Top 10: Horror Directors
Horror seems to be the only genre that escapes the long-established principle of auterism, the belief that directors own their works and that they’re artists in pursuit of a greater purpose. To most critics, horror films are cash grabs, the most straight-forward way that a studio can make a lot of money with very little cost. Sometimes, that is indeed the case, with B-horror finding a market with hundreds of thousands of fans despite never breaking the bank in production. Other times, however, the genre has produced some of the most influential and impressive filmmakers in all of film, directors whose art transcends the genre and stands up with the best of any non-horror director. If a horror director’s name fits right alongside people like Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Bergman, they belong on this list. Note: if a director made one horror movie, I don’t consider him a horror director. You won’t find Kubrick himself on this list, and Hitchcock is more mystery/thriller, so he won’t make an appearance either. Also of note: contributions as a writer are not considered unless the film was also directed as well.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
10. DAVID LYNCH
For many people, it’s insane that Lynch is on this list at all. For others, I’ll get death threats for putting him at 10. David Lynch doesn’t do “horror” in the way that most directors do, making anything from a neo-noir with one of the most effective one-scene scares in cinema history to movies that are weird seemingly for weird’s sake. Lynch makes arthouse movies for the insane, movies that will make you question the very fabric of reality by creating a world that simply cannot exist within our own. For movies that just seem off, he’s the very best to ever do it. He’s also created one of the most chilling television shows ever made and a collection of short films that will show you new fears that you didn’t even know you had.
Notable works: Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet
9. ARI ASTER
Look, I get it. It’s too early. He’s made two features so far (with one upcoming.) But my God, what two features they were. Hereditary scared me in ways that I didn’t think were still possible, and Midsommar is absolutely brilliant. Aster is a difficult director to peg, because while it’s absolutely possible that he winds up near the top of this list, perhaps even at the very top, it’s also possible that he pulls a Shyamalan and winds up well outside it, with only his first two movies belonging on a “best of” list. If he can maintain the quality of his first two features and makes at least a half dozen more, though, it’s going to be hard to argue he isn’t the best that’s ever done it.
8. MIKE FLANAGAN
Mike Flanagan makes straight up bangers. There are very few directors who have made such an impressive string of hits to start their career, and it almost feels like a crime to have him this low. I have no doubt that, when all is said and done, he’s going to be a lot higher on this list, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he winds up near the very top. Flanagan creates unique films with an auteur’s eye, beautifully shot movies that are legitimately scary. The fact that he also writes most of his own stuff speaks to his penchant for terrifying storytelling, and he’s one of my own personal favorite current horror directors. Doesn’t hurt, of course, that I interviewed him back before he completely blew up.
7. DARIO ARGENTO
Argento is one of the most artistically creative directors in horror history, and you know pretty much immediately when you’re watching a movie he made. By practically creating the entire genre of giallo, and inarguably popularizing it, Argento has become one of the most influential horror directors in history and someone whose films altered the entire course of the genre. Crayon-colored blood, black-gloved killers, and plenty of supernatural spooks permeate every gorgeous frame within his films, and even if giallo isn’t your thing, Argento is inarguably the best of the best when it comes to those Italian horror staples. He is the master at creating beautiful death scenes, and you’ll find his films all over Top 10 Lists of the best horror films ever made.
6. JAMES WAN
I made this argument a while back when I was reviewing Malignant, and it bears repeating. It’s time to acknowledge that James Wan is perhaps the best horror director of our generation. He’s helmed three of the biggest grossing, most popular horror franchises in modern horror, having created Saw, The Conjuring, and Insidious, and he even delivered his scary-movie take on John Wick with last year’s Malignant. He’s so good at what he does that he’s also directed a movie in the Fast and the Furious franchise and is about to have two superhero movies under his belt as well. Wan is just an incredible director, making movies for the popcorn crowd while maintaining an razor-sharp edge that had seemingly disappeared from the genre in the early 2000’s. While it’s difficult at this point to see him moving too much higher on this list in the future, especially with his gravitation towards more marketable, big-budget films, it’s also impossible to deny the legacy that he’s left on the genre.
