90s Cult Gems to Watch During Isolation

Curated by Jonquil Lawrence

If isolation has left you feeling uninspired and in need of a large dose of escapism and/or nostalgia – look no further. Brimming with charisma, iconic soundtracks and even more iconic looks, here are a selection of must-watch cult classics released in the 90s. 

THE DOOM GENERATION (1995) 

Director Gregg Araki’s major film debut, and part of his ‘Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy’, first being Totally Fucked up (1993) and third, Nowhere (1997). The Doom Generation is a 90s dark-comedy thriller starring a young Rose McGowan as one of two disaffected teen lovers who pick up a mysterious sexy drifter ‘Xavier Red’. After becoming involved in a murder, the threesome embarks on a chaotic journey of debauchery across LA. Shot on 35mm, The Doom Generation leads us through kitsch romantic motel rooms, bars and clinical convenience stores with a dream-like surrealist quality in keeping with the hyperreal narrative – but perhaps the most memorable are Amy’s (McGowan) iconic looks styled by Catherine Cooper-Thoman. Teeming with pop culture references, political satire and ridiculously quotable expletive-filled dialogue – this film is a must-see. Also, extra points for being very queer and erotic.   

Available to watch on BFI and Amazon Prime 

The soundtrack is also worth a listen featuring moody tunes from the Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Lush and Slowdive

THE CRAFT (1996) 

Paving the way for TV series such as Charmed, this campy adolescent fantasy-horror is full of all of the stylistic tropes you’d expect in a teen film about witchcraft – and we’re here for it. The film begins with protagonist Sarah transferring to a Catholic prep school in LA where she is befriended by a wannabe-coven of angsty misfits looking for a fourth member. As the girls’ supernatural power grows they unleash their revenge on those who have wronged them, things then take an ominous turn and their friendship begins to unravel. Arguably, the fiery charisma of ‘Nancy’ portrayed by a convincing Fairuza Balk (an actual pagan IRL), iconic 90s goth-inspired looks and camp theatrics make up for the occasionally goofy special effect. The Craft’s feminist core combined with a surprisingly moral undertone give this cult movie an unlikely yet endearing postmodern perspective, we have no choice but to stan. 

Available to watch on Netflix and Amazon Prime 

HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994) 

Based on the infamous 1954 Christchurch, New Zealand murder case, with impressive breakout performances from a young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, this psychosexual drama explores the delirious fantasies and delusions of an impassioned adolescent friendship and the violence that ensues. The narrative follows Pauline Parker (Lynskey) an apathetic New Zealand girl from a working-class background and rich English transfer student Juliet Hulme (Winslet) who bond over their shared history of childhood sickness and hospitalisation. Together they create exclusive fantasy kingdoms as a form of escapism from their mundane lives, named ‘Borovnia’ and ‘the Fourth World’. These worlds begin to absorb their time and mental energy, blurring the lines of their reality. As the girls’ relationship grows more and more intense their families become increasingly disapproving, and the narrative reveals the sinister lengths the girls will go to, to stay together. Interestingly, this real-life tale features entries from Pauline’s actual diary spanning from 1952-1954 which adds to the uncanny ominous feel. The cinematography is gorgeous and thrilling which juxtaposed with the garish fantasy sets, makes for a thoroughly compelling watch. Director Peter Jackson takes a different direction with this visually artful yet disturbing 90s psychological thriller, with extra points for queerness! 

Available to watch on Youtube and Google Play

JAWBREAKER (1999) 

Stylish, kitsch and tacky af – Jawbreaker is by no means perfect but we love it anyway. A satirical take on the bitchy high school teen flick, this dark comedy subverts American youth culture with attitude and style. Think ‘Heathers’ meets ‘Clueless’ with a dash of ‘Carrie’. The plot follows a clique of it-girls who accidentally murder their best friend ‘Liz’ in a birthday prank gone wrong and the events that unfold afterward. The gag is – figuratively and quite literally – she chokes to death on a jawbreaker sweet. The strong female cast is led by Rose McGowan as the sociopathic seductive queen bee ‘Courtney’, and her performance is powerful and enticing, there’s also a hilarious cameo from Marilyn Manson who she was dating at the time. Contextually, the film explores sexuality and power-play fantasies, pressure on young girls and bullying in an idiosyncratic way. Fashion-wise, director Darren Stein sought to create iconic looks for the film, enlisting Vikki Barrett the costume designer for Clueless and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, and it must be said – the 50s inspired silhouettes fused with 80s punk latex and eye-popping jawbreaker ‘candy’ colours do NOT disappoint. 

Available to watch on Youtube, Google Play and Amazon Prime 

EMPIRE RECORDS (1995) 

A ‘stick it to the man’ peppy coming-of-age teen comedy, think the Breakfast Club but make it weirder. Praised for its soundtrack but trashed by the critics, Empire Records was a box office flop but gained a cult following years later. This film boasts all of the relatable 90s teen archetypes featuring breakout performances from a young Renée Zellweger, Liv Tyler and Robin Tunney from The Craft. The narrative follows the ridiculous antics of Empire Records’ employees over the course of a day as they attempt to save the store from a corporate takeover whilst honing in on the characters and the challenges they face along the way. Despite its unapologetic silliness, Empire Records possesses a certain self-aware charm. All in all a light-hearted watch with bonus points for the FU to capitalism. 

