By DeAnna Janes
The horror genre oozes with substance. So whittling down the field to the 10 best horror directors—five classic, five modern—proved more challenging than sawing off one’s foot. But we did it. So here you go: 10 sultans of sinister who elevate blood and guts to an art form.
Horror Directors – Old School
1. Alfred Hitchcock
Decades after his death, Hitchcock remains one of the world’s most powerful filmmakers, and an artist who’s influenced every entry on this list. His films are known for their style and precision—take, for instance, the directorial wizardry behind the seemingly continuous shot that is Rope. Hitchcock’s greatest contribution to the horror genre? We’re checking in to everyone’s favorite motel madhouse, Psycho.
2. Wes Craven
Craven made a bloody splash in 1972 with his rape-torture-kill film, The Last House on the Left. He then proceeded to redefine the horror genre with a string of killer flicks. The Hills Have Eyes still packs a brutal punch and his self-aware Scream resurrected the slasher movie. But it’s his seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street—with its innovative special effects and unforgettable villain—that still keeps us up at night.
3. David Cronenberg
It’s clear you’re a legend when your name is synonymous with an entire subgenre. Cronie fans know what we’re talking about: body horror. An arbiter of anatomical mutilations, Cronenberg has been shocking audiences with his unflinching take on everything from virtual reality to marital woes. This brings us to The Brood. Perhaps his most personal film, Cronenberg wrote the screenplay while in the throes of a nasty divorce. The messy marital fallout takes center stage—and makes for one effing awesome final scene.
4. John Carpenter
Before John Carpenter entered the hallowed halls of horror, he was just a guy with an idea—specifically, the idea of a too-tall killing machine dressed in a cheap-o William Shatner mask who stalks the streets of smalltown America. An admirer of Hitchcock, Carpenter mastered suspense without gore porn or special effects. He’s one who values pristine technicals over cheap scares, and for that, we always have a happy Halloween.
5. Dario Argento
Today, Argento is remembered as a master of giallo, the Italian slasher subgenre that mixes supernatural horror with crime fiction and/or violent erotica. Interestingly, Argento began his career as a film critic. Once he stepped behind the camera, however, the man’s talents earned him the moniker of “Italy’s Hitchcock.” Though his resume runs red, it’s Suspiria—and it’s hallucinatory images, vivid palette, and pulsating prog-rock score—that stands as Argento’s magnum opus.
Horror Directors – Bleeding Fresh
6. James Wan
Every time the Malaysian-born Aussie unleashes a chapter of terror, we’re sure of one thing: it will get our pulses racing. Wan, who exploded onto the scene with the torture-porn gem Saw, is now considered the master of mainstream horror. Why? Because he unites critics, everyday moviegoers, and die-hard genre fans alike. And even though Wan’s current approach backs off on the gore, we can’t help but get nostalgic over Jigsaw’s grisly debut.
7. Adam Wingard
Adam Wingard may sit atop a mountain of modern horror directors, but his moviemaking style stands out above the rest. Together with fellow high-school dropout renegade E. L. Katz, the pair launched mumblegore, a micro-budget indie horror style rooted in improvisation and wit. The subgenre has since blossomed into a full-fledged movement that shows no signs of slowing down. Case in point: You’re Next—the first mumblegore to score with the mainstream.
8. Ben Wheatley
British wunderkind Wheatley got his career off the ground with a YouTube clip that went viral. It features a guy victoriously leaping over a moving car only to meet his fate on the other side of the road (watch it here). Even though it’s nine seconds long, the snippet encapsulates Wheatley’s signature formula: everyday joe + macabre humor + violence = success. The filmmaker has since tested this recipe on the big screen with Sightseers, High-Rise, and Down Terrace. But it’s his genre-bending occult horror Kill List that achieves maximum impact.
9. Jen and Sylvia Soska
As pioneers of third-wave feminism horror, the Soska sisters run their own production company, Twisted Pictures. They also write, direct, and star in their own bracing films. Take American Mary, for instance—a surgical horror that would make Cronenberg squirm. In a genre driven by the opposite sex, the Soskas open the door for a female-focused conversation about horror and the female form.
10. Ti West
Ti West pays homage to the art of old school scares while mixing in his own killer style. He gleefully plays with atmospheric suspense and retro shock, and then twists his narrative into something thoroughly disturbing. Our favorite example? The Innkeepers, a slow-burner that starts out naïve as can be—sleepy inn is run by bored underachievers—before taking a turn for the terrifying—the sleepy inn is overrun with ghosts.
Honorable mentions: Roman Polanski, George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, Guillermo del Toro, Rob Zombie, Adam Green, Mike Flanagan, Pascal Langdale, Eli Roth, Eduardo Sanchez, Kim Jee-Woon, Jeremy Saulnier, Karyn Kusuma
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