Monday, September 8, 2014

10 Underrated New Line Movies from the '90s

by Patrick Bromley
Once upon a time, New Line was the best.

New Line Cinema used to be one of the best and most interesting independent studios in the movie business. Originally started and run by Bob Shaye, New Line was known as "the house that Freddy built" because they had their first big success with A Nightmare on Elm Street and was kept afloat by the franchise during the '80s. They were the studio putting out genre movies when hardly anyone else was. They spoke to audiences that were otherwise ignored, be they horror fans, teenagers, black audiences -- you name it. They're also the studio that greenlit three concurrent Lord of the Rings movies from a cult director with no history of box office success and wound up making history in the process, racking up Oscars, changing the face of modern movies -- and eventually somehow going bankrupt. In short, they blew it.

Bolstered by mainstream successes like the Elm Street series and 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, New Line really came into their own in the '90s. They had a full slate of movies, many of which have rightly become classics. They eventually had more giant successes with the Blade and Austin Powers franchises. Here are some of the studio's best films of the '90s that don't quite get enough love. Check them out if you haven't already -- though if you're reading this site regularly, chances are you've seen them all.
1. Pump Up the Volume (1990, dir. Allan Moyle) Christian Slater plays a shy high school student who secretly moonlights as pirate radio DJ Hard Harry in this movie that DEFINED MY YOUTH in the early '90s. This was the height of my C-Slate love (#kuffslife). The soundtrack introduced me to The Pixies and Bad Brains and Henry Rollins and Soundgarden. I'm pretty positive that Samantha Mathis' performance is directly responsible for a love of the tiny, dark-haired alterna-chick that I nursed for the better part of the '90s. JB maintains that this is one of the few Hollywood movies that actually gets high school right. What seems on paper to be a dumb movie about a heartthrob with a secret radio station is actually a pretty heavy drama about the generation gap, teenage suicide (don't do it) and how difficult it is to be young -- it's like a much darker, grittier take on the John Hughes movie. There's a lot about the movie that's dated now, but the emotional truths are still relevant. New Line was smart to put out a movie with a built-in teen audience that still earned critical respect.
2. Deep Cover (1992, dir. Bill Duke) Moody, solid crime thriller with Laurence Fishburne as a cop who goes undercover as a drug dealer and buddies up to sleazebag lawyer Jeff Goldblum. New Line would eventually become home to a number of black filmmakers and specialize in movies made with black audiences in mind; while that doesn't exactly characterize Deep Cover, it's a good place to start. What seems like a simple genre movie is actually a densely layered character piece with a screenplay co-written by Michael Tolkin (who had previously written both The Player and The Rapture for New Line) and two great lead performances -- particularly from Goldblum, who is as good (if not better) than he's ever been. This is the kind of movie you rediscover on cable years after the fact and wonder why it wasn't a bigger hit.
3. Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994, dir. Wes Craven) The best Elm Street movie after the original, Wes Craven's post-modern return to the series he created casts Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, New Line president Bob Shaye and more as themselves being haunted by a demon created by the actual making of the films. It's an ingenious premise and explores a lot of the same meta, self-referential stuff that Craven would find much more success with two years later in Scream. This is a movie much more interested in ideas than in visceral scares (though there are a few of those as well), with lots of interesting things to say about our relationship to movies and what we get out of horror. It's easy to understand why this wasn't a huge box office success (it was the lowest-grossing film in the franchise), as it's a movie that's better studied and written about than casually enjoyed. This is one of Craven's best.
4. In the Mouth of Madness (1995, dir. John Carpenter) The last great movie from John Carpenter is an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired nightmare about an insurance investigator (Sam Neill) hired to look into Sutter Cane, a horror author whose books appear to be driving people insane. The movie finds Carpenter working in a different kind of subgenre of horror, but one which he slips into with ease. Like New Nightmare, it predates the self-reflexive horror that Scream would popularize just a year later, though it's far less interested in playing those kinds of games. Carpenter works overtime to make the movie as relentlessly scary as possible -- his most oppressive and nightmarish since The Thing in 1982. This was actually written by Mike De Luca, who would become President of Production at New Line during its best years.