Available to watch on Youtube, Google Play and Amazon Prime 

POISON IVY (1992) 

An early 90s cult favourite! A young Drew Barrymore dominates the screen as the eponymous lead, a pathological teen femme fatale who befriends and assimilates herself into the home life of bright but socially outcasted Sylvie Cooper. Sylvie is intrigued by Ivy’s free-spirited nature and Ivy covets Sylvie’s rich seemingly ‘perfect’ life. Things begin to sour as deceptive Ivy gains the trust of Sylvie’s family – developing an affinity for her mother’s glamorous clothes and a sexual obsession with her father. Fashion-wise, it’s interesting to see Ivy’s escalating manipulation mirrored in her style throughout the film. In the opening scene she is portrayed as the archetypal rebellious and sexually precocious anti-heroine with her unkempt bleached curls, nose ring, old oversized biker jacket, tie-dye skirt and cowboy boots combo. Gradually her style becomes more refined and elegant as she seeks to mimic the dress of Sylvie’s mother and become a part of their lavish household – cue inspiration for #slayathome looks. Although the film is offbeat and neo-noir, it also lends insight into the nuances and turmoil of intense teenage friendships. Director Katt Shea creates an enigmatic slow-burn pace as Poison Ivy begins innocently enough like any other 90s high school flick, but it’s worth the wait for the startlingly sinister climax. 

Available to watch on Amazon Prime 

GIA (1998) 

A compelling biopic based on the vibrant but short life of troubled model Gia Marie Carangi, whose meteoric rise to fame in the late 70s left her widely regarded as America’s first supermodel. The film documents a charismatic Gia’s elevation from feisty teen to highly sought-after cover girl. Arguably, Gia’s style, queerness and sense of individualism breathed life into an otherwise stale industry dominated by tall tanned blondes. The film also brings to light Gia’s hedonistic lifestyle and substance abuse problems which eventually lead to her tragically early death. Contextually the film highlights the fashion industry’s problematic glamorisation of ‘heroin chic’, the financial boom of the 80s and stigma of the AIDS epidemic in America. Gia’s story and the film are gripping because of their mystique, there are few and far between stories told of the queer women who suffered from AIDS in their community and the political and historical significance of Gia’s story being told must not be overlooked. The authenticity of the performances (Angelina we love you) combined with the inclusion of Gia’s real-life diary entries and interview dialogue from those close to her make for an intriguing and provocative watch. The film also centres around Gia’s passionate love affair with make-up artist Linda (Sandy Linter IRL) which – despite being problematic AF and romanticised for the sake of a Hollywood narrative – is so important. Watch this film if you are in the mood for a cry and/or a queer awakening. 

Available to watch on Amazon Prime

WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995) 

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, this coming-of-age dark comedy film is a 90s indie treasure. Written and directed by Todd Solondz, the film is a starkly brutal examination of life as a social outcast in American middle school. Welcome to the Dollhouse shines a light on the agony of adolescence and serves as a reminder of how shockingly cruel kids can be. The narrative centres around taunted 11-year-old protagonist ‘Dawn’ (doomed to be known as ‘Wiener Dog’ by her pitiless peers) played by Heather Matarazzo who some of you may recognise as ‘Lily’ from The Princess Diaries (!). Solondz tells the story of Dawn’s hopeless plight as she struggles to fit in with her insufferable classmates and at home, as the awkward middle child between her geeky older brother Mark and irritatingly precious younger sister Missy – who garner all of Mum and Dad’s attention. Matarazzo’s stellar performance as the sympathetic Dawn makes the film absorbing, compelling and highly relatable. We follow Dawn through a series of suburban mishaps and find ourselves rooting for her, as she contends with the verbally abusive disturbed school bully (TW: rape threats), chases the ridiculous local high school heartthrob, mutilates her dolls and destroys family property. Critically acclaimed, the film possesses a poignant beauty in its dark humour, sarcasm and merciless objectivity. Although rife with uncomfortable moments and severely lacking in sentimentality, Welcome to the Dollhouse is provocative, heartbreaking, pithy and acute, making the viewer both laugh and cringe simultaneously and extremely relieved that school is over. 

Available to watch on Youtube and Amazon Prime 

*[Trigger warning – verbal abuse – bullying] 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1998) 

A chic 90s take on the 1861 Dickens classic, ‘Great Expectations’ is visually enchanting, stylish and sensual. Director Alfonso  Cuaron modernises this romantic drama by moving away from the book’s Victorian England setting and commences the tale in a Florida fishing village with a dilapidated Neo-Gothic mansion. Anne Bancroft stars as the jilted Miss Havisham (perhaps the most misunderstood character in all of Dickens’ novels, and my literary hero), now an eccentric venomous millionairess called Ms Dinsmoor, who sports flamboyant eye makeup and smokes cigarettes – and we’re here for it. The narrative begins with 10 year old orphan and talented artist Finn – formally Pip in the book – developing a childhood crush on Ms Dinsmoor’s beautiful niece Estella. Miss Dinsmoor sees this as an opportunity to manipulate Finn into falling head over heels for Estella and plots to use Estella as a tool to unleash her revenge on men. Robert De Niro – convincing as ever – also stars in the film, as escaped convict and mobster named Arthur Lustig. Fast forward to the 90s, they meet again after years apart. Finn is now older and a painter in New York played by Ethan Hawke and seductress Stella is played by a charming Gwyneth Paltrow. Cuaron’s cinematography is gorgeous to watch, with the artful shots, soft lighting and moody music giving the film a super sensual yet fairytale feel. Fashion-wise, Gwyneth’s outfits are quintessential 90s New York socialite – elegant, stylish and understated. Great Expectations is a captivatingly fashionable slow burn film with an exquisitely moody soundtrack. 

Available to watch on Google Play and Youtube 

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