Happy Halloween everybody and welcome to the final countdown of Horror Month! There have been many filmmakers who have tried their hand at horror, but only a select few have made a career out of it and even fewer have earned the right to be considered iconic. For my final list of Horror Month here on Cinema Spotlight and just in time for Halloween I wanted to take a look at some of the best directors who have helped make horror a credible, marketable and beloved genre bringing us some of the most iconic horror features in history and etching their permanent place in pop culture. So to close out my month of horror let’s count down my picks for the Top 10 Horror Movie Directors.
For this list I looked as directors whose main focus of their careers was or has been the horror genre. There were a LOT of worthy candidates for this list so I decided to narrow my focus to consider directors known to specialize specifically in horror for much of their career even if they’ve directed in other genres. That said I left out notable directors that have only dabbled in horror elements like Stanley Kubrick and the great Alfred Hitchcock. While they were responsible for some of the greatest horror movies ever made, namely “The Shining” and “Psycho” respectively, Kubrick’s filmography was all over the board and Hitchcock was more a thriller-focused filmmaker not a horror director by practice. I also excluded people like Clive Barker who was more well-known as a writer and producer in the genre than a director.
When putting together this list I looked at the filmographies and legacies of these legendary filmmakers, but most of all I looked at their overall impact on the genre as a whole. Of course, as always, I also added my own personal bias to make things interesting.
Who is your favorite horror director? Let me know in the comments below and have a Happy Halloween everyone!
10. Tod Browning
We start with one of the earliest greats in the horror genre, Tod Browning, whose career spanned both the silent and sound film eras and a wide range of genres. However what Browning is most well known for his contributions to horror in the 30 bringing to life classics like “Freaks”, “Mark of the Vampire”, “The Devil-Doll”, and the 1920s silent classic “London After Midnight”. Browning is most famous for one film in particular, the original 1931 “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi. The film was the first major entry in Universal Studios’ legendary monster movie collection and became a box office sensation striking fear into the hearts of 1930s America like few films before could have ever hoped. Browning’s reputation as a horror master continued through the 30s and while the genre wasn’t always his forte Browning proved to have an incredible understanding of the material and set the bar high for many directors you’ll see on this list.
9. Sam Raimi
Yeah, a lot of people know Sam Raimi for his “Spider-Man” trilogy but while Raimi has dabbled in other genres including the aforementioned superhero genre, westerns and fantasy films it’s his love and talent for creating great and sometimes comedic horror films that made him a directing superstar. Raimi’s career began with minor works like “Clockwork” and “Within the Woods” but in 1981 he released a film that would eventually make him a household name, “The Evil Dead”. This horror film with comedic tones practically founded the “cabin in the woods” trope and despite a slow initial start eventually became a cult classic and is considered among the genre’s best. Raimi followed “The Evil Dead” with two sequels and the horror homage superhero film “Darkman”. Raimi returned to horror in 2009 with the critically acclaimed “Drag Me to Hell” and has produced a remake of “The Evil Dead” and “Poltergeist” as well as the 2016 runaway hit “Don’t Breathe” allowing him to keep his hands in the horror pot so to speak where many fans believe he truly belongs.
8. James Whale
You may not know James Whale by name, but you most certainly know his work. While his directorial efforts spanned several genres Whale is best known as a pioneer in early horror leading several classic Universal Monster movies including “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein”, considered by many to be one of the greatest sequel films ever made. He also directed the classics “The Invisible Man” and “The Dark Old House” which helped solidify horror as one of the most popular genres in the 1930s. While horror doesn’t even make up the bulk of his filmography James Whale is most fondly remembered for giving the world some of the most influential and iconic horror features of all time. Whale’s work continues to be among the most popular in Universal’s legendary monsters lineup. If he stuck to the genre more he may have landed higher on this list but there’s no way I could leave off one of the fathers of horror as we know it today.
7. James Wan
The newest director on this list has quickly become a modern great in horror. James Wan has cemented himself as a mainstay of the genre over the past two decades leading the charge of great new franchises and iconic products that have brought horror into the new age. From his major directorial debut with “Saw” in 2003 to directing other modern horror favorites like “Dead Silence”, the “Insidious” franchise and the launch of “The Conjuring” universe James Wan has led the charge in terms of directors when it comes to creating an effective and bankable horror product in the 2000s and 2010s. While he has dabbled in other films like “Furious 7” and the forthcoming “Aquaman” movie James Wan is most at home as a horror director and is quickly becoming both an influential filmmaker in his own right and a leader in keeping the traditions and legacy of horror alive for future generations to appreciate in new ways.
