When it comes to horror, there are a number of talented filmmakers that call the genre home. Masters of horror that fans can recall by name simply because of their robust body of work in horror. Names like David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, and so forth. As fans, we can count on these filmmakers to understand and share our affinity for the genre in ways that outsiders can’t. Especially when many of those outsiders seem to annually decree that horror is dead (it’s not and will never be).
We’re a fervently protective bunch when it comes to our beloved genre, and that’s understandable. There’s a developed instinct to bristle at an outsider’s new association with horror, stemming from decades of horror being overlooked. Fans audibly groaned over the announcement that John Carpenter would be handing over directorial reigns for the next installment of Halloween to director David Gordon Green, a guy whose notable credits are stoner comedies. It’s way too early to pass judgment, but John Carpenter is notorious for being hard to please, and he’s reportedly pleased by Green’s understanding of the franchise’s roots.
Similarly, Jordan Peele’s comedic body of work doesn’t initially strike the impression that he’d be the type to deliver an effective horror film. At least not without the crutch of comedy. Yet his new film Get Out is currently sitting at a whopping 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 73 critical reviews, at least at the time of this writing.
The truth is, as with all genre of film, fresh perspectives are important. Sometimes coming at a horror film from a completely different angle will breathe new life into a tired sub-genre. Sometimes simply narrowing in on the human element makes a horror film more widely accessible, introducing new fans to our genre. Horror is full of amazing films that happened to be directed by filmmakers that stepped outside of their comfort zone for once, and here are 10 of the most memorable.
The seminal possession film to end all possession films is a no-brainer for any horror list with “memorable” in the title, right? The film is exceptional for many reasons, all of which have been discussed extensively and more eloquently before. However, would this film have been so memorable and so horrifying under the direction of someone else? Someone with more experience, or film school training, perhaps? Doubtful. While the subject matter at the front and center of this classic horror film is terrifying enough, it’s director William Friedkin’s lack of classic training and documentary experience that pushed all of the right boundaries.
The funny thing is that Friedkin didn’t set out to make a horror film. It took a while for him to come to terms that it’s considered as such. Yet the realism that he brought from his work on documentaries made Regan’s plight all the more believable. The white faced demon seen throughout the film, though first in Father Karras’ dream sequence, was an outtake from makeup tests. Friedkin was inspired by subliminal editing in a Holocaust documentary and included it last-minute. When most other directors would have taken an artistic or cutaway approach to Regan’s possession, Friedkin remained unflinching in its examination. His stark, honest direction combined with the innovative special effects firmly landed his film into horror, even if he doesn’t think so.
Director Richard Donner is known for his popular action films, but his break-through film was actually one of the best horror films ever made. Coming from a background in television, Donner wanted to approach this film with a realistic portrayal of family. He had screenwriter David Seltzer remove all supernatural elements, like witches and demons, making it a request that nothing happen in the script that couldn’t happen in real life. This gave the story not only a sense of realism, but a psychological aspect, with the audience not immediately sure whether it was all in the mind of guilt-ridden father Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck).
Coming from the surge in horror elicited by the success of The Exorcist, Donner’s subtle tactic to the horror and his focus on the authentic nature made the film more unnerving. It was due to his strong vision that got the film greenlit in the first place, as 20th Century Fox initially passed on the project. While there’s no question that Donner went on to direct some great films, he never returned to the genre that made Hollywood take notice of him, save for a few episodes of Tales from the Crypt.
Marking her solo directorial debut, Katheryn Bigelow didn’t initially set out to make a horror film. She really wanted to make a Western, but since that wasn’t exactly a box office draw, she and co-writer Eric Red opted to blend the Western elements with a genre that was popular at that time; vampires. The result is a perfect marriage between the grimy grit of a Western and the bloody viciousness of horror.
Bigelow’s refusal to play by horror rules works in the film’s favor to solidify it in the horror pantheon of vampire films. Never once is the word “vampire” ever uttered on screen, and the mythology behind the vampires is intentionally left vague. All of the familiar vampire tropes, save for an aversion to sunlight, are traded in for familiar Western tropes. The ruthless, gun-toting gang of bandits that ride across the Texas landscape versus the pure-hearted cowboy in it for love, just with a mean vampire twist makes for a fantastic cult favorite.
The director behind comedies When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride seems like an odd choice to helm the adaptation of Stephen King’s captivity nightmare, but his work on Stand By Me convinced Stephen King himself that Rob Reiner was perfect for the job. It turned out to be a mutual feeling, as Rob Reiner had wanted to make a Stephen King movie after watching The Shining. It’s the only Stephen King adaptation to have ever won an Academy Award, and it’s well earned; Kathy Bates’ take on Annie Wilkes is nightmare fuel.
How does a director so well versed in comedy and feel good films handle a horror thriller that features the infamous sledgehammer scene? He learns from a horror master. Rob Reiner extensively studied the works of Alfred Hitchcock to learn how to shoot a thriller. It worked; Annie Wilkes torture of bed-ridden Paul Sheldon is forever seared into viewers’ minds.
