When directors are asked for advice on how to break into the industry by aspiring filmmakers, their answer is in variably some version of, “Get a camera and make something.” And as unhelpful as that sounds on the surface, even the most successful directors got their start by doing just that: making something. Even if it was imperfect or flawed.
So, in what I will be an ongoing series, I’ve compiled the first endeavors of some of our favourite horror directors as a means to inspire anyone who might be facing some kind of creative paralysis. Because, as you’ll see, while many of these films do give hints of the great heights these directors would climb, they are all scrappy, rough around the edges and full of wonderful flaws.
Be sure to check out part one of this ongoing series.
James Wan (“Saw” 2003)
The reigning king of horror, James Wan has three bonafide franchises under his belt in Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring series. Add to that his work on blockbusters like the Fast and Furious and his move into the DCU and Wan starts to look like one of the most successful filmmakers working today.
But it all started with this nine-and-a-half-minute short he co-wrote with Leigh Whannell. Filmed in his native Australia, this rough version of “Saw” was originally used to pitch the full-length feature film to Lionsgate who picked the feature up. Saw would go on to become hugely influential to the genre and the most lucrative horror franchise of all time.
Jaume Balagueró (“Alicia” 1994)
It’s hard to explain the excitement surrounding Jaume Balaguero’s & Paco Plaza’s original [REC] to anyone who wasn’t tapped into the horror movie scene ten years ago. The anticipation for a foreign zombie movie was something rarely seen and found footage was still something of a novelty. Zombie media wasn’t nearly as mainstream as it is now, so in 2007 [REC] seemed immediately fresh and aesthetically exciting. And man, did it deliver. [REC] was so well received it spawned three sequels and an American adaption in Quarantine.
Balaguero’s first directorial effort is a decidedly NSFW experimental short called Alicia and while it’s the furthest thing from a found footage film, it’s guaranteed to get a reaction out of any viewer.
Greg Nicotero (“United Monster Talent Agency” 2010)
After the run he’s had on The Walking Dead recently, directing some of the show’s best and provocative episodes, not to mention his history as a visual FX artist, I simply had to include Greg Nicotero on this list. Plus, as you’ll see below, his first work as a director is an amusing retro ode to the famous monsters of old Hollywood that should be seen by all.
Mary Lambert (“Rapid Eye Movement” 1977)
There’s no question that Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary I & II were instrumental in forming my relationship with both Stephen King and horror movies. The first film was one of the first scary movies that truly terrified me and it’s also one of the first time I realized movies were based on books. Stephen King, I thought, must be a one scary dude.
Lambert’s first film is also super eerie, but for completely different reasons. An animated experimental narrative about people in a casino, the film’s style will likely remind viewers of popular animator at the time, Ralph Bakshi.
J.A. Bayona (“Mis Vacaciones” 1999)
Looking at Bayona’s first short film, Mis Vacaciones, it’s easy to see why A Monster Calls is getting such praise. Even as this early stage, the Spanish director of The Orphanage was well attuned to the whimsy and melancholy of coming of age storytelling.
David Cronenberg (“Transfer” 1966)
It’s taken years for Canada’s David Cronenberg to shake the reputation of being strictly a body horror director, but his early career certainly yielded some of the ickiest and most explosive examples of the sub genre. From Scanners to The Fly and even my personal favorite, Videodrome, his best work is both visually and thematically uncompromising.
His first film, Transfer, is a surreal tale of two people – a psychiatrist and his patient – at a table set for dinner in the middle of a field covered in snow.
David Slade (“Do Geese See God?” 2004)
Before helming 30 Days of Night, director David Slade’s first short film was the third in a series of five shorts released by Amazon as part of an “Amazon Theater” experiment.
In the film, which takes its name from a well known palindrome, actor Blair Underwood is beset by modern anxiety.
Sam Raimi (“Within the Woods” 1978)
Within the Woods is not Sam Raimi’s first short film, but it’s probably his most important early film as it stars Bruce Campbell and is now considered the progenitor of the Evil Dead series.
Like many first films, Within the Woods was made out of passion, but also to drum up interest and investment in a larger project.
Axelle Carolyn (“The Last Post” 2011)
Axelle Carolyn hails from the world of horror film journalism, having covered the genre for Fangoria and others before moving into acting and directing. The mind behind last year’s Tale of Halloween anthology as well as the stylish haunter, Soulmate, Carolyn’s debut was The Last Post, a short film about an aging woman reconnecting with her past through (perhaps) supernatural means.
Nimród Antal (“Insurance” 1999)
Before helming pulse-pounders like Vacancy and Predators, Nimrod Antal was studied film in Hungry where he made international waves with the stylish thriller Kontrol. Prior to that however, he put together this fascinating film called Insurance that remains a must see for fans of European cinema.
Stay tuned for part 3!