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.
Here we go!
Neil Marshall (“Combat” 1999)
Before bursting onto the international horror scene with the highly acclaimed The Descent, Neil Marshall wrote and directed Combat, a nearly 8 minute short where several friends go out down the pub for an evening of womanizing that turns ugly. Like the early works of many filmmakers, Marshall seems to be experimenting with the basic formal aspects of cinema: sound, motion, lighting and editing.
In the film, battle sounds plays over a highly stylized scenario, fluid camera movies, quick editing. It’s a showy piece that highlight many of the traits he would use to great effect in Game of Thrones, Centurion and, my personal favourite, Doomsday.
Tobe Hooper (“The Heisters” 1964)
Tobe Hooper’s debut is like an absurdist Edgar Allan Poe story. Very well produced with an old Hollywood look, the story is about a group of robbers who hole up following the theft of a priceless jewel.
While it doesn’t suggest the macabre that would come 10 years later with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it does boast some ingenious visual gags and a sense of rare sense of humor for the director.
Vincenzo Natali (“Elevated” 1996)
Ana Lily Amirpour (“Six and a Half” 2009)
Amirpour director a number of shorts from 2009 to 2012, one of which was A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night which would become the basis of her feature debut of the same name. Her 2009 debut effort, Six and Half however remains a fascinating exploration of adolescence and human nature.
In the film, a young girl endures a traumatic experience which she ultimately blames on a frog. Stylistically the film fluctuates between two very distinct aesthetics, one showing a knack for horror imagery. Watch for Amirpour’s next, an apocalyptic cannibal flick, The Bad Batch which will hit Netflix next year.
Guillermo del Toro (“Geometria” 1987)
Guillermo del Toro’s Geometria is a humourous short with a dark and sinister twits. Technically it’s the Hellboy director’s second short before directing Cronos, but it’s too great not to share.
In the film is about a boy who is tired of failing geometry and summons a demon to solve his problems. The signature colour pallet is here as well as the gothic sensibility the director would become know for.
James Cameron (“Xenogenesis” 1978)
Every starts somewhere, even James Cameron who holds the distinction of having the highest grossing film of all time under his belt. Of course before transporting audiences to Pandora, the blockbuster director started in horror, The Terminator and Aliens remaining two of the most influential films of the genre.
Cameron started as a model builder and matte painter working for Roger Corman on films like Battle Beyond the Stars and the visual nod to Alien, Galaxy of Terror. Even before that, however he created a true oddity, Xenogenesis, which sees an engineer terrorized by a sentient spaceship and a giant robot. It’s definitely interesting to see the short as a harbinger of some of the ideas the director would perfect in The Terminator.
Ti West (“Prey” 2001)
Ti West’s Prey is a great example of what to do when you have no money to do much with at all. Like Sam Raimi before him, he seems to have figured out that the camera itself can create tension by behaving through its own POV.
In Prey, two friends have taken photos of something in the woods. They become it’s prey as they try to escape.
Jennifer Kent (“The Monster” 2005)
In The Monster, a single mother battles her son’s fear of a monster in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.
Yes, this first effort, gorgeously shot in black and white, would form the basis of Jennifer Kent’s breakthrough first feature The Babadook.
Ryûhei Kitamura (“Down to Hell” 1997)
Down to Hell is actually Kitamura’s second film, the 45 minute short being the progenitor of what would become his frenetic opus, Versus. Unfortunately, I couldn’t source an English subbed verion of the film, but it’s still fun to see Kitamura pushing the limits of style and montage.
Kitamura would go on to work in both America and Japan on various projects, most notably Midnight Meat Train and No One Lives (pictured above).
Alexandre Aja (“Over the Rainbow” 1997)
Ushering in a wave of young French extremists in the early 2000s, along with peers Xavier Gens and Pascal Laugier, Alexandre Aja’s early work is extremely stylish, cinematic, grotesque and gorgeous all at the same time.
Over the Rainbow, Aja’s first directorial effort is an almost 10 minute short that, I think you’ll agree, could not be more French. Black and White and hyper stylish, it reminds of the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (a director whose work you can expect to show up in part two of this series).
Stay tuned for part 2!