Known more for sexually charged films like Lolita and Indecent Proposal, director Adrian Lyne’s psychological horror film doesn’t quite play out like a traditional horror film, nor does it play like a standard psychological thriller either. It’s a terrifying, hallucinatory trip of paranoia with a lot of depth, bringing the audience to the brink of madness alongside Tim Robbin’s Jacob.
Influenced by the art of William Blake, Francis Bacon, and H.R. Giger, Lyne wanted more human-like, yet bizarre images for the film’s demons, overriding the original screenplay’s more biblical descriptions of them. Lyne fought hard to retain both his vision and the screenplay’s integrity; Paramount dropped the project when he wouldn’t change the ending. Luckily, Carolco Pictures saved it and gave Lyne full creative control. Though Jacob’s Ladder is still one of the more underrated films on this list, it’s still holds a huge sway on the horror genre, having inspired the Silent Hill game franchise, American Horror Story: Asylum, and more.
Upon initial release, Antonia Bird’s pitch black horror comedy was a dud in the eyes of critics and box office alike. An already risky concept by screenwriter Ted Griffin, 20th Century Fox fired the original director, Milcho Manchevski, two weeks into production out of fear that the film lacked mainstream appeal. It was then through star Robert Carlyle’s urging that they reluctantly gave the directorial reigns over to Bird, whose previous work included a romantic comedy dud and critically acclaimed British dramas. Not exactly the type of work that would be associated with a cannibal comedy.
The result is a tonally eccentric, strange blend of allegory, biting wit, and horror that doesn’t lend well to categorization. Yet, despite audiences’ initial rejection of the film, Ravenous has long since developed a rabid cult following. Despite studio tinkering and troubles behind-the scenes, Bird pulled together one of the most awkwardly funny and violent cannibal tales ever. The mainstream film that 20th Century Fox expected would have long since faded in memory, but Bird’s lack of genre and Hollywood experience contributed to one quirky horror-comedy filled with memorable lines like, “He was licking me!”
28 Days Later
Having just had his novel of The Beach adapted to screen, writer Alex Garland approached director Danny Boyle with a concept he had for a screenplay that involved running zombies. Both Boyle and Garland developed the idea further, forgoing the traditional idea that zombies ate brains, and altered the foundation of their zombie mythology to be more reflective of modern times. In this case, nuclear power was tossed out in favor of viral outbreaks and social rage.
Though it technically wasn’t the first film to ever include a running zombie, it was the first to include so many, each one of them with an overwhelming physical prowess. For his first nose dive into the genre, Boyle re-introduced fear into the zombie sub-genre and sparked a zombie revival. Yet it wasn’t just the viral nature of his zombies that made this film memorable, but his frenetic camera work, characters you actually empathized with, and the even scarier villain in the form of humanity.
Before directing the highest grossing South Korean genre film thus far, Bong Joon-ho had only tested his horror mettle in short format. Drawing inspiration from an actual event in which the U.S. military dumped formaldehyde into the Han River from their Seoul located base in 2000, Bong gave the monster movie a face lift by keeping the focus on a dysfunctional family rather than the military. Tired of seeing the typical heroes relegated to genius scientists or the athletic type, Bong Joon-ho intentionally centered his story on an average, middle class character with a not so impressive level of intelligence.
The oafish nature of the main character gives the story a comedic start, before giving way to scares and emotional devastation. Bong Joon-ho also marked another first in this sub-genre of horror by proudly showing off his creature early and often. So much so, that studio pressure actually caused him to reduce the number of planned creature shots due to budget. The director sees it more of a kidnapping movie than a horror film, but this genre-bender is a worthy horror entry nonetheless.
Let the Right One In
This antithesis to American young adult vampire romances, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel blends its romance with equal parts horror and tragedy. The story centers around 12-year old kids, but it’s not meant for children in the slightest. Dark, grim, and poignant, it sets itself apart from most vampire films as well. It was the bullying aspect of the novel that deeply resonated with Alfredson’s own experiences growing up, and set about making the film despite a lack of familiarity with the horror genre. The word “vampire” is only mentioned once in the film.
Alfredson may not have a deep affinity for horror or vampires, but by narrowing in on the heart wrenching nature of loneliness and bullying, he created a memorably stunning tale of vampiric friendship. His film not only spawned an American remake that followed almost immediately, but an American stage play as well.
Known more for his comedic work in film and television, Mark Duplass developed the story for this found footage terror based on a series of conversations with director and co-star Patrick Brice. It was after showing some of the filmed scenes to their friends that they pushed the story firmly into horror upon receiving feedback. The complete improvisation of the film not only gives them film a sense of genuineness, but the awkward nature of certain scenes certainly makes the film live up to its title. Tubby time has a whole new horrific meaning, thanks to Duplass and Brice.
Though it might be a bit of a cheat to include Brice on this list considering that this is his first directorial credit, Creep really is a collaborative effort between Brice and Duplass. Both of whom seemed to have fallen into the horror aspect of this film, soon to become a trilogy. Lucky for us, it was a happy accident that proved the found footage sub-genre still has some life left.