Horror is a genre that has never had a truly terrible period or faded out of the scene, like musicals tend to do. We have fads that come and go, like the creature-features of the 50’s and 60’s, the slashers of the 80’s, or the found footage craze over the past several years, but overall we have never gone through a cinematic era where horror didn’t exist in some form or another.
As with any genre, there are directors who challenge and revolutionize the very foundation upon which we branch out from. When a certain director is attached to a film, some people make it a point to see it simply because of that name. Such is the case with films by people like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Kevin Smith, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier, and the like. Their name is enough to draw audiences far and wide because everything they’ve put out has either been incredibly well received or it’s something that challenges viewers, demanding more from them than casual everyday fare.
When it comes to horror, there are some directors whose name bears great weight. These are directors whose work has upended the status quo, who did something different that went on to influence and shape countless others around that would follow in their footsteps. So, I wanted to focus on some of these directors and give them the recognition and appreciation they deserve.
Note: I didn’t put James Wan on this list. Although his work is nothing short of incredible (there really isn’t one movie of his that I don’t thoroughly enjoy), I think it’s too early to say that he shaped and revolutionized the genre. Give it another few years and let’s really see what kind of influence his work has on up and coming directors and then we’ll lay the crown upon his head.
Wiene gets his place on this list for directing the 1920 German surreal expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Pretty much right off the bat of cinema, Wiene decided to eschew reality and focus on something more dreamlike, more phantasmagorical. It’s a movie that has gone on to influence countless films and directors and has become recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time. For that alone, Wiene belongs here.
Known to horror fans for directing the 1931 Bela Lugosi-starring Dracula, Browning also directed the incredibly controversial 1932 film Freaks. If one were to only look at those two movies over his career of more than 20 years, we could see how he influenced horror tremendously. The former is a staple of gothic horror, the film’s atmosphere hailed and adored. The latter was a film way ahead of its time, shocking viewers, critics, and even industry folk alike. To this day, it’s a film that generates controversy and conversation. Not many directors can say they’ve had a film banned for three decades by the UK.
Castle is responsible for many B-horror films that have since become iconic entries in the genre. However, not content with simply making movies, he wanted to create experiences. For movies like House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, or The Tingler, he would often rig up theaters to have some kind of event that went off during a certain scene. For example, a red-eyed ghost would fly over the audiences during House on Haunted Hill.
Castle made horror “fun” and “interactive” on a scale like none other. To this day, there isn’t really anything like what he’s done, except for maybe those who want to argue that 3D movies are similar to what he did. Personally, I’d love to see some kind of interaction happen once again in theaters.
There’s a reason that Hitchcock is known as “The Master of Suspense”. Known for creating films that forced the audience to become voyeurs in his psychologically twisted tales, Hitchcock popularized twist endings, ones where the audience couldn’t guess what the final frames would hold. He ended up directing over 50 films in a six decade career, ultimately receiving a knighthood from the Queen of England in 1980, the year of his death.
Regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Hitchcock’s Psycho essentially invented the slasher genre while The Birds still haunts viewers to this day. I don’t know what kind of cinematic world we’d be in if Hitchcock hadn’t been around but I imagine it’d be rather bland and flavorless.
George A. Romero
I think this one should be rather obvious but, just in case it needs to be said, this is the man who essentially created the zombie subgenre. Yes, there were zombie films before him but none that reached the level of impact and admiration that Night of the Living Dead achieved. It is because of Romero that we have films like 28 Days Later, Return of the Living Dead, “The Walking Dead”, and the Resident Evil video game and film franchises, among a great deal more.
But what set Romero apart was that his films were more than just zombies eating the flesh of any human they came across. Rather, they were brilliant and often scathing commentaries on society at the time. Wickedly smart, beautifully crafted, and timeless in their efficacy, Romero’s zombie films have earned their place in horror history and he has earned his title as the “Godfather of the Dead”.
Argento’s films are considered to be some of the very best that horror has to offer. Suspiria regularly ends up on “Best Of” lists while films like The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Opera, Tenebre, Deep Red, and Inferno blow people away. His vivacious use of color (especially blood red) is his unique signature, clearly emulated and appreciated by countless other directors in the genre. Furthermore, his choice of music helped create the horrorsynth world that was improved upon by John Carpenter.
Speaking of Carpenter…
Carpenter should be hailed and recognized as the ultimate independent filmmaker. Preferring to work outside of the confines of studio distractions, the majority of Carpenter’s films kinda bombed upon release. The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China may be adored now but when they came out they were commercial failures. Only films like Halloween and Escape From New York really made a name for themselves, earning far more than their initial budget.
If his films aren’t enough to land him on this list, then certainly his music should. Known for co-composing, if not outright composing, the vast majority of his movies, Carpenter’s music influence is felt to this day. Countless synth bands recognize the influence and impact of Carpenter and his work on their own material.
For the longest time, sci-fi/horror films were B-quality. They were almost a mockery or a joke, very few standing out from the crowd and saying, “I am actually really good and you shouldn’t ignore me.” One such film was Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien, which mixed strong sci-fi elements with what is essentially a haunted house horror film. That combination has since become one of the biggest titles in horror history and has created a villain that has become a pop culture icon. Hell, when a sketch comedy series pokes fun at your film, I think you’re doing alright for yourself.
Scott’s foray into horror was brief and it took him another 33 years to return to the genre that he basically helped form. Without Alien, there would be no Event Horizon, Dead Space, or any other modern sci-fi/horror property that manages to scare the pants off of us.
Not content with creating a franchise built around a murderer who kills teenagers in their dreams (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Craven also created a franchise built around horror looking at itself in a critical and often scathing way (Scream). While his films didn’t always reflect this, Craven approached horror from an intelligent, thoughtful, and progressive stance. He also loved toying with his viewers. The opening of Scream is, to this day, one of the greatest misdirects a horror film has ever played on its audience.
While not every film was a success, either financially or critically, Craven built an audience through his obvious passion and appreciation of the genre. Be it rape-revenge films, deformed rednecks, Haitian rituals, vampires, or anything else he laid his hands on, Craven embraced it all.
Guillermo del Toro
While horror is often seen as an incredibly ugly and violent genre, Guillermo del Toro likes to add fantasy elements into his films that elevate them to works of beauty and magical mystery. For me, del Toro brings back that childlike wonder and imagination that I associate with my childhood, something that films these days seem to lack. While everyone else is trying to be gritty or realistic, del Toro does the opposite. He’s more interested in telling fairy tales that can break our hearts just as easily as they can make us feel triumphant.
Without del Toro, I feel like Hollywood would be a far more grim place. I just hope that all these projects he wants to do can eventually become realized. I’m always saddened when I think of At the Mountains of Madness, InSANE, and Silent Hills.