society like expendable pieces of meat just as often.
So it is with Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, a daring, feature-length anime film that feels like a cross-pollination between old-school Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, Argento proto-slashers and Darren Aronofsky overdose freakouts. It’s a film that fearlessly throws itself into the deep waters of a personal identity crisis and the subsequent crumbling of reality around its protagonist, while also making time for brutal violence that will leave audiences wincing even to this day.
Perfect Blue is the story of Mima Kirigoe, the pop-idol frontwoman of a semi-successful J-pop trio, who decides to leave her old career behind in order to pursue a new path as a serious actress. Standing in her way, however, are both the deeply ingrained societal expectations of what a “pop-idol” can and cannot achieve, and the more concrete hurdle that is her own dissatisfied fanbase, expressing their frustrations at her change in appearance and public image. The film takes the “ownership of art” question we also mentioned in Misery to its illogical extreme in the process, with deranged fans who honestly believe Mima belongs to them, body and soul, due to the time they’ve invested in worship of her. Toxic masculinity also abounds in both this fandom, and in the cadre of handlers and managers who seem intent on directing Mima’s career in the most profitable direction, regardless of what she wants out of life.
Of course, all these problems seem small, once Mima discovers a website that appears to be logging all her daily thoughts and actions in unnatural detail, presented as diary entries from the performer to her fans. This loss of agency begins Mima’s spiral toward genuine madness, as the disconnect between the written words in her name and the uncertainty of her new life as an actress causes Mima to begin experiencing disturbing hallucinations. The ambiguity of these sequences is presented with maximum disorientation in mind, something that might eventually become taxing to the viewer if it became interminable. At only 80 minutes in length, however, Perfect Blue moves with such alacrity that even the purposely confusing aspects never have a chance to outstay their welcome. It sets its hooks in you and then pays off, in short order.
The film’s violence, at the same time, is nothing short of breathtaking in the way it vigorously splashes blood onto seemingly every available surface. A series of murders throughout unfold very much like the splashy giallo killings of films by Argento or Michael Soavi, especially 1987’s Stage Fright, with which Perfect Blue shares a bit of creative DNA. Ultimately, this is a film that packs an old-fashioned thriller story into a tight package, while inserting avant garde reality warping that Christopher Nolan would be proud to call his own.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.