5. Now and Then (1995, dir. Lesli Linka Glatter) Ok, this one's a stretch. Any regular listener of our podcast has probably heard me made fun of for liking this movie, a more kid-friendly (and gender-swapped) version of Stand by Me. Sure, it's full of cliches and terrible adult star wraparounds (the "Now" sections, starring Rosie O'Donnell, Demi Moore, Melanie Griffith; only Rita Wilson avoids phoning it in) and distracting guest stars and songs that, while great, are included just to tell you the time period in which the movie is set. But the four kid performances are so good and director Glatter stages several scenes of such poignancy and nostalgia that the movie ultimately works. Sure, it's kid stuff. But it's good kid stuff.
6. Love Jones (1997, dir. Theodore Witcher) New Line built its success as a studio willing to put out movies that other studios weren't touching -- science fiction, horror and, in the '90s, the "urban" movie detailing the black experience and targeted at black audiences: Hangin' with the Homeboys, Talkin' Dirty After Dark, Menace II Society, Set it Off, B*A*P*S, The Players Club -- the list goes on. Some, like the House Party series and (especially) Friday and its sequels, became huge hits for the studio. Some, like Love Jones, fell through the cracks. One of the best and least-seen of the studio's "urban" movies, Love Jones is a terrific romantic drama starring Lawrenz Tate as a poet and Nia Long as a photographer who fall in love in Chicago. The use of the city is good, the two leads have never been more likable and the movie has something to say about the black experience that doesn't have anything to do with gangs, drugs or violence -- a rarity in the '90s.
7. Trial and Error (1997, dir. Jonathan Lynn) Another movie that's far from a classic but also light years better than the shitty TV-star-vehicle everyone dismissed it as being. It has a dopey premise -- uptight lawyer and his goofball actor friend switch places! -- and an even dopier title. It has Michael Richards falling down and acting goofy. But it also has a genuinely sweet love story between Jeff Daniels and Charlize Theron in one of her earliest performances, plus deft comic direction from Jonathan Lynn. It's the kind of mid-range comedy that's not really made anymore (and certainly not released to theaters if it is) but which offers 90 minutes of pleasantness and a few genuine laughs. It deserves better than it got.
8. Dark City (1998, dir. Alex Proyas) On our recent Dark City podcast, I questioned whether or not this sci-fi noir is actually underrated, seeing as it has developed such a large and devoted fanbase. Among genre fans, it probably isn't. But to the world at large, Dark City remains an overlooked movie and one that deserves to be rediscovered (though the likelihood of that happening is low, seeing as The Matrix covered a lot of the same ground in a more pop-accessible way). A few troublesome performances aside, the film is a triumph of production design, art direction, special effects and, best of all, a twisty script that earns its surprises. If you still aren't convinced of the movie's greatness, check out Roger Ebert's commentary on the DVD and/or Blu-ray. He'll convince you.
9. Pleasantville (1998, dir. Gary Ross) Writer/director Gary Ross's film didn't make much of a splash when it was released back in 1998, probably because mainstream audiences weren't all that interested in a sociological fantasy that trafficked mostly in 1950s pop culture and was in black and white for at least half of its running time. It has lived on, however, in countless reruns on basic cable and has finally found something of a well-deserved fanbase. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are magically transported into a fictional '50s sitcom and proceed to shake things up, slowly turning the black-and-white world into color as the characters have their minds opened. I recognize that some of my affection for the movie is because it taps into my love of 1950s pop culture and the manufactured idea of innocence that we've all silently agreed upon in the decades since. But Pleasantville is also a beautiful movie, one that's clever and original and entertaining while still managing to have ideas and be about something. Things didn't always used to be better. Yes, things have changed in the last five decades, in many ways for the worse. In many ways, though, it's been for the better, and Pleasantville is actually willing to say it. I love this movie.
10. Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999, dir. Michael Patrick Jann) New Line ended the '90s at its peak, combining highbrow auteur fare like The Sweet Hereafter and Magnolia with its usual slate of entertaining genre movies like this one, a crazy black comedy/mockumentary about a beauty pageant being held in a small Minnesota town. The cast includes Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, Brittany Murphy, Amanda Detmer, Kirstie Alley and Amy Adams several years before she became the most in-demand actress in Hollywood. Totally ignored upon release, the movie has gone on to develop a sizable cult following, who rightfully grew to appreciate just how dark and funny a movie it is. This is the only feature directed by Michael Patrick Jann, a member of MTV's The State. The unmistakable voice of his fellow State cast member, the ubiquitous Tom Lennon, can be heard as the off-camera interviewer.


