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The Outliers: Horror’s Greatest Directors and Their Black Sheep Films, Volume One

There is a pantheon of filmmakers whose names are synonymous with effective, terrifying, groundbreaking horror films. You know who they are, and if you’re reading this site, you’ve likely seen most if not all of their body of work.

But there are some that don’t get revisited as often as others. For any filmmaker who has made more than three films, there will always be a black sheep in the family. A film that is not as beloved, is lesser known, or simply never achieved the critical or cult status of their other works.

While we want to recognize the greatest work these pantheon filmmakers have created, it’s sometimes fun and illuminating to look at the black sheep in the family, to see what went wrong, to look at it through the lens of the filmmaker’s otherwise stellar career, and sometimes just to decide if we feel the black sheep status is unjustly applied or understandably forgotten. So who are the first five filmmakers, and what are those black sheep films?


The Filmmaker: Wes Craven

craven

The Body of Work:
A college professor whose career began when he was 33, he didn’t waste any time in creating a huge impact with Last House on the Left, one of the most notorious horror/revenge films of all time. He followed it with The Hills Have Eyes a few years later, and joined the ranks of horror icon history when he created Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He revisited his own creation in 1994, helping give birth to meta-horror with New Nightmare, and codified the new subgenre by directing every entry in the successful Scream franchise.

The Black Sheep Nominees:
Because it isn’t a horror film, we shouldn’t include Music of the Heart, a drama starring Meryl Streep as an inner-city violin teacher. The same goes for his early-era porn film, The Fireworks Woman (yes, that’s real). There is no lack of opinions from Craven fans about certain films like Swamp Thing, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Shocker, Deadly Friend, and Vampire in Brooklyn; they’re not forgotten films as much as third rails of the Craven filmography that might kill you if you step on them in the wrong company. Deadly Blessing and The People Under the Stairs have earned legitimate cult status to varying degrees, so what does that leave?

Maybe his black sheep is in his television work. Chiller, Stranger in Our House, Invitation to Hell, and Night Visions are all films Craven made for television in the years between Last House on the Left and returning for New Nightmare. But they’re early films that had spotty home releases, often in quickie discs that plastered his more famous horror titles across the top in an effort to peddle the films to unsuspecting viewers. If rarity and weirdness were the only criteria for a TV black sheep, we might as well nominate the “Casebusters” episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. No, the true black sheep of Craven’s family is…

The Black Sheep Winner:
My Soul to Take.

A film that isn’t truly terrible enough to gain laughable cult status, and nowhere near good enough to stand as a strong example of his work, the 2010 film had a lot going against it. A post-conversion to 3-D to cash in on a fad, poor box office performance, worse reviews; even things that had been boons in Craven’s other films, like a cast of up-and-coming teen actors, a central whodunit mystery, and a sprinkling of Catholic themes and imagery, were largely uninspired and fell flat.

The Verdict:
Understandably Forgotten.


The Filmmaker: John Carpenter

carpenter

The Body of Work:

Do I need to waste your time with this? He redefined indie horror success with Halloween, reinvented a classic terror with The Thing, turned weather into a villain with The Fog, amalgamated Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft with In the Mouth of Madness, and made us afraid of nice cars, vats of green goo, and sunglasses (Christine, Prince of Darkness, and They Live, respectively).

The Black Sheep Nominees:
Because John Carpenter is such a singular filmmaker, his movies tend to run hit and miss, but even the misses have their loyal supporters. Body Bags is a guilty pleasure for many (possibly because of his fun on-screen performance); Someone’s Watching Me is a surprisingly assured early TV film, though it is missing Carpenter’s signature score; and Vampires is a mediocre film elevated by a couple of unbelievably committed performances.

There is certainly an argument to be made for The Ward as deserving of the Black Sheep award. The only reason it escapes that designation is because it is (as of this writing) the last feature film that John Carpenter has made. We all fear it is possible that it will be the last film he makes, if the number of cigarettes Carpenter lights during every commentary track is any accurate measure of how long he will remain with us; and like Jimmy Stewart’s career ending with an uninspired voice-over in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, we live in fear of it being the anticlimactic end to a fantastic run. No, the film that takes the award is…

The Black Sheep Winner:
Village of the Damned.