6. Dario Argento
There are a lot of people who respect Dario Argento as a director and the only reason he’s not higher on this list is probably because you may not have even heard of him prior to reading his name here, but trust me he belongs on this countdown. Argento was a staple of the horror genre in the 70s and 80s directing many films in his native Italian tongue specifically his beloved “Three Mothers” trilogy of supernatural horror projects with one of those films, “Suspiria”, set to have an English language remake this year with Argento as the writer. Another of his more well-known accomplishments to the genre is contributing to the foreign conversion of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”. While his more recent works since the 80s have seen a harsh decline in critical and fan praise Dario Argento’s contributions to the genre over several decades earned him the label as one of the “Masters of Horror” with many considering him to be a true pioneer still today.
5. Tobe Hooper
Considered to be one of the most influential directors ever Tobe Hooper’s contributions to horror brought about two of the most legendary pre-90s horror projects of all time. Hooper is of course famous for his controversial 1974 feature ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” which debuted the popular horror icon Leatherface. However he also directed “Poltergeist”, a 1982 ghost story classic that earned three Academy Award nominations. Other contributions to the medium include “Eaten Alive”, “The Funhouse” and “Invaders from Mars” which all cemented Hooper as a horror and cinema icon. He also contributed to television by adapting Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” and working on such shows as “Freddys’ Nightmare’ and “Tales from the Crypt”. His willingness to bend the boundaries of cinema and explore the brutality and gore that have since become genre staples made him a pioneer and a barrier breaker that inspired many iconic filmmakers that followed. He may have passed away in 2017 but Hooper’s legacy will live on forever.
4. David Cronenberg
The Godfather of body horror is up next on this list, David Cronenberg. This horror specialist took the genre and added a whole new element to the scares striking fear into viewers through cringe-inducing body-themed imagery. While gore had been a part of horror previous to Cronenberg he took the concept to a new level making the imagery more gruesome and applying incredible special effects that still hold up in many cases today. While he is also known for dabbling in science fiction, even those projects of Cronenberg’s include horror elements. His classics include “They Fly”, “Scanners”, “Videodrome”, “The Dead Zone” and “Nightbreed”. Although in more recent years his works have veered away from horror Cronenberg’s reputation for helping found the body horror subgenre and his execution of the gimmick remain his crowning achievements and the reason many fans are familiar with his work.
3. George A. Romero
George A. Romero specialized in zombie movies creating the Trilogy of the Dead that started with “Night of the Living Dead”, an undeniable classic that created the stereotypes and tropes of the zombie monster that are now standards today. Considered to be a pioneer in the genre for many reasons, Romero’s other works included “The Crazies” and “Creepshow” and he continued to add to the “Dead” franchise right up through the 2010s making the franchise one of the longest running in horror history. There are few who would deny this man his credit as an icon in not only horror but in cinema in general as the father of the Zombie Film and an influential filmmaker that helped bring horror into the modern day. His work has influenced numerous other writers and directors with the likes of Robert Kirkman, John Carpenter and Edgar Wright all citing him as a major influence. Today the creatures he created are pop culture staples still relevant all these years later. Oh, and speaking of John Carpenter…
2. John Carpenter
Few directors have a filmography as diverse as John Carpenter but he is most famous for his works in horror and science fiction, sometimes blending the two together seamlessly. “The Thing”, “Christine”, “They Live”, Prince of Darkness” and “Ghosts of Mars” are just a few of his most notable classics with horror elements, but what John Carpenter is most well known for is likely “Halloween” and the creation of Michael Myers. This 1978 film put Carpenter on the map and led to one of the most lucrative franchises in the entire genre instantly making Carpenter one of the genre’s most popular directors. Today Carpenter remains a household name and a highly influential horror icon that has influenced countless filmmakers. The director is known for mixing brutality with suspense and pacing to create a full experience in his movies. Among the many filmmakers who cite Carpenter as an influence are James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo del Toro making Carpenter not only an influential director but one whose relevance and approach to stylistic filmmaking now spans generations of successors in the industry.
1. Wes Craven
How could the man dubbed the true “Master of Horror” not top this list? Wes Craven is considered to be a prolific filmmaker who revolutionized horror not once, bet several times across different decades. He started by haunting our dreams with “A Nightmare on Elm Street” which debuted Freddy Krueger eventually becoming a massive franchise. But Craven didn’t stop there as he spawned a second major horror franchise after he also brought the meta-horror classic “Scream” to the big screen featuring his second iconic character in Ghostface. In addition to the aforementioned classics his filmography includes some of the most brutal genre films ever made like “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes”. Craven died in 2015 but was lauded by countless actors and filmmakers after his passing with many paying tribute to his incredible contributions to horror and his undying influence on a genre he continued to produce content for right up until his final year. Craven truly earned his place in horror royalty and the respect he received and his continued cultural relevance earn him the top spot on this list.