  1. Really glad you mentions In The Mouth of Madness. I was some what fortunate to have a dad that enjoyed some awesome movies, and would rather just let me watch movies like Reservoir Dogs, and Dusk Till Dawn then find me something else to do while he vegged out on his days off. This was one of those movies, and I remember it scaring the shit out of me as a young child, but also being utterly fascinated at this psychological type of horror which has you fearing for your own sanity and soul by the end of it.

  2. It's kind of amazing to me that Drop Dead Gorgeous is completely out of print.

    (And if you asked me what my favorite movies of the 1990's were, Pleasantville might be a top 5 choice. God, it's so good.)

  3. Don't worry, Patrick. I, too, have a soft spot for Now and Then from my youth. Christina Ricci in that movie was one of the first movie crushes that my 11- or 12-year-old self ever had. Now I just think she's kinda weird.

  4. Wow - I've loved me some 90s New Line Cinema but other than a distracted viewing of Pleasantville (which I really should rewatch), the only movie on this list that I've seen is Wes Craven's New Nightmare (which I agree is the 2nd best of the franchise). I'll try to check these out at some point - In the Mouth of Madness sounds particularly interesting...

  5. Great selection. Sol youve gotta see in the mouth of madness. Its a late night chiller. I really love that movie. Sam neil is great when he plays dark or troubled. Just look at Event horizon or even Omen 3.
    Just watched New nightmare recently as I just got the bluray set so of course with PBS I had to watch them all. I agree 1 and 7 are the best. Though the gay subtext in 2 is funny

    Also Deep cover I really like too

    Do you read Sutter Cane?

    1. Just another thought on the New Nightmare. Even though I love the premise. The film. The plot. The story. The twist.
      I hate the new look freddy. The Clean hat. The more Colour full sweater and the stupid new glove.
      If it ain't broken dont fix it. Great film. Crap Freddy

  6. Great piece! Brings back fond memories. My own Slater worship started with Gleaming The Cube and got serious when PUTV dropped. Those were the days.
    I remember Pleasantville being a much talked about movie when it came out. Surprised to see that it barely made it's budget back.

  7. Love this article, Patrick. New Line was a beast. Released both "Houseparty" and "Fire:Walk with me" !

  8. I was obsessed with Now and Then when I was little because I had a major crush on Thora Birch, Christina ricci and Gaby Hoffman (in that order) and my parents always thought I was so weird for being a boy and liking that movie so much, I think they thought there was something wrong with me haha so it's nice to see it get a shout out because it really was my favorite movie for a small period of time. Drop dead gorgeous was one of those movies that was on hbo all the time and I used to watch it a lot. I think it's a really underrated comedy and everytime will sasso is on screen in that movie he makes me laugh so hard. Good picks.

  9. Something I also liked about New Line in the 1990's and early 2000's is that they were, among the big movie studios, the one's that released on DVD the best quality transfers, good audio and good batch of extras. Seriously, for years New Line Platinum Series movies on DVD were Criterion-type good. Even a relatively-small movie like 2000's "Love and Basketball" and "Frequency" would come with making-of documentaries, commentary tracks, isolated music tracks, the works. And for the "Lord of the Rings" extended edition series these guys went the extra mile. Yep, love many New Line Cinema movies, but their Platinum Series DVD's were the bomb before Blu-ray took over.

    1. In the early days of DVD, I would blind buy pretty much any Platinum Series DVD. They were great. This explains the inclusion of Next Friday in my collection.

  10. Do I lose my membership card if I say Im not familiar with the New Line-LOTR-Bankruptcy Story? Is there an article in that? Id love to hear what happened there.

    Sounds like I need to check out Pump Up The Volume to complete the Slater-Trifecta of Cool (along with Kuffs and True also include Heathers, but I really like the sound of Slater-Trifecta).

    1. "Pump Up The Volume" was the first time I became aware of Christian Slater as an actor since I hadn't seen "Heathers," which I still haven't seen (sorry Patrick, Mike and Adam weren't the only one's). I saw "Pump..." in 1992 when it premiered on Showtime, my first year in college (God, I'm old! :-P). I loved it, saw it a bunch in the 90's and haven't seen it in well over 16 years. Maybe it's time for a rewatch... AFTER I see "Heathers" and "Kuffs" for the first time, obviously (so I can finally listen to Patrick's solo commentary).

    2. Sorry first off. But I have not yet seen Heathers or Kuffs neither, Or it has been that long ago I cant remember them. They are on my to watch list though I promise. I did though listen to the Kuffs podcast, just today, by a strange coincidence, I swear, so I am totally ready for it.
      Patrick going solo for 92 mins. Hard work. I wouldn't want to do that. It felt strangely intimate with just PB quitely whispering in my ear. With no risky jokes from Riskie. No Boner jokes from Doug. And No insights from JB. Intimate and enjoyable.

      I am going look for those crazy jumpers with the fan onnit!

  11. My grandfather's video store had a giant New Line logo cutout on one corner wall and a life-size Freddy hanging out in the horror section. The logo animation was always my favorite growing up.

    It's crazy that you bring up the house that Freddy built because I'm watching the Elm St. remake right now. Why am I watching this?

    1. Because its good. Its the second best movie of the series. I bet you enjoyed it

  12. Im gonna sneak another movie in there.

    I've not watched for a while but seem to remember I liked it. I just stuck in the dvd for a viewing for a lazy take your brain out sunday movie and up pops the new line logo.


    Starring four ladies which isent a bad thing. Especially Vivica A Fox and Jada pinkett as she was then called back then.
    Lights camera action. Lets rob some banks

    "Set it off"

  13. It still plays. Its never gonna be Citizen kane but I kind find things to enjoy about it.
    Spoilers but the end is almost the same ending as Demon Knight with Jada driving off into the night. I like the moral which seems to be friends are more important than money