If rumors are to be believed, it was a film John Carpenter didn’t even particularly want to make. Legend goes that he directed the remake of the intellectual property in order to get a crack at one that he liked even more: The Day the Earth Stood Still. When Village of the Damned did poorly at the box office, the film he really wanted to make magically never materialized.

The lackluster performances from Christopher Reeve and Kirstie Alley matched Carpenter’s general level of disinterest, and although a few of the child performances show promise, the tension in the film’s pacing and plot dry up a few minutes after the intriguing opening premise. Add to that a nomination for Worst Remake at the Golden Raspberrry Awards and the fact that 1995 was the last year for Christopher Reeve before an accident confined him to a wheelchair, and it’s understandable why this film has been allowed to vanish quietly.

The Verdict:
Understandably Forgotten.


The Filmmaker: George A. Romero

George Romero as seen in the documentary "Birth of the Living Dead."

The Body of Work:
Just add your choice of words to the beginning of the phrase “of the Dead.” Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead. He may have made some films about things that were living, too.

Oh, and Creepshow. A high-water mark in anthology horror and a loving tribute to the morbid comics everyone’s parents blamed for their disturbed children.

The Black Sheep Nominees:
This is a difficult list to create. Aside from certain entries in the Dead series, many horror fans consider movies like Martin and Monkey Shines some of his most interesting and accomplished work, thanks to committed performances and offbeat stories not found in mainstream horror fare.

Two Evil Eyes is nowhere near the brilliant anthology film that Creepshow was, but it dodges Black Sheep status because Romero and Argento working together on a film is valuable for sheer curiosity. Knightriders and There’s Always Vanilla escape judgement because they’re not horror films, and Season of the Witch (or Hungry Wives or Jack’s Wife) was so ahead of its time thematically that I believe its most appreciative audience is actually still finding it. No, Romero’s Black Sheep award goes to…

The Black Sheep Winner:
Bruiser.

What an unusual film. A frumpy nothing of a man who is marginalized at his job, humiliated by his wife, and is spending a lot of time fantasizing about suicide and worse. After being unable to paint a blank white mask to express himself, he wakes up the next morning to find the mask now covering his own face. He is erased, unreal, nothing. And with that comes the luxury of casting of societal norms. Watch out world, Henry Creedlow is pissed off.

Weird, uneven, and overly symbolic… but still, there’s something scrappy about this obtuse and completely uncommercial film. With an interesting lead character portrayed by “That Guy” Jason Flemyng, and over-the-top performance from Peter Stormare (including a cameo from his penis), and an appearance from punk band The Misfits, I understand why people have forgotten it, but… I just can’t.

The Verdict:
Unjustly Applied.


The Filmmaker: David Cronenberg

cronenberg

The Body of Work:
‘Body’ is the right word to describe his work. Since he started altering physiology back in Shivers, Cronenberg has made a critically well-received and moderately profitable career off of the slow changing of the human body: Rabid, The Brood, The Fly. Even his more popular and less horror-driven films, like Eastern Promises and the play adaptation M. Butterfly, deal with the rigorous physical changes that his protagonists put themselves through.

The Black Sheep Nominees:
Because he came out of the gate so strongly in the horror arena, there are few misses in his work. Sure, we have some questions about why Cronenberg made a 1979 car racing exploitation film called Fast Company, but it’s not horror, so we let it go.

Somehow, the less commercial Cronenberg’s films are, the more cult famous they seem to be. Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and Crash are extremely weird and idiosyncratic, and they have garnered him some of his most die-hard fans. His emotionally reserved and coldly calculating films like Dead Ringers and The Dead Zone have found crossover love from even non-horror fans due to their performances and meticulous direction. In this case, the award for David Cronenberg’s most under-remembered film is…

The Black Sheep Winner:
Spider.

And frankly, it makes no sense. Unlike Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, Spider was somehow not nominated for an Academy Award for Ralph Fiennes’ stunning, complex performance as a mentally ill man trying to slowly work his way back into society. This film almost didn’t make the list because it barely registers as a horror film, but some of the subject matter, the frankness of content, and the truly disturbing nature of the story allow for a certain leeway (not to mention that the film is fantastic and criminally underrated).

The Verdict:
Unjustly Applied.