5. DAVID CRONENBERG
David Cronenberg is, hands-down, the king of body horror. Watching a Cronenberg film changes you, and it is artistic, social commentary horror at its very best and most confusing. I’ve never been a huge fan of his films for the most part, but he’s also a director whose films that I feel are absolute works of art and need to be considered as such. Cronenberg’s eye for the weird, the disturbing, and the icky-to-look-at is unrivaled, with a career spanning more than 50 years of the most avant-garde shit you can possibly imagine being shown in mainstream theaters. Laster year’s Crimes of the Future was beautiful destruction, and you can’t call yourself a true horror fan if you don’t at the very least appreciate Cronenberg’s contribution to the genre. He’s also directed some of the best and most impressive horror movies of all time, from 1986’s gross-out masterpiece The Fly to 1996’s Crash, one of the most disturbing movies that I’ve ever seen. He’s still doing it, too, so there will hopefully be no shortage of vomit-inducing cinema coming from his brain to our screens.
Notable works: The Fly, Videodrome, Scanners, Crash
4. TOBE HOOPER
It is impossible to truly flesh out the incredible influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie that has truly changed the entire face of American cinema as a whole. It’s transcended the horror genre and is a film whose shotlist you can find echoed all throughout the various genres of film. If he had made that movie alone, he would’ve belonged on this list. Hooper was no lightning in a bottle, however, with a laundry list of some of the best American horror movies ever made under his belt. His critiques of crumbling rural America and the evils of capitalism are legendary within the genre, and he revolutionized everything from slashers to science fiction. And if you don’t think he was the real director of Poltergeist, you can go fuck yourself.
3. GEORGE ROMERO
George Romero is likely the most influential, and possibly most important, horror movie director of all time. He’s also probably the most mainstream political horror director as well, taking shots at everything from racism and social inequality to the military industrial complex and consumerism. As someone who isn’t particularly into zombie flicks, I can’t help but be incredibly impressed by pretty much everything George Romero ever did, despite focusing on the one part of the genre that I don’t particularly like. The man literally created one of the most enduring horror villains in the genre, as almost every undead bad guy before him was either a voodoo victim or a vampire. He was a legend, and he was supposedly one of the nicest guys in the genre. You simply cannot have the history of horror without Romero’s influence, and the entire genre as a whole would likely look vastly different had the Pittsburgh native not left his stamp on every square inch of the horror landscape.
2. WES CRAVEN
Wes Craven is probably the best horror director of all time. He’s got an incredible filmography, filled with legendary films ranging from the utterly disturbing to the downright fun. He’s handled seemingly every genre within horror, has created two of the best final girls/scream queens of all time, and was one of the most creative folks in horror. Pound for pound, Craven’s films probably scare me more than any other director ever, and it’s an incredible accomplishment to create two of the most memorable killers in horror history. His films were almost formulaic, perfecting the slasher movie jump scare like none before or since, and his ability to make you jump out of your seat was second to none. We’ll probably never see another director with the impact and longevity of Craven, someone who reinvented his career after twenty years in the genre by making one of the best horror movies of all time.
1. JOHN CARPENTER
This one shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who follows my stuff, because Halloween is my all-time favorite movie and Carpenter (along with Debra Hill) is pretty much solely responsible for what makes it so great. I said above that Craven was probably the best horror director of all time, but Carpenter is hands-down the best director who focused on horror. The man is immensely talented, being responsible for everything from the script to the score in some of the biggest films in American history. While he did have a few stinkers, so has pretty much everyone else, and when he hits, he hits legendary every single time. Carpenter has made action movies, comedies, crime thrillers, and science fiction, but his filmography is filled with at least two films (and arguably more) that fall into pretty much everyone’s Top 10 Horror lists in Halloween and The Thing. That alone is an incredible achievement, but it is his career’s worth of incredible films that puts him firmly and, in my opinion, inarguably at the top of this list.