The Filmmaker: Tobe Hooper

hooper

The Body of Work:
The most unusual of the filmmakers on the list, Tobe Hooper exploded out of the gate with his first feature film, the notorious and surprisingly beautiful artsploitation film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. His subsequent output was a varied as it was interesting: a TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot; a darkly comedic sequel in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2; the box-office super-success Poltergeist that was (rumored to be) mostly directed by Hooper’s producer, Steven Spielberg; and the “definitely directed by Hooper” one-two punch of Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars.

The Black Sheep Nominees:
The rest of Hooper’s career is a mixed bag that is equal parts candy, nails, hot air, and sawdust. He worked with Robert Englund twice in a row with Night Terrors and The Mangler, which is enough to keep them from relative obscurity. His most recent feature, Djinn, is a mildly interesting story that has a very interesting premise; the same can be said for his remake of Toolbox Murders, where he injected a supernatural thread that livened up the proceedings. He even directed one segment of the aforementioned Body Bags, which is possibly the best sequence in the film.

The Black Sheep could be the 2005 film Mortuary, or the 1990 Spontaneous Combustion, both of which barely reached my radar when they were released initially and haven’t done anything to work themselves back into my thoughts since. But the last mention in this article should be a high note, so let’s end with a Black Sheep award for Tobe Hooper’s work on…

The Black Sheep Winner:
Eaten Alive.

So much of what worked in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre returned in this film because so many of the people who made it returned for this one. Wayne Bell was back to create weird sounds that were sort of a musical score; Marilyn Burns was back on the screen, and Kim Henkel helped commit more disturbing words and actions to paper.

The film isn’t quite as beautiful as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre due to the absence of cinematographer Daniel Pearl (who went on to win many awards in the world of music videos), but the sleazy grindhouse charm is still present and accounted for.  Add to that the first pairing of Hooper with Robert Englund and an appearance from a young lady who would grow into one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and we have a film with multiple reasons to be remembered that doesn’t get remembered enough.

The Verdict:
Unjustly Applied.



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COMMENTS

12 Comments
  • Matt Graupman

    I really like the concept of this series and I can’t wait to see who is included in the next round of directors.

    A couple of quick thoughts: (1) personally, my most underrated Wes Craven movie is probably “Red Eye” for its great performances by a top notch cast, and (2) John Carpenter’s “The Ward” is just a straight up dreadful movie and I REALLY hope it’s not his last film.

  • Rocky

    you got the Tobe Hooper one horribly wrong. The worst he ever did, in fact one of the worst films of all time is the ridiculous yawn fest Texas shit saw massacre.

    • Munchie

      I shouldn’t respond to you because it’s obvious you’re just looking for attention, but…you’re funny.

  • LastCubScout

    I thought John Carpenter’s “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” was worse than “The Ward.”

  • DWS

    Even though it makes no sense John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. Like a priest friend once said about The Exorcist, it’s scary because it could really happen. Whether this is true or not it still makes a scary premise, anything with a demon or the devil, if given lots of atmosphere like Prince of Darkness.

    • Melissa Sharp

      I always think that way with the Mouth of Madness in a way. One of my favorite lines in the movie(okay my favorite movie line ever!) is “A reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places…if the insane were to become the majority…You would find yourself locked in a padded cell…wondering what happened to the world.”” Creepy stuff!

  • Rick-Taylor

    I felt The Ward was pretty average. A Twilight Zone episode stretched into movie length. It’s worth a watch, even though you will guess everything withing the first 15 minutes.

  • Melissa Sharp

    I love Eaten Alive! It’s one of my favorite Hooper movies and one of the best opening sequences that makes me laugh every time!

  • Steven Espinoza

    Can’t wait for the next volume. Some suggestions for the next slew of directors: Dario Argento, Alfred Hitchcock, Roger Corman, San Raimi, and writing wise perhaps even the most overlooked Stephen King adaptation.

  • James Allard

    Cool: two of my favorites showed up, Bruiser and Spider, both films that are not quite what they appear to be, and benefit from multiple viewings. Neither is easy to watch a second time, to be fair, but they are worth the time.

  • turk

    I thought for sure Carpenter’s would be “Ghosts of Mars”.

  • Igor Leoni

    I don’t think “My Soul to Take” was really that bad. It’s a fun slasher that at least tried to do something different. IMO Craven has worse films (the sequel to The Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing and Vampire in Brooklyn are much worse).

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